Afghan Women’s History

by Abdullah Qazi / January 4, 2009
Last updated: September 18, 2020

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. 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.


Date Event
1880 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:

Young 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.

1880 – 1901
Rule of Abdur
Rahman Khan)
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 inherit property.

  • 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 she helped her husband in his modernization efforts – despite major resistance from the conservative elements of Afghan society.
1901 – 1919
Rule of Habibullah Khan.)
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.
1919 – 1929
Rule ofAmanullah Khan)
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 well 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 custom must
not impose itself on the free will of the individual.

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 fought against injustices and oppression. Another sister of King Amanullah established a hospital for Afghan women.

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 freedoms.

1929 – 1933
Rule of 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.
1933 – 1973
Rule of Mohammad Zahir Shah)
During this period, slow and gradual change occurred for women.  With the efforts of his reformist cousin and Prime Minister, 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 politics.
  • 1965: The Democratic Organization of Afghan Women (DOAW) was formed. DOAW worked against illiteracy, forced marriages and bride prices.
  • 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 competition.
1973 -1978
Presidency of Mohammad Daoud Khan)
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 reforms.

  • October: Decree was issued. Compulsory education for girls. Bride price was abolished.  Minimum legal age for marriage for girls was set at 16.

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.

1979 – 1989
(Afghan-Soviet War)
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 assassinated.
1989 – 1992
(Dr. Najibullah’s Regime)
The Mujahideen were still waging war against Najibullah’s communist government during these years.  Not much social development due to war.

  • 1991: Latifa Nabizada and her sister Lailuma Nabizada graduated from helicopter flight school and became Afghanistan’s first-ever female pilots.
1992 – 1996
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 broke out, 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. Towards the end of his administration,  in an attempt to strengthen his government against the increasing power of the Taliban, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was appointed as the new Prime Minister.  Hekmatyar immediately restricted some women’s freedoms, however they could still attend school and work.

  • 1993: Suraya Sadeed established “Help the Afghan Children, Inc.” The organization’s goal is to improve the lives of children in Afghanistan.
1996 – 2001
Taliban Rule)
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.
Late 2001 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 areas.

  • December 5th: At the Bonn meeting, 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
2002 August 19th: Khatol Mohammadzai became the first female General in the Afghan National Army.
2003 November: 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.

December 17th: 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 Loya Jirga.

2004 Afghanistan adopted its new 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 country’s history.

2005 March 3rd: 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.

2007 May 21st:  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.

2008 February 19th: 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 supporters.

2009 Early January: 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.

2011 April 24: Afghan women boxers, Sadaf Rahimi and Shogofa Haidarzada, competed in the inaugural AIBA (International Boxing Association) World Youth and Junior Championships in Antalya, Turkey.
2012 The Afghan Women’s National Hockey Team was established.
2013 July: Afghanistan’s Band-e Amir National Park hired the first-ever women park rangers (Sediqa, Nibakht, Fatima, and Kubra).
2014 January: Jamila Bayaz was appointed as Afghanistan’s first female police chief, head of the 1st District in Kabul.
August: Farahnaz Yaqoobi became the first female Afghan athlete to represent Afghanistan in the Summer Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing (China).
2015 May 31 – June 6, 2015: Team Asma’i (Nelofar and Zainab), the first all-female ultramarathon team from Afghanistan completed The Gobi March 2015, one of the toughest endurance competitions in the world.
2017 May: Zan TV, Afghanistan’s first female-oriented and female-run station started operations.
2018 April: For the first time a woman was appointed as chairperson of a district in Mazar-e-Sharif in Balkh province. Friba Ahmadi was appointed chairwoman of the 5th district of Mazar-e Shariff.
May: Munira Yousufzada was appointed as deputy governor of Kabul province and Habiba Kakar Qazizada was appointed as deputy governor of Nangarhar province
First-ever group of Afghan female deminers trained in Bamiyan province
August: Hanifa Yousoufi became the first Afghan woman to reach the summit of Noshaq on August 10th, the highest point in Afghanistan and the second-highest peak in the Hindu Kush range.
October: Samira Asghari became the first Afghan to be elected to the International Olympic Committee as an elected member.
2019 Zuhal Atmar became the first woman to establish a recycling plant (Gul-Mursal Waste Paper Recycling Factory) in Afghanistan.
2020 September 15: Afghanistan secured a seat at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) for the first time in its history.
September 17: President Ashraf Ghani issued a presidential decree to have the mother’s name officially included on Afghanistan’s national identity card (tazkira). Before this, national identity documents in Afghanistan only carried the name of a person’s father.