Argument

‘Afghan Women’ Aren’t Who You Think They Are

Western powers and donors created a category that consigned the women of Afghanistan to perpetual victimhood—while all parties instrumentalized them for political ends.

Afghan women wait in front of a bank office in Kabul.
Afghan women wait in front of a bank office in Kabul.
Afghan women wait in front of a bank office in Kabul on Sept. 20, 2021. BULENT KILIC/AFP via Getty Images
By , a doctoral candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

On May 7, the Taliban issued a statement making their version of the hijab mandatory for all women of Afghanistan, even though this full-body covering, sometimes called a burqa, is not a traditional Afghan garment. Since seizing control of the country following an agreement between the United States and the Taliban, the group has banned girls from secondary education and prevented women from working or traveling long distances without a male escort, among many other restrictions.

Meanwhile, the world watches as the Taliban commit constant human rights violations, raising the question of why the rights of women in Afghanistan are not considered the same as women’s rights elsewhere in the world.

More than 20 years after 9/11, there is once again talk of “saving Afghan women” all over again—but Western good intentions will not necessarily improve the lives of women in Afghanistan. That’s because the term “Afghan women” is a political-economic construct coined by several actors that instrumentalizes the women of Afghanistan for political ends. In the last two decades, Western powers, Afghan strongmen, and (to some extent) the women of Afghanistan have contributed to amplifying this term to serve the political and economic needs of the parties involved.

On May 7, the Taliban issued a statement making their version of the hijab mandatory for all women of Afghanistan, even though this full-body covering, sometimes called a burqa, is not a traditional Afghan garment. Since seizing control of the country following an agreement between the United States and the Taliban, the group has banned girls from secondary education and prevented women from working or traveling long distances without a male escort, among many other restrictions.

Meanwhile, the world watches as the Taliban commit constant human rights violations, raising the question of why the rights of women in Afghanistan are not considered the same as women’s rights elsewhere in the world.

More than 20 years after 9/11, there is once again talk of “saving Afghan women” all over again—but Western good intentions will not necessarily improve the lives of women in Afghanistan. That’s because the term “Afghan women” is a political-economic construct coined by several actors that instrumentalizes the women of Afghanistan for political ends. In the last two decades, Western powers, Afghan strongmen, and (to some extent) the women of Afghanistan have contributed to amplifying this term to serve the political and economic needs of the parties involved.

The term “Afghan women” has become a box. To fit in this box, women should be victims; they need to have experienced violence at the hands of men, wear specific clothing, and appeal for help, but most importantly, they should be ambitious enough to be saved by Westerners. In short, the women of Afghanistan have become a business opportunity once again.


Women study at an outdoor school in Afghanistan in 1960.
Women study at an outdoor school in Afghanistan in 1960.

Women study at an outdoor school in Kabul in 1960. Touring Club Italiano/Marka/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The instrumentalization of women in Afghanistan for political and economic ends is not a recent development. Women’s rights have been used as a tool starting from the era of Afghan King Amanullah Khan in the early 20th century. Inspired by reforms from then-Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk; King Amanullah sought to modernize Afghanistan by giving more freedoms to women.

Queen Soraya Tarzi opened the first girls’ school in Afghanistan. Women got their right to vote in 1919. These and several other freedoms for women in Afghanistan were short-lived because Britain blamed King Amanullah for supporting the uprising in India against the British Raj. In response, Britain supported Afghan tribal leaders and religious clerics in Afghanistan in their revolt against the king’s policies, resulting in the removal of King Amanullah in 1929.

The second wave of instrumentalization involved the politicization of Afghan women’s bodies during the civil war of the 1980s. Mass atrocities and sexual violence took place all over Afghanistan when the mujahideen, supported by the United States, took power from the communist government.

I remember as a kid in Helmand province, gunmen would enter one of our neighbors’ houses each night, and everyone could hear the cries of women from that home. Those families belonged to the communist government or followed their ideology. In the morning, the family would leave the community. Each night, all of our neighbors would stay awake, fearing who would be next.

