Pencils and Bullets Women’s Rights in Afghanistan

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On March 19, 2015, two days before Afghan New Year’s, 27-year-old Farkhunda Malikzada stopped by the Shah-e-Du Shamshira shrine, in Kabul, Afghanistan, to say her prayers. She got into an argument with the shrine keeper about his practice of selling charms, little scraps of paper with verses from the Quran. In retaliation, he falsely accuses her of being an American and burning a copy of the Quran. An angry crowd gathers, instantly believing the words of the shrine keeper. She is then brutally beaten with sticks, stones, and even run over with a car that drags her down the dusty streets.

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The agitated men then set her body on fire, leaving her family a charred body to mourn. Men and children watched from the sidelines, taking video and yelling “Long Live Islam” with their fists in the air. The police stood by, only intervening after Farkhunda’s body was on fire to ensure the safety of the spectators. Two days after her death, the Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs declared that there was no evidence proving that Farkhunda burned a Quran (Kargar 2015). With terrible conditions such as limited economic opportunities, lack of education, violence, and corruption, Afghanistan has become the worst country for a woman to live.

Rigid cultures, patriarchal attitudes, and Islamic traditions have shaped the behavior of women and determined their place in society. Before the Taliban regime (1996-2001), Afghan women could participate in political, social, and work life without any complications. In 1919, women were given the right to vote (“The Fight For Women’s Voting Rights” 2016). In the 1970’s, women even began dressing in Western clothing. When the Soviet Union invaded in December 1979, violence and destruction led the majority of the male population to fight on the battleground, causing a drastic increase in women’s participation in jobs (Lukanovich 2008). Women’s rights quickly withered after the Soviet Union left in 1989. The violent power struggle that erupted led to a state of chaos that ended when the Taliban took control in 1996. The Taliban, which means “student of Islam” in Arabic, implemented a strict interpretation of Sharia law, Islamic law, which prohibited anything they deemed sinful. Women were banned from going to school, working, leaving the house without a male relative (mahram), and had to wear a head-to-toe burqa in public (MacNeill n.d.). If a woman was spotted outside without being covered from head to foot, she would be publicly beaten. This mandate complicated matters for women without any male relatives or poor women who were incapable of buying a burqa.

I am Malala is about Malala Yousafzai’s defiance against the Taliban in Pakistan and her experience fighting for women’s rights to an education. In Afghanistan, only 47% of the population, including 15% of women, can read and write (Population Reference Bureau 2000). The story begins on October 9, 2012, when a teenaged Malala is late to school because she stayed up the night before studying for her year-end exam in Pakistani studies. On the bus ride back home, two men in white robes stepped into the bus. One young man jumped onto the tailboard and peered inside, where all the girls were sitting. “Who is Malala?” he asked, before shooting Malala in the head. Instead of cowering in fear of another attack, Malala decided to use her fame to make her message heard. Due to rigid cultural beliefs, many armed groups have closed or even, in some cases, burned girl’s schools to restrict the availability of education for girls. From 2007-2008, more than 673 schools were closed, 453 of which remain closed today (United Nations 2011).

Malala was fortunate because her father, Ziauddin, is a defender for women’s rights and principal of Khushal School, where Malala studies. After a devastating earthquake in the Swat Valley, mullahs warned that Swat Valley was under God’s judgment. The mullahs called for the implementation of Sharia Law, claiming that “women’s freedom and obscenity” had insulted Allah. Not only did the mullahs interfere in the right to an education, one mullah created a radio station where he encouraged parents to refuse polio vaccinations for their children because it “was a ploy by Western countries to harm Muslim children” (Yousafzai & McCormick 2014).

Ziauddin was asked by a friend who worked at the BBC to find someone to write a diary about life under the Taliban. Malala offered to write the diaries, where she described the fear and tension living under Fazlullah’s regime. After her identity was discovered, she began receiving more requests for speeches and interviews, to express her opinions as an advocate for women’s rights. After Malala was shot, she was transferred to Birmingham for better medical resources, where she made a miraculous recovery. Even after facing death, Malala pursued her fight for education by creating the Malala Fund and plans on continuing until every girl is able to go to school. In A Woman Among Warlords, Malalai Joya recounts her family’s struggle against Islamic fundamentalists and corrupt foreign occupation. Joya was born in the small village of Ziken, in the Anardara district of western Afghanistan, on April 25, 1978. She was the second born of ten children, and the eldest of seven daughters. Three days after her birth, the Soviet Union invaded and her family moved to Farah City, in the providence of Farah. Her father was a strong supporter of democracy and human rights, no matter how dangerous the situations became. Furthermore, Joya details the everyday life of women and the inhuman conditions they face as a part of life. Her purpose in writing the book is to correct the tremendous amount of misinformation being spread about Afghanistan. She would like to show that Afghans are capable of defending their own independence, governing themselves, and determining their own future without “help” from the U.S./NATO forces. When she was fourteen, she began teaching basic literacy to adults and classes for children, in order to make ends meet for her family. These experiences in the refugee camps taught Joya the power of education and changed her perception of the world, which would influence her view on politics later.

