Has the American intervention in Afghanistan led to an improvement of women’s rights?

In mid-90s, reports shed light on women’s plight under the Taliban rule in Afghanistan and it quickly became a worldwide discussed issue. Taliban’s rule has been hugely detrimental to women’s situation, as all their basic rights were being denied, such as health care, access to education, right to vote, freedom of speech and circulation, amongst many others. However, did the American “War on Terror” really enabled women to gain some equality in the country? Did it leave a beneficial impact on the society in terms of women’s rights?


The pre-Russian invasion
That Afghanistan was not always an oppressive state for women has to be reminded.

Before 1979, when Russia invaded Afghanistan, women’s rights in the country were steadily becoming more and more assured and protected. They obtained the right to vote in 1919, more than twenty years before French women did. In the 1950s, “Purdah”, a religious and social practice which secluded women from most of men’s activities, was abolished; in the 1960s, the new Constitution put a strong emphasis on establishing equality between genders. Women were able to pursue professional careers in which men constituted previously the sole workforce, such as the medicine field.

 In 1973, as the State was declared a Republic, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan took over and aimed at further modernizing the society by encouraging girls’ education and passing new marriage and health laws. In 1977, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan was created by Meena Keshwar Kamal and is still active in the country and in Pakistan despite its leader being assassinated in 1987.

The impact of the Soviet Union occupation on women’s rights in Afghanistan
Still, though the society was getting more and more progressive, opposition to women’s rights was also getting stronger, mainly for religious and cultural related reasons. While the Soviet Union occupation did not move backward on women’s rights, women became severely punished and repressed in all expressions of opposition, which unfortunately only fueled and strengthened opponent’s’ convictions and resentments.

Six months after the Soviet invasion, rebellious groups known as Mujahadeen (“Soldiers of God”) began meeting and joining forces. Ironically enough, they were quickly assisted and helped by the United States, as CIA officials provided weapons and training in order to help the so-called “freedom fighters”. One of the most prominent warlord, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, was known for his extremist and violent tendencies towards women, and in particular his habit of throwing acid to women’s faces if they refused to wear the veil – which didn’t prevent him from receiving most of the CIA funding. During the 1980s, and as the resistance grew, Mujahadeen’s funding, coming from all sort of international sources, expanded as well: in 1989, it was estimated to be more than 1 billion of dollars.

After the Soviet’s withdrawal in 1989, the Mujahadeen gained power and finally came to be at the head of the regime by tooking over Kabul in 1992. The laws they implemented were extreme and violently oppressive: drinking alcohol or refusing to wear the veil could lead to amputation or even the death penalty. In 1996, they were in control of all of Afghanistan and known as the Taliban.

The defense of women’s rights as the rhetoric behind armed interventions
Women in Afghanistan were the main victims of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, as it led to religious extremists gaining control of the country and going back on all the progresses made in the past decades.
Defending women’s rights is often invoked by governments as a reason for violating other countries’ sovereignty: the United States were no exception to the rule when they argued that their fight against the Taliban, right after the 09/11/2001 was largely motivated by their will to help oppressed women.  Previous US secretary of State Colin Powel, for instance, declared that “the recovery of Afghanistan must entail a restoration of the rights of Afghan women, indeed, it will not be possible without them”.

A positive impact?
By the end of 2001, as the Taliban were ousted from power by the international coalition led by the United States, a new government was formed. The Karzai administration was more lenient and granted more rights to women: they were for instance allowed to drive. A new Constitution set in 2003 proclaimed that women’s rights had to be respected. In 2009, Afghanistan also adopted the Elimination of Violence Against Women law, which aimed at fighting domestic violence and the cultural and religious perceptions that favor a context of overall violence against women.

 One huge improvement resides in education: women, particularly in cities, have far more access to education than before the US intervention. Many schools for girls are partly funded by American programs. 

Nonetheless, women’s rights are far from being assured in the country: a “code of conduct” was also introduced in 2012: largely decried by feminist organizations, it states that women have to respect and obey rules of behaviors, such as going out only if accompanied by a male “guardian”. Many NGOs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have also decried the Elimination of Violence Against Women law, stating that it was far too “weak” to enable progress and a shift of mentality.

Though women’s situation has partly improved in cities, women living in rural areas still greatly suffer from unequal treatments, while the Taliban and other extremist groups still control some parts of the country. In 2011, Afghanistan was named the “most dangerous country to be a woman” by an international poll of experts on gender issues.


Léa Guinet, Research Assistant at CIPADH



Sonali Kolhatkar, "The impact of US intervention on Afghan Women's Rights", Berkeley Journal of Gender, Law and Justice, volume 17, september 2013. Available online: http://scholarship.law.berkeley.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1176&con...

Julie Lévesque, "From Afghanistan to Syria: women's rights, war propaganda and the CIA", Global Research, 16 march 2016. Available online: http://www.globalresearch.ca/from-afghanistan-to-syria-womens-rights-war...