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Land of the Unconquerable

Land of the Unconquerable: The Lives of Contemporary Afghan Women

Jennifer Heath
Ashraf Zahedi
Copyright Date: 2011
Edition: 1
Pages: 406
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  • Book Info
    Land of the Unconquerable
    Book Description:

    Reaching beyond sensational headlines,Land of the Unconquerableat last offers a three-dimensional portrait of Afghan women. In a series of wide-ranging, deeply reflective essays, accomplished scholars, humanitarian workers, politicians, and journalists-most with extended experience inside Afghanistan-examine the realities of life for women in both urban and rural settings. They address topics including food security, sex work, health, marriage, education, poetry, politics, prisoners, and community development. Eschewing stereotypes about the burqa, the contributors focus instead on women's empowerment and agency, and their struggles for peace and justice in the face of a brutal ongoing war. A fuller picture of Afghanistan's women past and present emerges, leading to social policy suggestions and pragmatic solutions for a peaceful future.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94899-0
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
    Jennifer Heath and Ashraf Zahedi
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-42)

    On October 7, 2001, the United States and its allies launched an assault against Afghanistan in retaliation for the attacks of 9/11 and removed the Taliban from power. The Sunni Islamist and Pashtun nationalist movement calling itself “students” or “seekers” had tyrannized most of the country, especially the women, since 1996.

    The 2001 U.S.-led attack began another chapter in the three decades—and counting—of relentless fighting endured by the Afghan people, beginning in 1979 with the Soviet invasion. Across the ten-year Soviet war, more than 1 million Afghans were killed; 1.2 million Mujahedin, government soldiers, and noncombatants were disabled;...


    • CHAPTER 1 The Politics of Zan from Amanullah to Karzai: Lessons for Improving Afghan Women’s Status
      (pp. 45-59)

      Since independence in 1919, the Afghan state’s gender policies have involved a bewildering series of missteps, corrections, and more missteps,¹ resulting in confusion, pain, and suffering for Afghanzan.² Since the ouster of the Taliban regime, conditions for Afghan women improved under the Karzai government, but if history is any guide, gender policies and approaches are most likely to fail in Afghanistan unless they incorporate into the process the well-entrenched social and cultural norms of a traditional, patriarchal, primarily tribal society. In short, the historical record suggests that a gender template characterized by cautious, incremental efforts at improving female status...

    • CHAPTER 2 Between Covered and Covert: Traditions, Stereotypes, and Afghan Women’s Agency
      (pp. 60-73)

      This discussion considers some longstanding Afghan attitudes about women’s nature and capacity for social action, as reflected in proverbs and traditional tales.¹ Contemporary Afghan activist women must confront and work with or around such attitudes in carving out a role for themselves in post-9/11 Afghanistan. To present ways they do so, I examine examples from women’s personal experience narratives: interviews with women teachers, an activist’s post-9/11 autobiographical narrative, and published quotations of women and girls from topically centered journalists’ interviews. Although all three varieties of narrative may predate 9/11 in various forms, as personal memories and as community oral history,...

    • CHAPTER 3 Centuries of Threat, Centuries of Resistance: The Lessons of Afghan Women’s Resilience
      (pp. 74-89)

      Throughout the history of Afghanistan, Afghan women have faced seemingly endless threats to their survival. These perils date well before the particularly shocking country-wide oppression of the Taliban that began in 1996 and brought Afghan women to the forefront of international interest. The dangers for Afghan women result from centuries of gender oppression based on conservative interpretations of Islam and Afghan tribal and ethnic customs, particularly Pashtunwali, an unwritten cultural code of conduct that, among other things, assigns women to a life largely isolated from the world outside their homes and essentially under the control of the men in their...

    • CHAPTER 4 Don’t Say What, Who, and When, Say How: Community Development and Women
      (pp. 90-102)

      Non-governmental organizations deal constantly with non-literate populations throughout the world but are not always successful in implementing their projects. Often this is because they fail to recognize the dichotomy between the abstract world and the practical visions of indigenous people.

      In Afghanistan, according to a report published by Matt Waldman, far too much aid has been prescriptive and driven by donor priority rather than responsive to evident Afghan needs and preferences.¹ Too many projects are designed to deliver rapid, visible results rather than to achieve sustainable poverty reduction or capacity-building objectives.