After finishing grade twelve, she joined the Organization for Promoting Afghan Women’s Capabilities (OPAWC) as a full-time social activist. She was sent to Herat to start undercover classes there for girls, in defiance to the Taliban’s edicts. In the book, she also revealed the pivotal role the United States played on the attack in Herat and the politics of Afghanistan. At the end of her book, she outlined the policy changes we must make to actually help Afghanistan. (Joya 2011) In I Am Malala and A Woman Among Warlords, Malalai of Mainwand, an infamous patriotic freedom fighter during the Second Anglo-Afghan War, was mentioned as a role model for Afghans. In 1880, she went to the front lines to tend to the wounded soldiers during a battle against the British colonial forces in Maiwand. She took over a fallen soldier who was holding the flag and encouraging the Afghan fighters with poetic words of motivation. She declared, “Young love! If you do not fall in the battle of Maiwand then By God, someone is saving you as a symbol of shame” (Joya 2011)! Yousafzai and Joya both looked up to Malalai of Maiwand because of her courage to fight for what is right, no matter the consequences. This led to both authors deciding to stand up for what they believe in, whether it is the right to an education or unveiling the corruption in the Afghan government.

In Afghanistan, a young girls’ marriage is handled entirely by the groom’s and bride’s parents. In most cases, the girl had no right to choose her own husband or look at their face before marriage. Before the bride’s father agreed to the engagement, both parties would agree on a marriage price based on the family reputation, education, age, beauty, and bride prices within the area. Since there are limited entertainment options, Afghans take wedding planning very seriously. Wedding halls are typically split between women and men, so girls can take off their hijabs and dance without fear of male presence. There is a tradition in the wedding ceremony when a green shawl is placed over the couple and are given a mirror to see each other’s reflection. In the past, this would be the first time the bride would set eyes on the groom. It can be very difficult for a woman to get a divorce, even if the problems are the man’s fault, because of the warped perspective that the woman is always to blame. Even if the woman successfully obtains a divorce, she is still shunned from her community because she is considered “impure” or damaged because she couldn’t save her marriage. If a boy was born into a family, guns were fired in the air and everyone congratulated the couple, but if a girl was born, no one celebrates (Yousafzai & McCormick, 2014).

A mother who gives birth to a girl is faced with death, humiliation, and threats because of the financial hardship and social stigma brought by a daughter. Historically, Afghan culture has always been extremely patriarchal because men are seen as future breadwinners; inheritors of the family name. Based on Sharia law, when no other son is present, the maximum amount women can inherit is only half of their family’s income. After marriage, women cannot return to visit their own family, except with their husband’s permission (Sharidzada & Sadid 2006).

Under the Taliban, male doctors were only allowed to touch female patients above their clothing. The lifespan for an Afghan woman is about 52 years, which is considered middle age in the United States. The most pressing issue regarding healthcare is during pregnancy and childbirth. An estimated half a million Afghan women die in childbirth every year as a result of poor healthcare and the large number of pregnant women. 20% of women are malnourished, which results in premature delivery of their child. 396 out of 100,000 babies do not survive and at least 1 in 10 children will die before their fifth birthday(McCartney 2018). During the Taliban regime, women were forbidden from going to school, therefore inhibiting training for female doctors or nurses. Even if health services are nearby, lack of money for treatment denies access to proper healthcare. Women in Afghanistan face the threat of multiple forms of violence including beatings, mutilation, acid disfiguration, child marriage, and rape. Many of these incidents are never reported by the victims because they fear the perpetrator would kill them or their family (Nordland &Faizi 2017).

If it became public, their family members might, out of shame, commit an “honor killing” against her (Nordland 2014). An “honor killing” is the murder of women for allegedly dishonoring the family, such as secretly eloping with other men or committing adultery. Honor killings are based on ancient patriarchal and fundamentalist traditions, which some governments support by giving light sentences. There is more shame attached to the rape victims rather than the perpetrators. In February 2017, 18-year-old Fateha was detained with Hedayatullah, her lover, in the Wama district after attempting to run away together (Bashir & Bezhan 2017). A mob, which included Fateha’s husband, father, and brothers, infiltrated the police station and dragged Fateha and Hedayatullah outside, where they were brutally beaten and ultimately shot (Bashir & Bezhan 2017).

