The misinterpretation of Afghan women’s conditions and struggles 

By: Zarlasht S

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Afghan women protest in Kabul to call for representation in the cabinet on February 3. Photo Courtesy: Radio Azadi.

The Afghan feminists were fiercely enraged lately with the article of Cheryl Benard regarding the role and fate of Afghan women considering the recent US negotiation with the Taliban led by Cheryl’s husband, Zalmay Khalilzad, the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation. The critics took umbrage on Cheryl for her white savior behavior and lack of knowledge about the women’s rights struggles in Afghan history. 

While some claimed women rights allegedly was the West’s justification for invading the region to save “savage people” from their own kind, Cheryl argues that five thousands of death of US soldiers is a high price to pay for women rights, ignoring the 45,000 Afghan soldiers who sacrificed their lives in the last five years in the name of fighting terrorism.  

In a verbose open opinion, Cheryl supports the Taliban, and advises the Afghan feminists to comprehend and compromise the interpretation of Shari’ah law with the Taliban, while she had criticized the efficiency of moderate Islam in her article “Moderate Islam isn’t working”, written in 2015. 

Cheryl argues in her article that the “Afghan women need to recognize that the Taliban are not their only problem. Deep-seated cultural values such as the “Pashtun” honor code are far more devastating to women’s lives, and most of these are clearly Un-Islamic ” Yet the very valid fact that she ignores is that the slogans chanted during stoning of innocent women are not in Pashto neither it is inline with any ethnic identity but are carried out in the name of religion. 


Cheryl taunts the Afghan feminists with the argument that Vogue magazine picture with mini-skirts does not represent the zeitgeist of the community back then, but refuses to admit that this liberal elite continued living peacefully among the rest for many decades until the rise of radical religious groups in the 1980s that was financially supported by the US during cold war. If Cheryl had enough knowledge of Afghan history, she would know the struggle of women suffragettes who ensured women’s voting rights even before women could vote in the USA. This movement arose with Queen Suraya’s command and was totally in harmony with egalitarian ideals of the Durrani’s at that time.

We, Afghan women, are shocked and insulted. A person who thinks listening to women’s voice is forbidden in Pashtunwali has never heard Pashtun women sing “Landai” songs. A person who thinks women are a doomed topic without freedom in Pashtun societies has never seen how the black hair of a nomad girl from Helmand dances in harmony with the wind. Continuation of a debate with a person who thinks arrangements of child marriage is a Pashtun honour code is beyond my comprehension.

Cheryl believes that the modern Afghan woman derives her inspiration from a mirage of non-existing reality made of Vogue magazine pictures and troubled herself to generalise us all as the child abusers. Yet, let me quote the condition of the Afghan women by the words of a 19th century scholar named Elphinstone regarding marriages years before these vogue pictures: 

“A most extraordinary custom is said to prevail among them (waziri and jaudran Pashtuns), which gives the women the choice of their husbands. If a woman is pleased with a man, she sends a drummer of the camp to pin a handkerchief on his cap with a pin which she has used to fasten her hair. The drummer watches his opportunity and does this public, naming the woman and the man is immediately obliged to marry her” 

Elphinstone claims that conditions of the women were far better than the neighboring countries and by no means unpleasant. “The condition of the women varies with their ranks,” Elphinstone writes ” those of the upper class are concealed, but are allowed all the comforts and luxuries which their situation admits of. They frequently learn to read and some of them show considerable talents for literature”. Elphinstone also describes that women were a considerable part of all crowd gathering at spectacles. They also made parties to gardens. 

In a time that working outside the home was considered rude (even among Britians), Afghan women used to work on the field with all freedom. They used to provide water and gathered wood for the winter. Elphinstone writes about this majority: ” Women of the poor classes do the work of the house and bring water. Among the rudest tribes, they have a share in the work of the men out of doors, but in no parts of the country they are employed as in India, where there is scarcely any difference between the work done by the two sexes” 

Now with the argument above in mind, only one conclusion can be drawn. They came with the promises of miniskirts they leave us with the hopes of a burqa. How can a person loaded with such a blind prejudice understand the dynamic changes that the current tribes are going through? Does she perhaps know that several tribes in Paktia have banned practices as taking the money and exchanging daughters? Will she admits that as a feminist she went against the basic principles of feminism which is inviting fellow feminists to bow to the rudest patriarchal system ever?

They say that when Mahatma Gandhi was asked what he thought of Western civilization, he replied that he thought it might be a good idea. In the same trant, we Afghans thank Mrs. Bernard for her advice on women rights (totally overshadowed by her white savior behavior) but our reply would be the same “Woman rights? It might be a good idea if it existed”.

Zarlasht S is a biomedical research analyst by profession, a woman rights activist and a writer based in the Netherlands. She writes mostly about woman rights, historical issues, and current affairs. 

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