Afghan Women's History
by Abdullah Qazi / January 4, 2009
Last updated: April 24, 2011
Many Afghan women have played very important and
influential roles in the history of Afghanistan,
however their actions and contributions are not well
documented in Afghan history books. Many women have
died defending the country against foreign invaders,
and risking their lives to educate the next generation of
women. There are even women whose actions can be
considered treacherous, however, they did shape
the country's history. Like most
other countries' histories, Afghan history is filled
mostly with the stories of men and their actions.
Below is an attempt at providing a thorough accounting
of Afghan women's history;
it is however still a work in progress.
A chronological history of women and their roles
in Afghan history.
||July 27th: A woman
from the small village of Khig, named Malalai, played
a major role in the battle of Maiwand during the
second Anglo-Afghan war. When the tide turned
against the Afghan fighters and their morale
dropped, Malalai cried out:
love if you do not fall in the battle of Maiwand;
By God someone is saving you as a token of shame;
When the Afghan flag bearer was shot dead,
Malalai used her veil as a banner to encourage the
Afghan soldiers who were fighting the British. Her words revitalized the Afghan fighters
and as a result, the
battle of Maiwand ended in defeat for the British
Army and victory for the Afghans, who were led by Ayub
Khan. Sadly, Malalai was killed during this
battle, but she was not forgotten. Many schools
and hospitals have been named after her, and she
is considered Afghanistan's greatest heroine - she
is viewed as Afghanistan's version of Joan of Arc.
|During his rule, Amir Abdur Rahman
Khan abolished the tribal custom of forcing a woman to
marry her deceased husband's brother. He
also raised the age of marriage, and gave women
the right to divorce only under specific
circumstances. He also allowed women the right to
- 1899 (November 24th): Soraya Tarzi,
daughter of Afghan intellectual
Mahmud Tarzi, wife of
King Amanullah and future Queen of
Afghanistan was born. As Queen, she worked
hard for women's rights and freedoms in
Afghanistan. She became one of the most
influential women in the Muslim world at the time, and
helped her husband in his modernization efforts -
despite major resistance from the conservative
elements of Afghan society.
|Amir Habibullah Khan allowed the
return of political exiles such as
Mahmud Tarzi who also fought for women's rights.
Because of Tarzi's influence, Amir Habibullah
opened a school for girls that even contained an English
curriculum. Interestingly enough, Amir Habibullah
Khan himself had numerous wives, far more
than what is allowed in Islam. He had his
religious clerics use twisted religious
interpretations and had the women declared as
servants, concubines and harem ladies.
|During his rule, King
Amanullah Khan worked with his father in-law
Mahmud Tarzai, and his wife Queen Soraya to
improve the lives of women in Afghanistan.
He discouraged polygamy, was against the veil, as
pushed for greater personal freedom for women.
At a public function King Amanullah stated:
Religion does not require women to veil their
hands, feet and
faces or enjoin any special type of veil. Tribal
not impose itself on the free will of the
Early 1920s: King Amanullah's
sister, Kobra, created Anjuman-E-Himayat-E-Niswan
(Organization for Women's Protection). Her
organization encouraged women to voice their
complaints, as well as pushed for women unity, and
against injustices and oppression. Another sister
of King Amanullah established a hospital for
Also, during this time, Queen
Soraya founded the first magazine for women called,
Ershad-E-Niswan (Guidance for Women).
1928: Various conservative tribal
leaders organized and fought against the
freedoms King Amanullah pushed for women in Kabul.
They pushed against women's education and personal
Mohammad Nadir Shah)
|Nadir Shah succumbed to the requests of the tribal leaders
and pushed back many of the reforms King Amanullah
had implemented. Nadir Shah banned
Jarideh Zanan, the only newspaper at the time
published by Afghan women. Nadir Shah was very careful
not to upset the conservative tribal leaders.
|During this period, slow and gradual change occurred for women.
With the efforts of his reformist cousin and Prime
Mohammad Daoud Khan, eventually, women started
to enter the work force and were able to become teachers,
nurses and even politicians.
- 1941: First secondary female school
was established in Kabul.
- 1959: Women were allowed to unveil,
and the wives of the ruling family, and senior
government officials appeared unveiled at public
functions, and soon others followed. No
revolts in Kabul occurred over this, however, a
revolt did occur in Kandahar, and roughly 60
people were killed as a result. The revolt
was eventually suppressed by the government.
- 1964: The constitution gave women
the right to vote, and allowed them to enter
- 1965: The Democratic Organization of
Afghan Women (DOAW) was formed. DOAW worked
against illiteracy, forced marriages and bride
- 1968 (April 20th): Queen Soraya
passed away in exile in Rome, Italy.
