The South Asia Channel

Afghanistan’s New First Lady

Afghanistan has entered a new chapter of her life. Government of National Unity has been formed. The Bilateral Security Agreement and the Status of Forces Agreement have been signed with the United States and NATO. And, following the footsteps of King Amanullah Khan, in his Sept. 29 inaugural speech, President Ashraf Ghani acknowledged his wife ...

Author Photo
Author Photo

Afghanistan has entered a new chapter of her life. Government of National Unity has been formed. The Bilateral Security Agreement and the Status of Forces Agreement have been signed with the United States and NATO. And, following the footsteps of King Amanullah Khan, in his Sept. 29 inaugural speech, President Ashraf Ghani acknowledged his wife Rula Ghani for her support and dedication to the cause of women’s rights, marking her as Afghanistan’s first publicly active first lady since Queen Soraya.

While Afghans hope that positivity will prevail, it is time for the concepts of women and leadership, and the underlying assumptions of female empowerment polices of the past 12 years to receive a reflective and de-personalized critical revisiting. This re-evaluation must aim to reorient the work of the new establishment, its national and international partners, and the Afghan first lady who is going to have a on women, children, and the disabled.

Afghanistan is a rural, patriarchal, traditional, and religious society. Decision-making dynamics are top down and mostly informal. Identity is shaped by factors such as ethnicity, religion, social privilege, financial assets, or one’s authority, formal or informal — the source to which can be any of the above or even the number of armed bodyguards and armored vehicles one possesses. Afghan society is elitist at its core, populist in its aura, and misogynist in its heart; where women are second-class citizens,considered one of the four: someone’s daughter, sister, wife, or mother.

“Women, either at home or in the grave,” is one of the commonly believed in and practiced norms. Financial necessities or difficult circumstances encourage some to break this norm, the most suppressed form of which has been dressing girls as boys. From Bibi Hakmeena of Khost praised for being “as man as any man” to Kaftar Bibi of Baghlan, ex-member of parliament Azita Rafat to her daughter Mehrnoosh/Mehran — all are instances of women’s creative but maladaptive attempts at social participation in men’s roles.

Though inflated urbanization and online activism may depict a progressive social image, those who have tried genuine participation, stepping beyond the boundaries of women’s conventional roles, such as young girls attending school, have been targeted for threatening the status quo. Majority of urban male dwellers expect female obedience and the periphery lacks, at least in practice, cultural consensus on women’s social, political, and economic participation outside the household.

Today Afghanistan has women-centric protective legal frameworks, public and private institutions with women’s rights agendas, national long-term plans designed to empower women, 3 million girls in school, women in positions of formal or informal authority, and now a publicly active first lady. But there is still a strong feudal structure at the core of Afghanistan. The society is patriarchal and not gender balanced, institutions are gender-blind, and attention to women’s issues is driven by international presence. The women’s movement, urban in nature, lacks an understanding of the common Afghan woman’s urgent needs, leading to weak prioritization capacity that has further widened the gap. Today, women’s rights is one of the negotiable items of the peace talks, and one of the feared losses shared by Afghans and the world, as international troops continue to withdraw.

A look back at the recent history won’t hurt. Sept. 11, 2001 marked the initial event of the most recent global involvement in Afghanistan, determining the pace and nature of development interventions that followed. The cause of women’s emancipation helped justify a political decision: military engagement. Consequently, the lines between age-old patriarchal dynamics and the Taliban rule were blurred. What followed was 12 years of mostly technical fixes to an adaptive situation, where two value-systems — constitutionally protected women’s rights and values associated with women’s conventional role at home — were in conflict. Today, Afghanistan has a more on-paper  acknowledgement of women’s rights than the practical public streamlining of the values of gender equality.

Defenders of women’s rights, based on a misdiagnosis of the context and dependence on the international narrative of women’s emancipation, failed to question the major assumption that women’s rights matter to the majority of Afghans. The result was a misled strategy that did not focus on exploring avenues of helping women’s rights become an urgent need like security, employment, shelter, and health, despite having established the structure perceived to be necessary: the Ministry of Women Affairs (MOWA) and Ministerial Gender Units.

Afghanistan’s leadership dynamics facilitated Afghans’ dependence on the international development “experts” who appeared to have technical authority. The Women’s Rights Based Approach, for example, added to the already complex context — religious and cultural value systems such as Islam and Pashtunwali — and exacerbated the levels of confrontation for women, an already vulnerable social group, and government, an already weak and war-torn institution.

