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The Oppression Of Women In Afghanistan

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Female Doctors, Lawyers, Teachers:  Now Forced to Stay at Home

Woman-in-Burka in Afghanistan
All photos on this page are courtesy of A.Rafaele Ciriello

The government of Afghanistan is waging a war against women. The situation is getting so bad that one person in an editorial of the NY Times compared the treatment of women there to the treatment of Jews in pre-Holocaust Poland.

Since the Taliban took power in 1996, women have been beaten and stoned in public for not having the proper attire, even if this means simply not having the mesh covering in front of their eyes. One woman was beaten to death by an angry mob of fundamentalists for accidentally exposing her arm while she was driving. Another was stoned to death for trying to leave the country with a man who was not a relative.

Colourful yes, but happy?

Women are not allowed to work or even go out in public without a male relative. Professional women such as translators, doctors, lawyers, artists and writers have been forced from their jobs and told to stay in their homes. Depression is becoming so widespread that it has reached emergency levels. There is no way in such an extreme Islamic society to know the suicide rate with certainty. But relief workers are estimating that the suicide rate among women has increased significantly. Women who cannot find proper medication and treatment for depression, would rather take their lives than live in such conditions.

Homes where a woman is present must have their windows painted so that she can never be seen by outsiders. They must wear silent shoes so that they are never heard. Women live in fear for their lives for the slightest misbehaviour or infraction. Because they cannot work, those without male relatives or husbands are either starving to death or begging on the street—even if they hold a PhD.

Many of these women had fulfilling careers until the men of the Islamic revolution sent them home

Quick mother, hide that arm, the police are coming!!!

There are almost no medical facilities available for women. Relief workers, in protest, have mostly left the country, taking medicine and psychologists and other things necessary to treat the skyrocketing level of depression. At one of the rare hospitals for women, a reporter found still, nearly lifeless bodies lying on top of beds, unwilling to speak, eat, or do anything but slowly waste away. Others have gone mad and were seen crouched in corners, perpetually rocking or crying, most of them in fear. One doctor is considering, when what little medication remaining finally runs out, leaving these women in front of the president’s residence as a form of peaceful protest.

It is at the point where the term “human rights violations” has become an understatement. Husbands have the power of life and death over their female relatives. David Cornwell has said that those in the West should not judge the Afghan people for such treatment because it is a “cultural thing,” but this is not entirely true. Women enjoyed relative freedom, to work, dress generally as they wanted, to drive and appear in public alone until only 1996. It is not their tradition or “culture,” but is alien to them, and it is extreme even for those cultures where fundamentalism is the rule.

Oops, sorry, I didn’t see where I was going…

If we could excuse everything on cultural grounds, then we should not be appalled that the Carthaginians sacrificed their infant children, that little girls’ genitals are being cut off in parts of Africa, that blacks in the US’s deep South in the 1930s were lynched, prohibited from voting, and forced to submit to unjust apartheid laws.

Everyone has a right to a tolerable human existence, even if they are women in a Muslim country, in a part of the world that Westerners may not understand. If we can threaten military force in Kosovo in the name of human rights for the sake of ethnic Albanians, then NATO and the West can certainly express peaceful outrage at the oppression, murder and injustice committed against women by the Taliban.


UN bakeries
Men and women eating in the same room
Men looking upon an unrelated women
All sports, except soccer
Female (including foreign) drivers
Education and employment of women
Bare ankles
Western clothes
Non-Taliban radio broadcasts
Anything “un-Islamic”



The above article is a chain letter that has been floating around the Internet for years now. Obviously, someone or some group has been actively working to arouse public outrage about the Taliban’s treatment of women. In general, the awareness campaign has been quite successful.We are aware that in our modern world, there remain certain countries that have social systems that have barely changed in a thousand years. We, in the West, typically have an arrogant view that our values and social systems are the only ones that are valid. Religion and social systems evolve to allow societies to function peacefully and effectively, or in most cases, or as a mechanism to ensure power stays in the hands of a privileged few. As hard as it is to believe for North Americans, sometimes Western values or political systems don’t work well in foreign lands. In some cultures, complete democracy or freedom of speech can lead to social instability or prolonged civil and inter-tribal wars. Sometimes, a well-intentioned dictatorship and limited media freedom can help to keep a volatile nation peaceful and prosperous (for example, Singapore, S. Korea and Taiwan.) Nearly all the nations of Europe were at one point effectively dictatorships (whether ruled by kings or emperors or madmen.) Eventually, over hundreds of years, these Western dictatorships evolved towards the freer, open democracies we know and love today. Unfortunately, much of the world is poor and “uneducated” and our system simply will not work as well as we would assume.
Afghanistan is a good example of a far off part of the world that is probably unable to sustain a American-style society at this point. Maybe in 50 years, maybe more…a nation that is so broken from 35 years of war will need time to sort itself out. The Taliban swept into power in response to two great needs of the Afghan people: peace and hope. The Taliban effectively put an end to the bloody civil war, banditry and corruption that was plaguing the country after the Russians were kicked out. The Taliban also brought back their religion to a broken, desperate people looking for a purpose to their lives. In general, most Afghans were happy to see the Taliban bring law and order back to society, in spite of the executions and beatings that Islamic “sharia” law called for. As for the women of Afghanistan, many women in the Afghani villages already dressed like the women on this page and were very proud of their role as mother, wife and keeper of the house. On the other hand, in the cities, many women through the 70s and 80s had become educated and taken on wonderful careers and life was not so different from that of women in other major cities. What happened was the ultra-religious rural forces took control of the cities and the women were forced to submit to the small-town culture or leave the country. Indeed, millions have fled Afghanistan in the last 20 years.While we are careful before judging the old way of life in the Afghan villages, we remain appalled that modernized city dwellers are being forced, often at the end of a machine gun, to change back to the ancient ways overnight. And, in this scenario, it is the women of Afghanistan that are the most repressed of all in the Taliban’s new society. And we hope things get better before they get worse.

FOLLOW-UP: Let’s be very clear, the way women are being treated throughout Afghanistan under the Taliban, like under the auspices of most ancient and modern ultra-fundamentalist religious cults, is absolutely unacceptable (no education allowed?)

And on a lighter note…


Afghan Women

A famous English TV reporter, did a story on gender roles in Kabul, Afghanistan, several years before the American invasion. She noted that women customarily walked five paces behind their  husbands.

She recently returned to Kabul and observed that women still walk behind their husbands. Despite the overthrow of the oppressive Taliban regime, the women now seem happy to maintain the old custom.

The reporter approached one of the Afghani women and asked, “Why do you now seem happy with an old custom that you once tried so desperately to change? Why do you still walk behind your men?”

The woman looked the reporter straight in the eyes, and without  hesitation said, “Land mines.”

The moral of the story is (no matter what language you speak or where you go): BEHIND EVERY MAN, THERE’S A  SMART WOMAN

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2 thoughts on “The Oppression Of Women In Afghanistan

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