Women in Culture
General View and Position in Society
Afghanistan society is male-dominated. The family is given a lot of importance, and the roles of men within families are to be the bread winners, while women are responsible for taking care of the house and children. Practices like endogamous marriages (parallel and crosscousin marriages), patrilineal inheritances (in the male order), and patrilocal customs (married women moving to their husband’s kin group or clan) are quite widespread. The Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001 made life a living hell for Afghan women. They could not work, go out of the house without a male escort, get an education, or seek medical help from a male healthcare professional. They had to be covered from head to toe in a burqa, a long outer robe-like garment which has only a mesh near the eyes and nose to enable the women to see and breathe. Such suppression forced many women to forgo their jobs and turn to begging or prostitution for sustenance. The advent of the democratic government has slowly led to a regaining of their rights.
The new constitution of Afghanistan gives men and women equal rights and duties. Women are slowly entering the professional arena and climbing the ladder to higher positions at work. There are many Afghani women now who are very successful professionally, and such women belonging to a higher social or economic class are treated with respect. They are also exempted from wearing the burqa, though many still continue to wear it. The new government has opened hundreds of schools for both boys and girls, and over 100,000 girls were enrolled in schools in just one province in that year.
In terms of economic independence, cultural barriers still remain for women. In rural areas, for instance, women are not even allowed to go out of the house unescorted. Forced marriages of girl children and violence against women are still commonplace. Even the courts have been known to overlook the general plight of women.
Women are expected to dress conservatively and modestly. They should not show any bare skin, especially from the neck downwards. Headscarves are also mandatory in some families. Professional women wear loose, knee-length business skirts along with trousers under the skirt. Many women also continue to wear a burqa.
The new constitution, which came into effect in January 2004, gives equal rights to men and women. Women were not allowed to participate in politics until then, but now Afghan women have the right to vote and to run for office, and they made up around 40 percent of the more than 10 million registered voters in 2004. There are also reserved seats in the parliament for women – 25 percent in the lower house and 17 percent in the upper house. There are 102 women members out of the total 500 members in the constitutional Loya Jirga (Grand Council). There were also two women (out of nine) in the Constitutional Drafting Committee and seven women (out of 35) in the Constitutional Review Commission. President Hamid Karzai appointed two women appointed to the Judicial Commission at its inauguration. The December 2004 cabinet had three women ministers holding the portfolios for women’s affairs, martyrs and disabled, and youth affairs. A woman also heads the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission is also headed by a woman.
The United States has put in place several programs for Afghani women aimed at increasing their political participation and making them equal and active members of civil society. Women also have the right to drive and to own, sell, and inherit property.
Women are allowed to have an abortion until the third month of pregnancy, but only if the pregnancy is detrimental to the mother’s health and the woman has obtained permission from the health ministry and acquires certificates from three different medical professionals.
During the Taliban rule, girls were forbidden to attend school. With the advent of democracy, girls in great numbers have started attending schools. Around five million children enrolled in school in 2003, out of which 40 percent were girls. Regrettably however, the present government has upheld a 70’s rule that prevented married women from attending high school – causing the expulsion of more than 3,000 women from schools. Also, traditional prejudices in rural areas has impeded women seeking education and employment. There have been instances where schools have been burned down and girls poisoned for attempting to go to school. These types of incidences are more prevalent in provinces like Kandahar where people still live under the fear of the Taliban.
The total literacy rate in Afghanistan is just 36 percent, out of which the male rate is 51 percent and the female rate 21 percent. Educated women are getting back to their jobs as teachers, doctors, and other professionals after years of enforced absence. Opportunities are still limited however, and there is discrimination against women joining some sectors.
Dating, Marriage, and Family
Afghan women are still forced into arranged marriages. Women have Moderately no right to select their partners, which is entirely at the discretion of male family members. Marriage of girls with older men is also common – the main reason cited for this is mitigation of debt, as the groom gives a dowry to the girl’s family. Legally, the marriageable age is 18 years, but many girls in their early teens are still forced into marriage.
Open dating is not approved or practiced in Afghanistan. Professional men and women may meet and socialize in group settings, but close interaction of the sexes is frowned upon in Afghan society; and even men from educated families can be very conservative in their attitude toward women. According to Islamic law, a man can marry up to four women, but with approval from the courts (and his wives) he can marry more than four Afghanistan 8 A to Z women. Traditionally, women get to retain their family name, as well as any money and property they may have obtained, both before and after marriage, but this can be difficult to enforce.
Women have a legal right to obtain divorce on the grounds of a husband’s insanity, impotence, or nonpayment of maintenance. Domestic violence is not enough of a reason for filing for divorce. Obtaining divorce without the cooperation of the husband is very difficult and almost impossible. Women are not granted custody of children upon divorce or the death of the husband – the husband, or his family, gets custody of the children.