Another factor leading to institutional inadequacies that contribute to lack of women in leadership is the blurred line between leadership and authority. Leadership capacity development is broadly perceived as enhancing one’s authority. The qualities traditionally associated with leadership — and thus authority — and those associated with women do not match therefore making women look incapable of holding positions of authority. Given Afghanistan’s patriarchal nature and the top-down decision-making mechanisms, women’s leadership is not much more than an ambiguous concept for most, rendering women leaders’ role incomprehensible, the thought of which raises the question of “who is supporting her,” where the “who” cannot but be a man or group of men.

Government institutions’ gender-blindness speaks of the MOWA and Ministerial Gender Units’ failure in ripening the issue of women’s rights and gender equality for public institutions, let alone the majority of the population. And how could they manage to pull this off? In a society where women are second-class citizens, a single institution dealing with women’s affairs cannot be but secondary and thus unimportant and weak. As a policymaking institution, MOWA has, perhaps by design and not intent, restricted other government ministries’ capacity to initiate policy reform, leading to further isolation of women’s rights agendas within, and responsibility upon, one institution.

The existence of MOWA, and its style of operation therefore, contradict the cross-cutting nature of the theme of gender equality, and has thus facilitated, perhaps not intentionally, an isolationist approach to women empowerment. With only three years left until the completion of the implementation period of the 10 year National Action Plan for the Women of Afghanistan (2007-2017), questions around its applicability to the Afghan context remain valid and instances of workplace harassment, in particular in the Afghan security forces, are reported, making the 10 year Plan an example of an attempt that has taken place in an analytical vacuum ignorant of the cultural clash between conventional and modern value systems.

So women also contribute to the social treatment of women as a commodity, and therefore, none other than women themselves must exercise leadership in social reform first and foremost. The underlining factor, however, is not so much women’s intention or desire to remain secondary but the strength of this habit and the need for building women’s capacity to question this habit and step beyond it. Crossing this boundary does not and must not question human interdependence or the values associated with family foundations in Afghanistan. The capacity to strike a balance between individual independence and collective social interdependence is at the heart of the exercise of leadership in this field.

So what lies ahead? Can women be “leaders” after all in Afghanistan?

Yes, if the context within which Afghans operate is well studied, in order to understand and acknowledge the three major contextual realities that impede women’s strengthened leadership role: lack of clarity on the role of women in the economic production cycle; women’s immobility; and the absence of social-psychological security. It is imperative to understand that without an increased role of women in the production cycle, their political or social leadership cannot sustain, without contributing to women’s mobility their capacity to access and be accessible cannot be built, and without ensuring sustained social-psychological security to families, women’s space outside their homes will always be limited and guarded.

Definitely yes, but leadership may not necessarily mean being in a position of authority. Effective leadership in this context, exercised by women, and men, entails explicit cognizance of the following:

The duration of reform implementation must not weaken our capacity to challenge it, in particular when inclusive and substantial genuine improvement is not observed. If a majority does not benefit from a reform, it has to be questioned at the least. If a majority appears to resist reform, it may indicate the need to study, understand, and acknowledge the loss that the reform represents to them, and therefore, work on creating a safe space within which they can engage with the process of change and the loss it may incur consequently.

Afghanistan has been going through some type of reform for almost a century by now. But history shows that top-down reform agendas have failed. It therefore is no longer about change but sustainable and socially responsive change, which among others will involve building mass capacity for habit and behavior questioning, value shift, and cultural transition — processes that involve men and women both and which are going to take way longer than 12 years.

Legislative initiatives, regulations, strategies, policy frameworks, and guidelines can only facilitate change, not guarantee it. The real responsibility for change belongs to the people who must change in order for the transition to take place.

The path to the future involves questioning not just policies and strategies but also assumptions collectively held by Afghan and international advocates of women empowerment. This process will necessitate operating within the cycle of observation-intervention-reflection, based on an organic connection between the concept of cross-cutting and the urgent necessity of making gender equality relevant to the larger socio-political and economic context of Afghanistan.

Aarya Nijat is a graduate of Harvard Kennedy School of Government, has worked on institutional development and governance in the Afghan Government, and is an independent consultant based in Kabul. She can be reached via Follow her on Twitter: @AaryaNijat.

Aarya Nijat, an independent policy analyst based in Kabul, is a graduate of Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Previously, she worked on institutional development and governance for the Afghan government. Twitter: @AaryaNijat

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