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Afghan Women at the Crossroads: Agents of Peace-Or Its Victims?

Friday, March 25, 2011
The Century Foundation
Southern Asia

Ten years ago, as the world was celebrating the arrival of the twenty-first century, the
part that Afghanistan played in the global festival was to present a dark, backward
look, as if to another century—and nowhere darker than for the half of Afghanistan's
people who are women. Ten years into the new century, Afghanistan has gone through
another decade of upheaval, which has produced a mixed situation of progress and
regress at the same time.

Afghanistan in the year 2000 was a country with the world's largest number of
displaced persons, its highest mortality rate, and its biggest production of opium. It
was a country where more than half of its population was virtually invisible, totally
ignored in its social, political, and economic spheres. By the year 2000, Afghanistan
had suffered through two decades of war, and the slow, steady progress of earlier years
was burnt to ashes in the flames of war of various types: the Soviet invasion in 1979, the
civil war of the early 1990s, and then, in the mid-1990s, the emergence of a large group
of armed men wearing as their uniform the traditional dress of southern Afghanistan
and calling themselves the students of religious schools—the Taliban. These years of
continuous conflict resulted in the devastation of Afghanistan and the destruction of its
entire relative infrastructure—physical, administrative, as well as political.

We seek in this paper to explore how Afghanistan's women have sought to
protect themselves and improve their situation during their country's upheavals over
the past three decades, and how in coming years they can secure what they have won.
In order to understand how the status of women has changed in that time, there is a
need to understand their historical position throughout the twentieth century—in the
decades of peace that preceded the destruction of war. Hence, this paper will begin
with an overview of what Afghan women inherited over the past one hundred years,
and how they have engaged at different layers of society through recent decades.

Following the overview of the position of women historically, the paper will
present a comprehensive picture of their status—the changes, achievements, and
challenges—over the past ten years. It also will explore what position women hold in
today's Afghanistan, in the countryside as much as in the city, on the eve of a potential
new compact for Afghan society that may resolve one conflict, but could give rise to

The paper will illustrate how the fundamentalist or conservative elements now
resurgent in Afghan society aim to affect the current status of women and their future
position. It also will describe the different strategies used by women in Afghanistan to
make alliances at different levels to achieve their goals and defend their gains.

The paper will conclude by addressing the question of what position Afghanistan's
women—including the ones residing in tradition-bound rural areas as well as those
in an urban context—see for themselves, and what their expectations are of Afghan
society and national actors as well as of their committed international supporters.

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