Twenty years after 9/11, there is once again talk of “saving Afghan women”—but Western good intentions will not necessarily improve the lives of women in Afghanistan.

Sexual violence against women became the primary strategy in the last few years of the civil war; as a result, suicide among women and girls became common.

The most recent instrumentalization of the women of Afghanistan took place after 2001. Beginning with 9/11, saving Afghan women was made one of the main justifications for the U.S. invasion. Each Western country’s foreign policy, the United Nations, and entire global humanitarian enterprises included the term “Afghan women” in their documents to appeal for an extension of their so-called intervention in Afghanistan each fiscal year.

Afghan girls raise their hands during English class at a high school in Afghanistan in 2006.
Afghan girls raise their hands during English class at a high school in Afghanistan in 2006.

Afghan girls raise their hands during English class at the Bibi Mahroo high school in Kabul on Nov. 22, 2006. The overcrowded school is made up of UNICEF-supplied tents and war-damaged buildings.Paula Bronstein /Getty Images

“Afghan women” became a household term in each humanitarian organization, school, university, conference, and global platform. To many Afghan women, including myself, it became a full-time job not only to represent Afghanistan at all times but to do so as an “Afghan woman” and constantly act like one, which has its parameters.

I have lost count of the number of consultation meetings by donor agencies and countries where the main topic is “Afghan women” but the participants of these meetings are predominantly Western white men. Often, their main suggestion is to fund women’s organizations, and that funding does not come without its conditionalities; what Afghan women actually want was never the concern of these stakeholders.

The intention is always to help, but that help comes with the baseline presumption that “we the developed” and “civilized” people know what is good for you, so we will help you as we see fit. To operationalize these good intentions, policies must be quick and generalizable, and that is how more than 15 million women of Afghanistan were put in a box and labeled poor, hapless victims.

This is not to say that the wealthy countries of the world should not support poorer ones like Afghanistan when they are desperate for help, but that does mean that the population receiving the support should have a say in how they want to fix their problems.


A lot has been written about “Afghan women,” but very little has been written by the women of Afghanistan themselves—allowing them to express their views outside the parameters of the box of victimhood created for them. I spent the last several years interviewing fellow women from Afghanistan who do not accept the identity that has been created for them.

When people hear the term “Afghan women,” the image that comes to mind is a poor victim, someone with very little agency who is not allowed to participate in the public sphere and lacks equal rights. Unfortunately, the women of Afghanistan have done too little to break out of this box designed for them.

Being an “Afghan woman” is a responsibility to be carried out and does not feel natural to most Afghan women I interviewed. However, it also brings certain opportunities if you stay within the box. For example, Western institutions and aid organizations take pride in helping Afghan women and saving them from their miseries by offering them support through scholarships, vocational training, and platforms to talk about their suffering. To benefit from these opportunities, the women of Afghanistan must show that they are miserable and in need of help.

Aid organizations need Afghan women to be victims, so they can run their projects, create jobs, and sustain an enterprise that is only possible if there are women who are victims.

Fatima Airan, an Afghan economics student, was concerned about portraying herself as a strong woman who has never experienced physical violence, afraid that such a narrative would decrease her chances of getting into college, as opposed to embracing her “poor Afghan woman” identity, which could potentially open many doors for her.

This is not to say that Afghan women don’t deserve to study at prestigious institutions on their merit but rather that these institutions and the international community, in general, have an expectation of the women of Afghanistan wherein they underestimate their intelligence and abilities. Because, after all, an intelligent and empowered woman does not need to be saved.

Likewise, aid organizations need Afghan women to be victims, so they can run their projects, create jobs, and sustain an enterprise that is only possible if there are women who are victims. Salma Alokozai, a former Afghan government official, said: “The term ‘Afghan women’ suffocates me because it represents misery and refers to a business that its stakeholders benefit from. It neither describes the women of Afghanistan nor what they entail.”