      In his study of the Soviet psychologist, A. R....

    • CHAPTER 5 Afghanistan Blues: Seeing Beyond the Burqa on YouTube
      (pp. 103-116)

      As the “good war” in Afghanistan began to unravel in 2006 with a resurgent Taliban, American media again focused attention on Afghan women. Images of women bundled in shapelessburqasreappeared in mainstream media, this time signifying the failed “liberation” promised by the West in its 2001 invasion. One of the most widely viewed was “Lifting the Veil,” a television documentary that aired on CNN in September 2007. Produced and reported by Pakistani filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, the documentary probes the lives, and especially the bodies, of several Afghan women whose condition has not improved in the six years since Western...


    • CHAPTER 6 Women’s Political Presence: A Path to Promoting Gender Interests?
      (pp. 119-127)

      Afghanistan ranks in the world’s top twenty countries for numbers of women in parliament.¹ In theWolesi Jirga(Lower House) alone, women hold sixty-eight seats, comprising 27 percent of the plenary—partly due to a reserved seat system established during the Bonn Process.² This is a considerable milestone in the struggle for equal opportunities in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, although political space has been created for women in parliament, the question remains as to how this space is being used.

      The benefits and shortcomings of reserving seats for women in legislative bodies are continually debated. The positive effects of this kind of...

    • CHAPTER 7 Voices of Parliamentarians: Four Women MPs Share Their Thoughts
      (pp. 128-139)

      Four female members of the Afghan parliament from across the country were invited to write about their experiences in government and/or to address the possibilities and impediments for women in political office.

      In 2004, Massouda Jalal campaigned for the presidency, the first female candidate in Afghanistan’s history, in the first elections since before the 1979 Soviet invasion.¹ Parliamentarians Fawzia Koofi and Azita Rafat have labored on various fronts by advancing laws and policies—as guaranteed in the constitution—to improve the status of Afghan women and Afghan society. In 2007, Malalai Joya was suspended from parliament on the grounds that...

    • CHAPTER 8 Nothing Left to Lose: Women in Prison
      (pp. 140-153)

      The taxi driver attempts to drop my Afghan interpreter and me off at Badam Bagh Central Prison for Women Offenders, but the prison guards wave us off repeatedly, shouting that we are not allowed to stop at the entrance. Guards and police are on the front lines of suicide bombings, which are increasing in Kabul, so they are naturally terrified of explosions and view every passerby with suspicion. It is March 2009.¹

      When we are at last allowed to get out at the gate, the guard squints at my prison admission letter. “You look OK,” he says, and gives us...

    • CHAPTER 9 Selling Sex in Afghanistan: Portraits of Sex Workers in Kabul
      (pp. 154-161)

      Aisha was eleven when she was molested by a man with no legs. He paid her five dollars. She was forced into sex work in one of the world’s poorest and most conservative countries, where the penalty can be death.¹

      A dangerously taboo subject in Afghanistan, sex work is strictly forbidden, and many Afghans claim it is only an imported foreign vice, practiced by women brought into the country to serve Western men. Punished as adultery in the Afghan Penal Code,² sex workers can face five to fifteen years in prison. Convicted adulterers have been subjected to lashing or stoned...

    • CHAPTER 10 Between Choice and Force: Marriage Practices in Afghanistan
      (pp. 162-176)

      This chapter presents findings from a research project conducted by the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit on Family Dynamics and Family Violence in Afghanistan.¹ Data for this study, which are purely qualitative in nature, were collected in both rural and urban areas of four provinces of Afghanistan: Bamiyan, Herat, Kabul, and Nangarhar in 2006 and 2007. The findings presented here relate to one aspect of this study: how decisions are made about marriages and how marriage is practiced. The research has been concerned with both actual events and respondents’ opinions on how marriage should be and is practiced in their...


    • CHAPTER 11 The Hidden War against Women: Health Care in Afghanistan
      (pp. 179-187)

      Afghanistan has the second-highest maternal mortality rate in the world, with 165 women dying for every 1,000 live births. One woman dies every twenty-nine minutes in child birth. Access to reproductive health care is minimal. One in five children dies before the age of five.¹

      Health care—along with sufficient good food and a healthy environment—should be a social service to which every human being is entitled. Not having an active war in a country is not the only measure of security. Without proper health care, especially for women, human security and peace are unattainable. Among sickly populations, every...