Family disputes are sometimes resolved by the suspected rapist being married off the victim. The practice of marrying a girl off to solve disputes is called “baad” and is often used to clear any crimes or debt. Joya explains that if a cash crop fails, small farmers are “often forced to pay back loans by selling their daughters–known as ‘opium brides’ into marriage to the warlords and opium lords” (Joya 2011). According to the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commision (AIHRC), “38% of women have been wedded off against their will and consent, and more than 50% of women have mentioned that they are not happy with their family life” (AIHRC 2009). The constant fear of violence forces women into submission and if they try to make their own choices, they are punished severely. With conditions such as limited economic opportunities, violence, and corruption, Afghanistan has become the worst country for a woman to live. The future of the women in Afghanistan remains uncertain. For instance, the president, Hamid Karzai, signed a law that states, “Women to obey their husbands sexual demands and stipulates that a man can expect to have sex with his wife at least ‘once every four nights while traveling” (Vafai 2009).

This law legalizes rape in marriage. Both I Am Malala and A Woman Among Warlords, give insight into the struggles that women face in Afghanistan. Yousafzai and Joya were influenced by Malalai of Maiwand’s bravery and sacrifice in the war, which led to their decision to fight for their fundamental rights: education and speech. Both books provide a detailed story of how Yousafzai and Joya fought for their fundamental rights: education and speech. I Am Malala and A Woman Among Warlords are two novels that truly reflect how women’s rights have been diminished by patriarchal, misogynistic views over time.

Works Cited

  1. Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC). “Evaluation report on General Situation of Women in Afghanistan.” reliefWeb, 2006, Accessed 12 November 2018.
  2. Bezhan, Frud and Malali Bashir. “Young Afghan Lovers Lynched By Armed Mob In Latest Horrific ‘Honor’ Killing.” Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, 16 Feb. 2017, Accessed 12 November 2018.
  3. Collymore, Yvette. “Afghan Women and Men Far Apart in Literacy.” Population Reference Bureau, Accessed 14 November 2018.
  4. “Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.” United Nations, 21 Dec. 2011, Accessed 13 November 2018.
  5. Joya, Malalai, and Derrick O’Keefe. A Woman Among Warlords: The Extraordinary Story of an Afghan Who Dared to Raise Her Voice. Scribner, 2011.
  6. Kargar, Zarghuna. “Farkhunda: The Making of a Martyr.” BBC News, 11 August 2015, Accessed 12 November 2018.
  7. Lukanovic, J. N. “Women in Afghanistan – Before and After the Taliban.” Forget the Spin, 7 Nov. 2008, Accessed 12 November 2018.
  8. MacNeill, Arianna. “Status of Women During Taliban Rule.” Mount Holyoke College, Accessed 13 November 218.
  9. McCartney, Julia. “Further Improvements to Women’s Healthcare in Afghanistan.” The Borgen Project, 19 February 2018, Accessed 14 November 2018.
  10. Niaz, U. “Violence Against Women in South Asian Countries.” Archives of Women’s Mental Health, vol. 6, 2003, pp. 173-184, DOI: 10.1007/s00737-003-0171-9.
  11. Nordland, Rob. “In Spite of the Law, Afghan ‘Honor Killings’ of Women Continue.” The New York Times, 3 May 2014, Accessed 12 November 2018.
  12. Nordland, Rod and Fatima Faizi. “Harassment All Around, Afghan Women Weigh Risks of Speaking Out.” The New York Times, 10 Dec. 2017, Accessed 12 November 2018.
  13. Sharidzada, J. Mohammed and Lailuma Sadid. “Afghanistan – Mothers Pay Price for Bearing Girls.” WUNRN, 2006, Accessed 14 November 2018.
  14. “The Fight For Women’s Voting Rights.” Central Asian Institute, 7 November 2016, Accessed 12 November 2018.
  15. Vafai, Gholam. “Afghanistan: New Law Places Restrictions on Women.” The Law Library Of Congress, 12 June 2009, Accessed 14 November 2018.
  16. Yousafzai, Malala, and Patricia McCormick. I Am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World. Thorndike Press, 2014.
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Pencils and Bullets Women’s Rights in Afghanistan. (2019, Jul 02). Retrieved from