An Afghan woman shows off her inked finger after she made it to the polls to cast her vote in Kabul in 2010.
An Afghan woman shows off her inked finger after she made it to the polls to cast her vote in Kabul in 2010.

An Afghan woman shows off her inked finger after she made it to the polls to cast her vote in Kabul on Sept. 18, 2010. Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Meanwhile, Afghan strongmen—including politicians, tribal leaders, and even the terrorist Taliban and other mujahideen factions—have successfully incorporated “Afghan women” as a useful business tool in their dealings with the West. For example, at the state level, in the past 20 years, there have been very few institutionalized programs for women within the Afghan government; those that existed were only established to attract donor funding.

Afghanistan’s national budgets set aside up to a 30 percent quota for women. Similarly, women were part of Afghan police forces, not for law enforcement purposes but rather to fulfill donor requirements. At the societal and community level, many civil society groups and community programs included the names of the women in their families in the leadership of their initiatives to get access to funding and resources.

In the past year since the Taliban took power, they have made “Afghan women” one of the primary focuses of their negotiations with Western governments. They demanded a seat at the U.N. and, in turn, offered to allow girls to attend primary school. They urged the United States to unfreeze aid money and offered women the chance to work in Afghanistan’s ministries as cleaning staff or attend universities—but with conditions.

They do not mind if women are begging in the streets—it does not violate their interpretation of Islamic rules—but they prohibit women from working in offices. They allow girls in primary schools—and, to some extent, in higher education—but only if they wear a black full-body hijab. But they have banned girls from secondary education, which makes it impossible for them to ever pursue higher education. There is no logic to their policies, but they manage to ensure the topic of “Afghan women” remains alive because that is the only way to get the world’s attention—a commodity to be traded by power brokers to seek support and favor in the international community.


Some women in Afghanistan have contributed to this commodification—keeping the victimhood box intact. For the last 20 years, projects were not designed based on the needs of women; instead, the needs of Afghan women were shaped according to the requirements of the donors’ projects.

Women, including myself, have held leadership positions within government and development enterprises, donor organizations, and the security sector on both the Afghan and international level. However, things were not done differently after we assumed our roles. Most positions filled by women were for symbolic purposes, without giving them substantial authority over decision-making, and women hardly protested for fear of losing opportunities.

Few women who had access to international platforms advocated on behalf of the entire country’s female population, creating a static and unified image of the women of Afghanistan. The whole world started to see all women of Afghanistan through the same monolithic lens, as if all roughly 15 million women of Afghanistan have unified political views and the same vision for their country. Those women of Afghanistan who had access to the “box” complied with keeping this narrative alive.

If the women of Afghanistan do not play the roles designed for them, they lose their membership in the tribe called “Afghan women.” Once a woman from Afghanistan is educated, she is not someone who needs help and is labeled a “diaspora Afghan.”

From personal experience, when I speak my mind and share analytical assessments, I am instantly told that I must have never lived in Afghanistan by media outlets, publishing companies, in donor consultation meetings, and at conferences designed for so-called Afghan women. In fact, I have lived and experienced the war and trauma firsthand in repeated waves since the 1980s and have been exiled in the region.

Because of the commodification of Afghan women over the last 20 years, very little was done to broaden the scope of political work done by them. The focus of a woman’s activism was solely directed to women’s issues, ignoring their perspectives on other sociopolitical and conflict-related developments.

Assuming that women of Afghanistan are not aware of how they are instrumentalized and have not allowed it to happen would be depriving them of their agency.

Indeed, there were times and opportunities when we could and should have pushed harder to protest this narrative of victimhood. Yes, we were thirsty for education. We were scared that if we spoke up against donor countries, they would stop their support. We were told that we could not participate on specific platforms if we didn’t dress in a certain way.

Rina Amiri, the U.S. special envoy for Afghan women, girls, and human rights, tweets mostly about the Taliban’s violation of women’s rights. But separating women’s issues from nationwide issues—such as economics, human rights, and destabilizing state institutions—is the same mistake that has been made over the last two decades. The women of Afghanistan cannot be separated from Afghanistan. The Taliban are violating everyone’s rights.


