What Afghan Women (and Men) Really Want
Access to employment and education are local priorities. Here’s how the West can work with the Taliban to ensure those rights.
Taliban representatives had something surprising to say during recent peace talks in Moscow: They would support, they said, a constitutional reform that upholds women’s access to education and work. There is reason to be skeptical of these commitments. Nevertheless, it is important to hold the group to their promise, because that is what most Afghans want. Research from eastern Afghanistan demonstrates that, contrary to the conventional wisdom, which holds that Afghans are broadly unsupportive of women’s rights, rural Afghan men and women do want to see girls go to school and women go to work. Beyond that, they believe that such progress is fundamental to peace.
At the same time, however, they’re less likely to advocate for other women’s rights, namely the right to own property or access leadership positions in government—both of which are enshrined in the Afghan Constitution. In short, although a cultural shift has created space for women in education and work, other values advanced by the international community and women’s activists have yet to take hold. As peace talks with the Taliban continue, the international community should start paying attention to what Afghan men and women really want.
Between 2016 and 2017, as part of a research project for the U.S. Institute of Peace, we collected data from 1,500 people in 18 predominately rural villages in eastern Afghanistan. In each place, the community was asked to come up with a list of their own indicators of peace as a way to help the researchers better understand how locals think about peace. Each village produced an average of 50 unique indicators, with about 25 percent relating to gender: gender roles, women’s freedom of movement, and access to goods and services. In some places, villagers said that boys being allowed to play cricket on Friday (the holiest day of the week for Muslims) was important. In others, girls playing volleyball in school was. In all cases, though, girls’ access to education and women’s access to training and employment were paramount. In fact, in every single village—whether under Taliban control or not—Afghans prioritized some form of “girls go to school” in their top five indicators of peace.
Mostly absent, however, was any mention of women’s roles as decision-makers or in positions of political power.
As it stands now, though, the Afghan Constitution focuses heavily on political rights. In fact, many of the protections it grants women aren’t even matched in Western democracies—notably, Afghan women are guaranteed equal rights under Article 22. The U.S. equivalent has yet to be ratified. Among Afghan women’s rights is representation in the country’s House of Elders, equal access to education, the ability to serve in the military, the ability to inherit land and property, and freedom of speech and from torture. Of course, most of these rights are neither fully enacted nor upheld in courts.
In short, the laws on the books and the debate about women’s rights taking place in Kabul, and in the press more broadly, don’t adequately reflect men and women’s everyday understandings of a just society in rural eastern Afghanistan. There is far greater support for girls’ education and women’s employment than has been highlighted, yet at the same time, there is also evidence that some men now believe women have too many rights and that younger men are less likely than their fathers to support full gender equality. That could reflect the disparity between what rights rural Afghans are comfortable with and what is outlined in the constitution.
It is important to acknowledge that marginalized women have different understandings of and priorities for women’s rights than those from majority groups or in better socioeconomic situations. The failure to do so has led the world to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in programming for women’s empowerment that has been misdirected or has had little real impact. Much of the programming either assumed at the outset that women in Afghanistan were too disempowered to engage, and therefore did not consult them in the development of policy and programming targeting the, or assumed that women had more sway over their families than they really did, leading to large-scale ineffective programs like the infamous female engagement teams, which were meant to identify and empower local matriarchs but had very few positive results.
Instead of focusing on top-down women’s rights policies, the international community should listen to women—and men—in rural Afghanistan in order to develop more effective policies. Our study suggests an opportunity to focus more concretely on girls’ education and women’s professional development in order to further a women’s empowerment agenda that is built on local values and priorities. Any programming directed toward women’s rights should be locally sensitive and work from the bottom up to make sure that real Afghan women benefit from it.
The fact that the Taliban are now vocally supporting policies that would allow women and girls access to schools and employment may imply that the group is listening to everyday Afghans. If so, this may reflect their desire to broaden their support among Afghan people. A Taliban-led government is surely not the West’s ideal outcome, but to the extent that the international community can engage with the group on local priorities such as women’s education and employment, it will be working towards a more sustainable, locally owned peace.
Pamina Firchow is an assistant professor of conflict analysis and resolution at George Mason University.