- 1972: Zohra Yusuf Daoud was crowned as
the first Miss Afghanistan. There was no
swimsuit competition, however, there was an evening gown
|Similar to King Amanullah, Mohammad Daoud Khan encouraged the abandonment of the veil
by Afghan women. During these years, women
gradually enjoyed much more personal freedoms and
rights. However, most of these advances were
limited to women living in Kabul and other major cities. Most of the rural areas
still remained backwards and women continued to be
oppressed, and treated as property rather than
human beings with equal rights.
- 1977: An Afghan woman activist named
Meena Keshwar Kamal laid the foundation of RAWA
(Revolutionary Association of the Women of
Afghanistan). Later, when the Mujahideen defeated
the Soviets and freed Afghanistan from communist
rule, RAWA became critical of them, and even
accused them of war crimes. RAWA wishes to
establish a secular government in Afghanistan,
and are against an Islamic government.
(Communist Rule-pre Soviet invasion)
|People Democratic Party of Afghanistan
(PDPA) was heavily supported by the Russians (Soviet
Union). PDPA quickly pushed for massive social
- October: Decree was issued.
Compulsory education for girls. Bride price was
abolished. Minimum legal age for marriage
for girls was set
Alongside the rapid modernization and reform
agendas, the communist ideology was also forced
down on people, many times using brutal violence.
There was very little tolerance for tribal and
religious customs. In rural areas, PDPA was seen as
disregarding sensitive tribal values and
traditions, and thus caused resentment and
backlash. The PDPA responded with brutal violence -
killing scores of innocent people.
|Soviet Union (Russia)
invaded Afghanistan. During the Soviet war, many
civilians including numerous women and children
were killed by the communist government and their
Russian allies. However, in the Afghan capital and
in some of the major cities under the communist
government's control, woman did
get to enjoy some basic freedoms.
- 1980 (April 29th): A high school
student named Nahid helped organize and
participated in a massive demonstration
protesting the Russian occupation of
Afghanistan. She was able to organize girls from
different schools around Kabul. She was killed
and became a martyr and a symbol of patriotism
in Afghanistan still till today.
- 1984: Khatol Mohammadzai became
Afghanistan's first woman paratrooper. She
later becomes a General in the Afghan National Army.
- 1987 (February 4th) -
Meena Keshwar Kamal, the founder of RAWA was
|The Mujahideen were
still waging war against
Najibullah's communist government during these
years. Not much social development due to
(Mujahideen government and civil war)
|The Mujahideen took Kabul and
liberated Afghanistan from the Communists and the Mujahideen formed
an Islamic State. Eventually a civil war
and during this time, gross violations of abuses
occurred not only against women but the population in
general. Massacres and mass killings occurred
and the war took on an ethnic tone. Despite
all of the chaos, women were still allowed to work, and get an
education under the Mujahideen government of
Burhanuddin Rabbani. In fact, before the
Taliban took over Kabul, about half of the working
population were women. They were employed as
teachers, doctors, as well as in other
professional occupations. See
photos of Afghan women before and after the
Taliban took over Kabul. Towards the end of his
administration, in an attempt to strengthen
his government against the increasing power of the
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was appointed as the new
Prime Minister. Hekmatyar immediately
restricted some women's freedoms, however they
could still attend school and work.
Suraya Sadeed established "Help the Afghan
Children, Inc." The organization's goal is to
improve the lives of children in Afghanistan.
|In September 1996, the
Taliban took over Afghanistan's
capital and immediately imposed restrictions on
Afghan women. They were forbidden to work, leave
the house without a male escort, not allowed to
seek medical help from a male doctor, and forced
to cover themselves from head to toe, even
covering their eyes. Women who were doctors and
teachers before, suddenly were forced to be
beggars and even prostitutes in order to feed
their families. During the rule of the
Taliban, women were treated worse than in any
other time or by any other society. Also see:
Afghan Women's Health And The Taliban
||The United Front (aka
Alliance) together with the United States attacked
the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and forced them out of
Kabul.. The restrictions on Afghan women were
officially lifted and they were allowed to once
again work and go to school. Unfortunately,
today, the abuse of women continue as the government is
too weak to enforce many of the laws, especially
in the rural areas, and in once Taliban supported
- December 5th: At the
Dr. Sima Samar was chosen to be the first
Deputy Chair and Minister of Women’s Affairs in
the Interim Administration of Afghanistan under
President Hamid Karzai. Later she was appointed
as Chairperson of the Afghanistan Independent
Human Rights Commission (AIHRC).
