The Journey

Women in Afghanistan: Afghan Women's Rights


A woman in a full-body veil walks towards four men, wearing vests, hats and baggy shirts and trousers.

“God has not given you equal rights because under his decision, two women are counted as equal to one man.”
—Sighbatullah Mojadeddi, head of the Afghan constitutional loya jirga, 2003

Three Afghan girls, wearing black headscarves, smile at the camera.

Women in Afghanistan
  • Trained health workers attend only about 15 percent of births in Afghanistan. Afghanistan has the second highest maternity mortality rate in the world, with an estimated 15,000 women dying each year from pregnancy-related causes.
  • In 1977, women composed 15 percent of loya jirga members in the Afghan government. Today, they compose nine percent. Before the Taliban came to power ten years ago, Afghan women composed 50 percent of government workers, 70 percent of schoolteachers and 40 percent of doctors in Kabul.
  • More than half of Afghan girls under the age of 18 are married. Many families were reportedly forced to marry off their daughters to members of the Taliban. Taliban members abducted countless women and girls during the regime.
  • More than 15,000 Afghans die of tuberculosis each year from lack of adequate sanitation and drinking water. Sixty-four percent of these deaths are women.

United Nations Development Fund for Women (2004)

Although the country of Afghanistan only dates back to the nineteenth century, its relatively short history has been fraught with turmoil. Drought, famine, British occupation, tribal strife, Soviet invasions and civil war have resulted in economic devastation, millions of deaths and countless refugees. With one third of Afghanistan’s population having fled the country during the 1980s Soviet occupation, Afghans now compose the world’s largest refugee population.

Decades of economic and political instability have especially affected Afghan women. Prior to the Soviet occupation and the subsequent years of war, women had significant rights and educational and professional opportunities, especially in Afghanistan’s larger cities. But the Taliban’s 1996 takeover pushed Afghan women’s rights back decades, effectively banning women and girls from all forms of public life. Even after the 2001 overthrow of the Taliban and the implementation of a new United Nations-appointed government in Afghanistan, the situation of women’s rights in the region remains tenuous. As many of the interviews in AFGHANISTAN UNVEILED attest, the restoration of equal rights in post-Taliban Afghanistan has been a slow and often arduous process.

Despite years of repression, Afghan women are far from silent, having long worked to build peace and security in Afghanistan. International human rights groups and women’s organizations have also rallied to the aid of Afghan women, many bolstered by media images of the women in burqas, the full-body veil they were required to wear under the Taliban regime. After six years of being invisible, Afghan women returned to work and school and also to public life. Since the fall of the Taliban, male physicians have been allowed to examine and treat female patients, a breakthrough for women’s health care. Girls now make up a third of the three million children that have returned to schools, and for the first time in years, female students and faculty are present at the nation’s universities.

While there has been some progress for women’s rights and services, the readjustment has not all been smooth. Lack of security, poor healthcare and political powerlessness remain considerable concerns. Fearing violence, many Afghan women and girls remain reluctant to travel alone, work outside of the home or appear in public without wearing a burqa. As seen in AFGHANISTAN UNVEILED, women traveling alone are often threatened and harassed.

Although the new Afghan government includes two women in ministerial posts, the ministers of public health and women’s affairs, only two women were nominated to serve on the country’s first post-Taliban loya jirga, or grand council. In 2003, a coalition of Afghan and Afghan American women drafted an Afghan Women’s Bill of Rights, demanding mandatory education for girls, equal representation in the loya jirga, criminalization of sexual harassment and domestic violence and the right to marry and divorce according to Islamic law. The bill was later presented to President Hamid Karzai, but despite assurance from leaders that it would be included in the constitution, it was not. Even the loya jirga’s conference began with the chairman proclaiming to women: “God has not given you equal rights because under his decision, two women are counted as equal to one man.”

In January 2004, the loya jirga ratified a constitution that included an equal rights clause referencing gender — something not included in the United States' constitution— proclaiming that all Afghan citizens, men and women, "have equal rights and duties before the law." However, this clause is open to interpretation and could be used to undermine women’s rights, as “the law” includes religious law. The Taliban’s treatment of women, for example, would have been permissible following its definition of the law. As many women registered to vote in Afghanistan’s first national presidential election under the new government, the country’s future—and their future—remains unclear.

View a timeline of historical events in Afghanistan >>

Last updated 11/17/04

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