At home and abroad, Afghan women have been portrayed as weak and voiceless victims of violence. Despite this one-dimensional portrayal, in every corner of the country there are strong women fighting for their rights. In fact, as an Afghan woman, I believe that we have survived the decades of war and tremendous obstacles because we are strong—not because we needed rescuing.
Being a woman in Afghanistan requires courage. Afghan women face obstacles—familial, economic and social—but continue to live their lives with hope and work hard. From women who work tirelessly on agricultural fields in rural areas to urban women who take risks to go to work or school, every Afghan woman is a symbol of courage and resilience. In our patriarchal society, women are rarely credited for the work they do. (Usually our work is not even considered work—for example, women working in agricultural field are rarely acknowledged or paid.) The fact that Afghan women continue get up and work every day without gratitude or attribution is a testimony to our resilience. Every morning when we leave our homes, we don’t know if we will return, but we are not the “weak willows who tremble with winds” and quit. The obstacles we face have made us stronger.
Most Afghan women have faced discrimination, violence, poverty and cultural barriers from childhood that seek to stop them in their fight for progress and equality. Patriarchal views have led to the creation of constructs such as “honor” to further silence and marginalize women, and they face misogyny and discrimination while having few support systems. In a society where patriarchy is the de facto law, women who stand up for their rights are mocked, insulted and ostracized—if not killed. Even today, cleric often call women “half-brained” and many think that real or perceived physical differences between women and men make women inferior and weak.
How fascinating and convenient it is that for centuries Afghan society has created disproportionate obstacles and used violence to prevent women’s progress, yet folks around the world still see women in Afghanistan as weak and unable to wage their own fights or define their own rights. If a large number of Afghan women are unable to study, work and reach their full potential, it is not because they are weak. It is because our society has placed in their ways the largest roadblocks.
My grandfather prevented my mother from going to school because he was against educating girls. As a result my mother often felt lacking. I remember her telling me that she felt blind because she can’t read and write. Even though we must continue the fight for girls’ education in areas like Afghanistan, illiteracy does not mean helplessness.
It was possible that because she had never had the chance to get an education, my mother would not understand its importance and prevent me from going to school—but instead, all my life, my mother advocated for my right to be educated. It was her hard work and my father’s support that ensured my siblings and I went to school. Throughout my childhood and adolescence, my mother insisted on doing household chores by herself so that my sisters and I could focus on our studies and pass our exams. When our family was struggling economically, my mother used to iron men’s suits and clean pistachios in exchange for measly salaries just to buy us school uniforms and shoes.
My mother is extraordinary, but her story is not exceptional. Many Afghan mothers have sacrificed everything they had to ensure a better future for their daughters. Even though the majority of women in my mother’s generation never became literate because of war and discrimination, they are staunch advocates for the education of their daughters.
There is no doubt that if my mother and women like her had been given the chance to learn and participate in the society, economy and government, Afghanistan would be a different nation. Experiences of women’s participation from Rwanda to Bosnia to Tunisia show that when women are actively engaged in society, peace is more sustainable and communities move forward.
Afghanistan is no different. Afghan women are no different. What we need from the rest of the world—and our own country—is the opportunity to participate in bringing about change.