By Chayanika Saxena*
Ravaged by series of violent struggles that grew out of a combination of internal pressures and external aggressions, Afghanistan of today finds itself perched — rather unenviably — in the list of the ‘most dangerous places on earth’. The recent spate of terror attacks unleashed throughout the country has accented this perception even more, and not only among the international audience but within the domestic circles too. The ‘progress’ that was made by this nation in the last one decade is gradually receding as its economy tumbles and the political circumstances show little signs of peace, stability and hope.
In these circumstances where the going is already tough, the tougher get going, particularly for women in Afghanistan who find themselves not only at the receiving end of events extraordinaire like war, but also of the daily struggles that are set up for them by the forces of patriarchy. That ‘war’ like every other aspect of our lives unfolds itself in the backdrop of patriarchy is not unknown, but such is the pervasiveness of the patriarchal imprints that their omnipresence makes us lose sight of the finer ways in which they get manifested.
From the daily harassment on the streets, to being deprived of education, to getting widowed and orphaned in wars, women and girl children have faced many gory implications of the struggles in Afghanistan. Here we are not even discussing the kinds of sexual predations that women (and children) have to suffer when anarchy is writ large! Such (and many more) have been the implications of decades-long war on the women of that country that had given them the right to vote as early as in 1919.
The cities of Afghanistan, if not its hinterland, were sites of progress for its women – that was little seen in any of the developing countries throughout the world. Perhaps barring India that had enshrined (and practiced) equality of genders from the beginning, Kabul — which was the seat of central power in Afghanistan, was a place from where images of smart and stylish university going, workingwomen would emerge. But, with the series of conflicts that unfolded, beginning with the Soviet invasion, all these sightings became rarer and were in fact, made to eclipse from the scene as the Taliban took over (almost) the whole of Afghanistan by 1996. Flogging of women publicly around the chowks (crossings) replaced the images of women sitting in the city of gardens (Kabul); the blue burqas became synonymous with the women of Afghanistan.
The US invasion of Afghanistan, although mired in its own set of controversies, nevertheless marked a discontinuation (if not the end) of such extreme gender discrimination. Since 2001, it has been believed that the women of Afghanistan have once again begun to trickle back into the public domain — and not only as an audience that wants to matter, but also as agents that want to make this ‘mattering’ matter!
Even as Afghanistan continues to stumble on the remnants of war — be it the resurgent Taliban, or the intense patriarchal hierarchies that continue to inform public and private aspects of life alike, women of this country are trying to carve out a space for themselves as signs of resistance against the seemingly incessant rule of chaos and male supremacy. They want to be equal partners in progress and rightly so. From politicians to street artists; air force pilots to taxi drivers, women in the cities of Afghanistan are slowly mounting their crusade against those practices that had them reduced to the status of second class citizens in a country that was amongst the first in the world to grant them the right to vote.
These enclaves of resistance are now surfacing on the swathes of a land that is still considered to be the worst place on earth for one to be a woman. Still a handful, but this rising tide of women power in Afghanistan is demonstrated in some of the instances of collective actions mentioned below.
Zanabad (Women’s Town in East Kabul)
A women’s collective that has carved out an exclusive economic and social space for itself in a country where public participation by women is still frowned upon, this particular area in the east of Kabul is dotted by female-led households. ‘Made’ into breadwinners for their families due to the vagaries of wars, these households are run by widows who have broken many taboos by earning and staying without a male ‘support’. While their economic condition is far from being decent, but the women in Zanabad have made their determination into an effective shield against a highly patriarchal society and have won scores of supporters amongst the literate classes in the town.
Scranton Restaurant Chain (Herat)
Another economic enterprise that is run exclusively by women and for women, this chain of (soon-to-be-operational) five restaurants in the western province of Afghanistan — Herat — is an exemplar of rising female entrepreneurship in this country. Funded by the Finnish embassy and the Scranton University, these restaurants exude a modest appeal but with a French Salon (of the Enlightenment era) kind of impact.
Located in a province that had once been a doyen of the literati of Persian and Afghan empires, Herat, for all the unease caused by the wars had witnessed an extensive withdrawal of women from the public space. To bring women back into the ‘mainstream’ one step at a time, these restaurants are making just the right kind of moves.
Art: Street Artists (Kabul)
Sitting between the threshold of the many mighty empires that grew on the Persian and Indian soils, Afghanistan was also covered in the folds of many cultural experiences that left an indelible mark on the world. From art to literature; poems to splendid architecture, Afghanistan has seen it all. But, the things were set to change.
With the flight of most of the Afghan intellectuals in the years of war, the country was left bereft of indigenous genius. Its institutional memory is all but bleak, with the memories from the middle and ancient past having been reduced to rumps in the wake of the war. But, it is on these very shambles that the new generation of educated Afghans are leaving their mark, and women are trying to chip in their bit too.
Banished from the scene, both art and women in Afghanistan were not to be seen for as many as three decades; but there is a revival of art on the streets, and particularly by women who with their stirring paintings want the society to know that they too exist.
It is often said that out of sight is out of mind, and such indeed became the case of women in Afghanistan who still are not out in large numbers to make their presence felt. And, it is to make them count that street painters like Zainab Haidery, Jahan Ara Rafi and Shamsia Hassani have taken to the paintbrush and are painting the city blue — with the images of blue burqa-clad women splattered on the walls of Kabul that serve as their canvas.
Calling art as a tribe-less language, they use their brush strokes to depict the ‘reality’ of Afghanistan that has its own share of good and bad, and unite people to stand up for the rights of those who had long been repressed.
Mirman Baheer (Kabul/pan-Afghanistan)
Where the educated generation of city-dwelling girls has been at the forefront of these initiatives, their uneducated, tribal compatriots are not far behind. Contributing to the cause of women’s emancipation in their own right and (permissible) might, a group of Pashtun women and girls have taken to radio as a way of expressing their angst against their abysmal present circumstances.
Organized around an all-woman literary group called Mirman Baheer, women, particularly those from the hinterlands of the country have found an outlet to convey their unease with life in a war-torn, thoroughly patriarchal country through two-line poems called landays. Similar to (a format more familiar to us) the Japanese Haikus, these landays are compiled around issues that concern the daily toils of women, along with the many perils that three-decades of war brought for them — including marital lives, unfulfilled wishes for love, American drones and the Taliban (to name a few).
Meeting every Saturday in Kabul, this group of women has provided a platform to many voices from across Afghanistan to share their stories and seek support in the extended community of women that is otherwise unavailable to them.
Represented by communities like these, women of Afghanistan have realized the need to come together and present themselves as a formidable force even in the face of countless threats. While an overnight change is neither possible nor feasible in the situations that women have to endure in this country, the steady emergence of such initiatives surely count as steps taken in the right direction.
*Chayanika Saxena is a Research Associate at the Society for Policy Studies and will be conducting her Doctoral Research on state-building in Afghanistan. She can be reached at [email protected]