Post Taliban Rule / Hamid
Khatol Mohammadzai became the first female
General in the Afghan National Army.
Vida Samadzai caused controversy after
unofficially representing Afghanistan and posed
in a revealing red bikini during the Miss Earth
beauty pageant in 2003. Samadzai did not win the
Miss Earth beauty pageant, however, the
coordinators of the event presented her with a
special "beauty for a cause" award.
Malalai Joya gained international attention
when as an elected delegate to the Loya Jirga
convened to ratify Afghanistan's constitution,
made a brief speech in which she criticized her
"compatriots" as to why they were bringing the
legitimacy of the Loya Jirga into question by
including the presence of criminals, and that they
instead should be put on trial for their crimes.
By criminals she was referring to the former
Mujahideen leaders who fought against the Soviets,
and were also present in and participating in the
constitution, establishing the country as an
Islamic Republic. According to the constitution:
The citizens of Afghanistan –
whether man or woman –
have equal rights and duties before the law.
The constitution also requires 50% of the
members of the Meshrano Jirga that the President
appoints must be women.
Summer Olympics in Athens: Female
athletes Friba Razayee and Robina Muqim Yaar
represented Afghanistan for the first time in the
President Hamid Karzai appointed Afghanistan's
first ever-female provincial governor. Governor
Habiba Sorabi assumed her post as governor of
central Bamiyan Province on March 23, 2005.
Masooda Jalal (a medical doctor), was the only
woman to run against Hamid Karzai in the 2005
presidential race. She lost, but was later
appointed as Minister of Women's Affairs by
President Hamid Karzai.
September 5th: Malalai Joya became the
youngest female member of the Wolesi Jirga, when
she received the second highest number of votes in Farah province.
Malalai Joya was suspended from the Wolesi Jirga.
She violated Article 70 of Afghanistan's
parliament, which prohibits its members from
openly insulting one another. Joya had recently
compared the members of the Wolesi Jirga to a
"stable or zoo" on an interview with Afghanistan's Tolo TV. The video of the interview was shown to
the members of the Wolesi Jirga, and they voted by
a clear majority that Joya had broken Article 70,
and disrespected her fellow Wolesi Jirga members.
They suspended her for the rest of her term.
November 7th: For the first time, a female
boxing federation was established by Afghanistan's
National Olympic Committee.
December 29th: Bodybuilding club for
women was inaugurated in Parwan province.
Afghanistan's first political party dedicated to
women's rights and issues was launched. Party's
name: National Need. Founder: Fatima Nazari.
April 10th: Afghanistan's Ministry of
Education stated that more than 5.4 million
children have been enrolled in schools, nearly 35%
of them girls. However, attacks on schools,
especially in the east and south are still very
common. The attacks were done by the Taliban,
and others who supported their views against
education for girls.
November 12th: Two Taliban supporters
sprayed acid on the faces of school girls in Kandahar.
Over a dozen girls were injured - the girls were
left with permanent facial scars. Parents were afraid to send their girls to school
because of fear they may be attacked by Taliban
Azra Jafari became the country's first woman
mayor. She was appointed as mayor of the town Nili
in Daikundi province.
July 27: A controversial Shia personal
status law was published in the country's official
Gazette (Gazette 988); this brought the law into
force. The law regulated the personal affairs of
Afghanistan's Shia population. It regulated
divorce and separation, inheritance, and age of
marriage. The law was regarded as being very
repressive towards women. Many human rights
activists believe it violated
Article 22 of Afghanistan's constitution which
states: The citizens of Afghanistan – whether
man or woman – have equal rights and duties before
the law. According to Human Rights Watch,
"the law gives a husband the right to withdraw
basic maintenance from his wife, including food,
if she refuses to obey his sexual demands. It
grants guardianship of children exclusively to
their fathers and grandfathers. It requires women
to get permission from their husbands to work. It
also effectively allows a rapist to avoid
prosecution by paying "blood money" to a girl who
was injured when he raped her." A much
more repressive version of the law was signed by
President Hamid Karzai in March, however,
widespread international condemnation caused the
government to place the implementation of the law
on hold until further review. Many activists were
upset because the law required Shia women to
obtain permission from their husbands before
leaving the house (except on urgent business), and
it also required wives to have sex with her
husbands at least once every 4 days.
Afghan women boxers, Sadaf Rahimi and Shogofa
Haidarzada, competed in the inaugural AIBA
(International Boxing Association) World Youth and
Junior Championships in Antalya, Turkey.