    • CHAPTER 12 Challenges to Cripple the Spirit: A Midwife’s Experiences
      (pp. 188-199)

      In the spring of 2005, three and a half years after the fall of the Taliban, I had an opportunity to travel to Afghanistan as a midwife working with a human rights organization.¹ The country was experiencing its first break in violence after decades of war, and although there was a very cautious optimism in the air, the challenges involved in rebuilding on every level were abundantly clear. I had been drawn there to try to aid in some way with the enormous obstacles facing child-bearing women—obstacles that contribute to some of the highest levels of maternal mortality that...

    • CHAPTER 13 Women with Disabilities: Recollections from Across the Decades
      (pp. 200-211)

      Nearly every problem Afghan women face in their lives—poverty, widowhood, lack of livelihood, spousal abuse, lack of education, high maternal and infant death rates—has been reported extensively, but, to my knowledge, the challenges faced by Afghan women with physical disabilities and the treatment facilities available to them have not been widely reported. A 2004 countrywide National Disability Survey of Afghanistan, conducted by the United Nations to enable intelligent planning for physical rehabilitation programs, found that an average of 2.7 percent of Afghans are disabled, of which fewer than half (1.1 percent) are female.¹ The number of these Afghan...

    • CHAPTER 14 A Question of Access: Women and Food Security
      (pp. 212-228)

      This is probably not the first chapter a reader will flip to in her desire to learn more about the experiences of women in Afghanistan. Most people think of food security, when they think of it at all, as either a dry discussion of nutritional measures and market price indices or an apparently obvious cut-and-dried analysis—either you have enough food or you do not. The linkages between women and food security also may at first appear obvious: women are often the primary cooks and main caregivers in a household, and evidence shows that women in many contexts dedicate a...

    • CHAPTER 15 Psychological Impacts of War: Human Rights and Mental Health
      (pp. 229-244)

      Three decades of war and conflict have left at least two generations of Afghan women with emotional scars and severe psychological traumas. This intergenerational trauma is a bitter reality. In addition to negative consequences of long-lasting war and conflict, severe human rights abuses have exacerbated Afghan women’s psychological and physical well-being. Eighty percent of Afghan women live in rural areas and have a life expectancy of between forty-two and forty-four years.

      Afghan women historically have been strong pillars of society. Yet Afghanistan has a long history of women’s oppression. Cultural and traditional rules have prevented them from asserting independence or...


    • CHAPTER 16 Mending Afghanistan Stitch: How Traditional Crafts and Social Organization Advance Afghan Women
      (pp. 247-261)

      When Ghulam Sakhi Rustamkhan—Sakhi—contacted me in 2000, he was a refugee in Lahore, Pakistan, desperately seeking a way to improve the lives of his immediate and extended family. Sakhi and I had been students together in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, in the early 1980s but had lost contact in the intervening years. When he approached me all these years later, his family was living in appalling conditions in Lahore’s slums, along with other Afghan refugees from their home region.¹

      As a scholar, textile artist, and teacher, I decided to create a sustainable, grassroots enterprise focused on traditional textile techniques, local...

    • CHAPTER 17 Rural Women’s Livelihood: Their Position in the Agrarian Economy
      (pp. 262-275)

      Much of the writing about Afghan women over the last twenty years has emphasized their condition, portraying it in two ways. First, it has been described in absolute terms making reference to international indices of women’s well-being (related to health, education, etc.) on which counts Afghan women undeniably score extremely poorly. Second, attention has been drawn, and again with good reason, to the relative and poor position of women (in relation to men) with respect to their rights, social participation, and exposure to violence. Afghanistan is a patriarchal society and the levels of gender inequality are profound.

      But to focus...

    • CHAPTER 18 Chadari Politics: Translating Perceptions into Policy and Practice
      (pp. 276-292)

      Women’s rights and roles have been an ongoing part of political processes throughout Afghan history, from fueling conflict to “liberation.” Afghan women recognize their political roles, and yet, from the perspective of those outside, they remain bound by a pervasive symbol that has also taken on a political role: thechadari. Images of women enveloped in blue chadaris played a significant role in instigating calls for liberation and in providing the moral backbone for the subsequent “war on terror.”

