Life as an Afghan Woman

The Quiet, Enduring Offensive Against Women in Rural Afghanistan

Clean-shaven and dressed in a Western-style suit, the stranger seated on Rasoul’s carpet asked to marry his host’s daughter, the wife he’d chosen for himself. Rasoul had never seen the caller before—a rarity in his tight-knit neighborhood near the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad—so he stalled for time to ask around. Bullying and beatings followed, and a colleague soon confirmed what Rasoul had deduced: the beardless man was a Taliban fighter in disguise. “I love my daughter more than myself,” Rasoul tells me, explaining why he chose to flee Afghanistan. Two years later, he lives in a cramped flat in New Delhi’s “Little Kabul” neighborhood with his daughter, who works at a local dentist’s office, and wife. The aging man points to where the insurgents broke his bones. He struggles to stand when I depart.

The Taliban announced another annual spring offensive on April 25, though high profile attacks have shaken Kabul since the beginning of the year. Afghan civilians are fleeing in large numbers. But outside the major urban centers where insurgents stoke fear and seek to make headlines, many rural Afghans continue to leave for an underreported reason: women’s exclusion from decision-making on marriage—and in marriages. For these refugees, the type of physical insecurity that tends to dominate news from Afghanistan is the terrifying backdrop to what one young Afghan convenience store worker in Delhi calls a less visible “crisis of culture”—a crisis that he believes allows the subjugation of women to persist.

“We have enemies in Afghanistan,” says Firoz, a medical interpreter who lives a few blocks from Rasoul with her five children. She isn’t talking about the Taliban. After her husband died, she was unable to fend off brothers-in-law, who pressured her to marry off her only daughter, 16 at the time. Her own brothers couldn’t defend her from where they lived, so the family left in 2011, despite what Firoz described as a “normal” security situation. There was simply no future in the country for a single mother or her unmarried daughter.

Several women of Little Kabul who were forced into marriage as children—like Marzia, a single mother of five—were left with untenable unions and few options. Soon after her husband moved his family to India in 2010, Marzia tells me, he’d left them behind for better prospects in Australia. Now, unable to find a job owing to her illiteracy, she is becoming increasingly desperate. She shows me photos of her sons on her phone before pausing, without warning, on one of a bloodied corpse: her sister, she tells me. The subject of the next photo is a dismembered body: her brother-in-law, she says. Marzia had planned to move to Kabul to live with her sister, whose husband had promised to safeguard her fatherless family of six. But then the Taliban blew up the couple’s mosque, killing, along with Marzia’s sister, her only hope of a future in Afghanistan. Marzia hasn’t talked to her husband in a year, after he declined to sponsor his own family as refugees to Australia. She can’t tell her mother, who is sick in Afghanistan, about her problems. She says it might kill her to know the truth.

In this photograph taken on May 23, 2017, Afghan women with their children walk through dense fog on the outskirts of Jalalabad. (Getty Images)

Rula Ghani, Afghanistan’s first lady and a bold advocate for Afghan women, agrees with the Delhi convenience store clerk’s assessment that “culture” is the problem—but she seems to think it’s also the solution. “The surest way to people’s mind (sic) is through the soft yet formidable power of culture,” she said in late October, and she’s optimistic about the role women can play in cultural renewal, starting by gaining the respect of their families. “To be durable,” Ghani says, “any change to culture needs to come from within. It needs to be owned by its people.”

The most recent Survey of the Afghan People, an annual report of the Asia Foundation based on more than 10,000 face-to-face surveys with Afghan citizens, suggests some gradual cultural shifts. Stated support for giving away a daughter to resolve a dispute (baad) and exchanging daughters in marriage (baddal)—two illegal but persisting practices—declined since 2016. Only 3.8 percent of all Afghans (and 4.4 percent of rural Afghans) think it is ideal for a woman to marry before age 16, though these rates have remained relatively stable since the survey question was introduced to the 2013 survey. An additional 8.6 percent of respondents said the ideal age is precisely 16—the current legal age in Afghanistan, but two years below the international human rights standard.

But the stated ideal is not the norm: forced and underage marriages persist, with effects that impact generations. According to 2017 UNICEF data, nine percent of girls in Afghanistan marry by age 15, and 35 percent by 18. Residents of certain provinces are loath to change tradition. Access to education is the biggest problem facing women, according to Afghans surveyed by the Asia Foundation, but girls frequently drop out of school early to prepare for marriage or pregnancy. Young wives have little decision-making power in their households and little opportunity to participate in the economy. They often face complications during birth and have poorer overall health. Domestic violence is pervasive.

Rural women may soon be just as disadvantaged in the public square—where they have made gains on multiple fronts for more than a decade—as they are in their homes. Many observers call for women’s inclusion in projected talks with the Taliban, a group that brazenly treats women as second-class citizens. This goal is admirable, and their voices are important. But insurgents already control or influence 14.5 percent of Afghanistan’s districts and are expected to have a healthy negotiating position vis-à-vis Ashraf Ghani’s government. As a potentially viable political party in a future Afghanistan, the Taliban would have an official platform to roll back negotiated terms.

The refugees of Delhi’s Little Kabul were unwilling to wait in expectation of Rula Ghani’s anticipated cultural change or risk their lives to help achieve it. Homira, a tall, confident 26 year-old, left Afghanistan when her parents pressured her to marry her cousin. She’d refused: he smoked cigarettes and did drugs. Once in Delhi she met Ali, a similarly animated newcomer who became her husband two months ago. She shows me photos: getting ready at the beauty salon in Bhogal; posing in a blue dress and ethereal veil. Homira called home to Afghanistan before the ceremony, but her mother expressed only sadness. A woman who had known only subservience simply couldn’t imagine this free daughter of hers, laughing loudly in public, loosely veiled, beside a man who thought her his equal.

*Ann Toews is the Lt. General Bernard E. Trainor USMC Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.