Afghan women wearing hijab or burqa wait in line in 2003.
Afghan women wearing hijab or burqa wait in line in 2003.

Afghan women wait in line to be treated at the Kalakan health clinic in Afghanistan on Feb. 23, 2003. Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

As I write this article, the Afghan women’s box is again in the making to serve a new era. The “Afghan women” of the last 20 years were becoming empowered, getting an education, leading households and communities, and competing in sports. They were breaking the box of victimhood and seeking membership in a global community of empowered women.

Aid organizations have shut down projects because they were not able to justify their women’s empowerment programs to help Afghan women who no longer needed to be saved.

However, that meant the doors of their benefactors were closing behind them. The international community was cutting the jobs that previously focused on gender training, and organizations were losing projects because they were slowly not able to justify their women’s empowerment programs to help Afghan women who no longer needed to be saved. Similarly, Afghan strongmen could no longer use Afghan women as their bargaining chip because the women of Afghanistan were facing them at negotiating tables as equals.

It was shocking to see in 2021 that the entire world handed over the same Afghan women they once wanted to save to a terrorist group who stripped away their rights. It has been close to a year since these empowered women have been prohibited from going to work, school, or participating in political and public life. Yet, this time, foreign leaders aren’t clamoring to save us.

Mina Sharif, an Afghan activist, believes the “Afghan women” narrative needs to suit the budgets of donor countries. “There must be enough violence allowed upon women in Afghanistan; they need to be oppressed for some time to become an enterprise again for the aid economy,” she said.

“In 2001, the Americans and their allies invaded Afghanistan to empower Afghan women, and 20 years later, it seems we are too empowered for them to listen to us,” Afghan artist Rada Akbar told FP.

It is not that the women of Afghanistan do not need support from the world. The problem is that the support comes at the price of degrading us and depriving us of agency.

On the first anniversary of the second round of a dark era in Afghanistan, we, the women of Afghanistan, appeal for the support of the world. But first, we want to be considered equals by the leaders of the international community so we can demand equal rights from the Taliban. As long as we are considered victims and a commodity, our country’s political stakeholders will seek to trade us for political advantages.

Correction, Aug. 18, 2022: An earlier version of this article inaccurately described how the family of Saleh Muhammad Zirai died. We have omitted the relevant section of text and regret the error.

Lima Halima Ahmad is a doctoral candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, an Asia Society 21 Fellow, and a research fellow at the Fletcher Center for Security Studies. Twitter: @Limaahmad

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

A closeup of Russian President Vladimir Putin
A closeup of Russian President Vladimir Putin

What Russia’s Elites Think of Putin Now

The president successfully preserved the status quo for two decades. Suddenly, he’s turned into a destroyer.

A member of the Zimbabwe Republic Police is seen in front of an electoral poster of President Emmerson Mnangagwa
A member of the Zimbabwe Republic Police is seen in front of an electoral poster of President Emmerson Mnangagwa

Cafe Meeting Turns Into Tense Car Chase for U.S. Senate Aides in Zimbabwe

Leading lawmaker calls on Biden to address Zimbabwe’s “dire” authoritarian turn after the incident.

Steam rises from cooling towers at the Niederaussem coal-fired power plant during the coronavirus pandemic near Bergheim, Germany, on Feb. 11, 2021.
Steam rises from cooling towers at the Niederaussem coal-fired power plant during the coronavirus pandemic near Bergheim, Germany, on Feb. 11, 2021.

Putin’s Energy War Is Crushing Europe

The big question is whether it ends up undermining support for Ukraine.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres attends a press conference.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres attends a press conference.

A Crisis of Faith Shakes the United Nations in Its Big Week

From its failure to stop Russia’s war in Ukraine to its inaction on Myanmar and climate change, the institution is under fire from all sides.