      Unfortunately, it is not unusual for any act of veiling to be misconstrued as a denial of women’s agency. Afghanistan is...

    • CHAPTER 19 When the Picture Does Not Fit the Frame: Engaging Afghan Men in Women’s Empowerment
      (pp. 293-306)

      Throughout Afghanistan’s history, reforms aimed at improving the status of Afghan women have caused political tensions and backlash. In the 1920s, King Amanullah’s efforts to advance women’s standing in the family and society sparked opposition by traditional forces and led to his abdication of the throne. The reforms initiated by the pro-Soviet regimes of the 1980s ignited violent opposition. As in the past, claims were made that the reforms were un-Islamic, corrupting Afghan women, and incongruent with Afghan culture. Undoing these reforms and “authenticizing” Afghan women served as the ideological claims of the Mujahedin and the Taliban.

      In contrast, an...


    • CHAPTER 20 Empowering Women through Education: Recipe for Success
      (pp. 309-320)

      Afghan women are among the most oppressed groups of women in the world, but, through education, they are gaining new freedoms in Afghan society. They are learning to read and write and to express themselves. They are learning skills that allow them to support their families and discovering how to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Most important, Afghan women are learning about their rights under Islam and under generally accepted human rights principles. They are finding new respect for themselves and a greater confidence in what they can do. As a result, how they are viewed and how they are treated...

    • CHAPTER 21 From Both Sides of the Mic: Women and the Media
      (pp. 321-332)

      In a country emerging from years of political, social, and cultural isolation, where links to the external world were deliberately broken, the media, particularly radio and television, have become essential. They fill a three-decades-old vacuum, spreading information and ideas otherwise inaccessible.

      The decades of war destroyed Afghanistan’s most precious resource—education—resulting in a generation of youth with inadequate skills. Social and cultural interactions that exchange knowledge and generate fresh concepts through discussions or shared literature also ended during the wars. Traditional store houses of knowledge passed on within communities were disrupted as families were displaced. Re-creating all these avenues...

    • CHAPTER 22 Painting Their Way into the Public World: Women and the Visual Arts
      (pp. 333-341)

      In 2008, the first Women’s Arts and Modern Painting Exhibition was held in Kabul, organized by the Center for Contemporary Arts Afghanistan. For the first time in Afghan history, the public crowded into a small gallery during the harsh Kabul winter to view the work of Afghan women artists. The artists, aged between sixteen and twenty-five, had created a collection that burst away from any semblance of tradition and that the curator, Rahraw Omarzad—a passionate advocate of contemporary art and veteran of Kabul’s turbulent art scene since the 1970s—described to me as “symbolically expressing their experiences from life...

    • CHAPTER 23 A Hidden Discourse: Afghanistan’s Women Poets
      (pp. 342-354)

      Poetry is a slippery thing. It enables the poet to express her innermost thoughts while hiding behind layers of convention and meta phor. It reveals even as it conceals, and the poet must maintain a delicate tension between these two acts. That tension is all the more delicate in the case of Afghan women, for whom abiding by traditional distinctions between appropriate behavior in public and private carries dramatically higher stakes than it does for men. It can be particularly risky for women to stand somewhat apart from society and speak its unspoken truths—such as the reality of romantic...


    • CHAPTER 24 Hopes and Dreams: Interviews with Young Afghans
      (pp. 357-366)

      EDITORS’ NOTE: It is appropriate that young people should be given the last word. We conclude with excerpts from interviews conducted by Amina Kator in the summer of 2009. The interviews took place in the Chilsitoon, Mekroyan, Salang, and Shari-Naw areas of Kabul, and the interviewees come from various backgrounds.

      Some of the women gathered at the home of a friend, Kator wrote, and “we drank tea and had light-hearted conversations initially and after several hours of talking, we bonded. We talked about the latest movies and the good Bollywood actors. The next day, the women felt comfortable talking to...

  11. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 367-370)
  12. About the Contributors
    (pp. 371-378)
  13. Index
    (pp. 379-393)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 394-394)