Healthcare services in Afghanistan are very poor. Access to emergency and specialist services is almost impossible. The maternal mortality rate is 1,600 per 100,000 women, and more in certain provinces. Lack of proper family planning, poor prenatal care, scarcity of medication and trained medical professionals, and lack of knowledge of hygiene contribute to the high rate of maternal mortality, and the government is struggling to tackle this problem. Afghan women don’t have access to, or control over, family planning methods like birth control or spacing of children, due to traditional Islamic reservations.
Interesting Social Customs
There are some specific procedures for obtaining a divorce. One of them is the iddah, a waiting period of three months after the divorce. During the iddah, family members and relatives try to convince the couple to reconcile. Another objective of the iddah is to determine whether the woman is pregnant. In case she is pregnant, the husband will have to take care of her until the child is born. Divorced women with very small children are allowed to nurse their children for two years, during which time the husband has to bear the cost of maintenance of both mother and child.
Women in Business
The legacy of the previous Taliban regime still holds strong in most areas of Afghanistan. Under their strict Islamist hard-line policies, women were not allowed to venture from their homes, let alone find employment.
Afghanistan is a strongly male-dominated society and those perceptions are bound to take some time to change. Women in Afghanistan who wish to find a job or start a business are faced with an array of social, cultural, and economic barriers. The biggest barrier is often to be found at home, with most husbands and relatives strongly discouraging women from venturing out of home.
A beginning however has been made after the formation of the democratic government, and long-held views relating to women holding jobs and doing business is gradually changing. The most obvious signs of the change appear in the increased number of shops and other small businesses run by women.
According to the recent Afghan constitution, women are granted the same legal rights as men in every respect, including the right to vote, to own a business, and to inherit and own property. In reality, however, most Afghans strongly disapprove of women performing any of the above functions. A survey conducted by a Kabulbased research group found that less than two percent of women among the 360 households covered in the survey owned land in their own right.
Though times are slowly changing, there remains a largeap in the pay packages of men and women performing the same job. The main issue, however, is not the difference in pay but the fact that women are actually allowed to take up jobs.
Women in Professions
The most common traditional job for women in Afghanistan is carpet-making. With women having to overcome Painfully Ordinary odds to do something as simple as holding an outside job, it comes as no surprise that only a few Afghan women have managed to summon up the courage to cross traditional barriers and start businesses of their own. One of them is Fatimeh, who owns two beauty salons in the capital city of Kabul. Though she had to overcome numerous obstacles early on, she is now firmly established, and clients must make appointments weeks in advance to avail of her services. Another is Aziza Mohmmand, who runs a leather football manufacturing factory. Growth rates for women in business are bound to follow an upward trend, with more and more women coming out of homes to start businesses. Though women are theoretically not barred from any professions, most Afghan men dislike their womenfolk leaving the house, and even when they are allowed to do so, they are prevented from mixing with members of the opposite sex. Since males dominate most business and employment sectors in Afghanistan, women are placed in a very difficult situation. Dress codes have relaxed considerably from the days of the Taliban regime, when women could venture from home only after covering themselves completely from head to toe. Today, Afghan women are expected to dress very conservatively, and most women wear a burqa covering the entire body from the neck downwards while in public. Office attire typically consists of a headscarf, a knee-length loose skirt, and loose-fitting professional trousers underneath.
Under the Afghan constitution, women are guaranteed access to health and childcare, though state-sponsored child care is currently unavailable.
Women as Business Owners
The number of women who own their business remains very low, given the social and political hurdles they have to overcome to establish their own businesses. However, the situation has improved, and more women are venturing out to start their own businesses, with some even traveling abroad to promote their products.
Women-owned businesses typically consist of beauty parlors, small textile factories, handicraft workshops, leather factories, and jewelry shops.
Businesswomen Visiting the Country
Foreign businesswomen are expected to follow the prevailing social and cultural customs that bind Afghan women. When presented with a business card it is necessary for the presenter to see the recipient studying it. Probing questions about one’s family are not welcome.
Men and women do not shake hands. When walking down a street, foreign women are strongly advised to keep their eyes lowered and to follow conservative dress codes (headscarves and no exposed skin apart from one’s hands). A man speaking directly to a woman on the street means he is dishonoring her, so do not respond in such a situation.
When invited to one’s home for tea, foreigners will find their glass being constantly refilled. A simple “No” will not suffice to stop one’s hosts. The proper method of indicating that one has had enough is by covering the glass with one’s hand and saying “bus,” which means “enough”.Fridays are weekly holidays in Afghanistan. During the holy month of Ramadan, all Muslims fast from dawn to dusk. This fasting includes abstaining from food, drink, cigarettes, and even gum. Although foreigners are not required to fast, performing any of the abovementioned activities in public is not allowed.