Remembering Afghanistan’s Revolutionary Experiment

Afghan women afghanistan

After assuming power in Kabul, the Taliban has tried to soften its extremist image. In a press conference on August 17, 2021, the group’s spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said, inter alia, that they are committed to provide women their rights in accordance with Islam and that there will be no discrimination against them. He said women could work and go to school, but their activities should be “within the framework of Sharia norms.”

Given Taliban’s past implementation of a highly sectarian variant of Deobandi Islam – with the attendant decimation of women’s civic rights in the name of the Koran – contemporary narratives of a moderate Islamism can’t be believed easily. When considering the grim realities of Afghan women, we seldom accord importance to the country’s communist years which witnessed a radical battle against the scourge of patriarchy.

In 1964, King Zahir Shah attempted to contain growing resistance against his monarchical rule with a constitution, initiating a process called “New Democracy.” This gave rise to three different political actors: (1) the communists, organized in the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), which split into two factions in 1967, Khalq (masses) and Parcham (flag); (2) the Islamists, with Burhanuddin Rabbani’s Jamiat-i-Islami becoming the main organization from 1973; (3) constitutional reformers, such as Muhammad Daoud, cousin of Zahir Shah.

The rise of PDPA encouraged the formation of feminist sectors. In 1965, six women activists created the Democratic Organization of Afghan Women (DOAW). DOAW’s main objectives were to eliminate female illiteracy, forced marriages, and bride price. In coordination with PDPA, it initiated collective struggles of women’s liberation. Women won the right to vote, study abroad and work outside home, and in the 1970s four women from DOAW were elected to Parliament.

Progressive victories were hard-fought. In April 1970, two mullahs – angered with the presence of miniskirts, women teachers, and schoolgirls – shot at the legs of women in Western dress and splashed them with acid. Among those who joined in this unconscionable action was Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (who went on to be a leading figure in the mujahedeen, one of the “freedom fighters” feted by former US President Ronald Reagan).

In October of the same year, a bicycle-riding man from Herat province, Gul Mohammad, assaulted schoolgirls and inflicted severe injuries on several of them. When he was arrested and sentenced to 18 years in prison, he said that he would do it again if he were released. The incident provoked more than 5,000 women to demonstrate in front of the Prime Ministry, the Ministry of Interior, and the Ministry of Education, shouting, “Give him back to us!”

Zahir Shah was overthrown in July 1973 by Mohammad Daoud – his cousin – and went into a long exile in Rome. While monarchy was abolished, domestic instability – caused due to theocratic elements -widespread corruption and an unwillingness to implement land reforms alienated large sections of the Afghan population.

In April 1978, the Shah of Iran convinced Daoud to turn against the communist factions in his army and administration. In response to increasingly harsh state repression, left-wing officers in the military – on the asking of the PDPA – stormed the Presidential Palace in Kabul.

The government was turned over to Noor Mohammed Taraki, a communist professor who became the President of the Revolutionary Council of Afghanistan. These developments – which were extensively supported by the USSR – came to be known as the Saur (April) Revolution. A rapid campaign of modernization was immediately initiated. In the words of the DOAW, one of the primary aims was “to free the toiling women of Afghanistan from humiliating feudalistic relations and provide for their advancement at all levels.”

Taraki passed Decree no. 6 (against land mortgage and indebtedness) and Decree no. 7 (against dowry and for regulation of mahr, payment from groom to bride as part of the Islamic marriage ceremony). On November 4, 1978, he noted that through “the issuance of Decree no. 6 and 7, the hard-working peasants were freed from the bonds of oppressors and money-lenders, ending the sale of girls for good as hereafter nobody would be entitled to sell any girl or woman in this country”.

The right of women to divorce was also introduced. Family courts (mahakem-e famili), generally presided over by female judges, provided hearing sessions for affected wives and sought to protect their rights to divorce and on related issues, such as alimony, child custody, and child support. These marriage regulations subverted patriarchal norms – embodied specifically in Pushtunwali, the tribal code of the dominant Pashtuns.

Mahr was paid to the bride’s father as compensation for the loss of his daughter’s labour in the household unit. Marriage was a way of ending disputes, forging political alliances between families, and increasing the family’s status. The establishment of a new marriage framework by the PDPA empowered women, allowing them to disobey and disregard the directives of the family and male authority.

The PDPA government embarked upon a wide-ranging literacy campaign, whose objectives were to educate women, children and men. By August 1979, 600 schools had been installed throughout the countryside. One distinctive feature of this project was its insistence on compulsory education for females. Previous reformers had made literacy a matter of choice, enabling male guardians to decide their females’ education; thus 96% of all Afghan women were illiterate.

DOAW played an important role in PDPA’s anti-patriarchal drives. By 1984, the former had organized 30,000 women in 669 politico-social units and had mobilized more than 80,000 rural women in social production. In 1990, the organization had succeeded in unifying more than 160,000 members, with 1405 working class women, 7,309 agricultural women, 62,810 housewives, and 33,764 female students.

It had 30 provincial and 33 sub-provincial committees and 29 branches in the rural areas and had created links with 152 national, regional and international organizations, including the International Democratic Women’s Federation, National Organization of African Women, Committee of the Women of the Soviet Union, as well as the women associations of India, Cuba, Vietnam, Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Turkey.

A seminal DOAW activist was Anahita Ratebzad, who joined PDPA’s Central Committee in 1976 and became minister of social welfare. On May 28, 1978, she wrote a defiant editorial in Kabul Times. “Privileges which women, by right, must have are equal education, job security, health services, and free time to rear a healthy generation for building the future of the country. Educating and enlightening women is now the subject of close government attention”.

Elsewhere, she defended the policies of her administration: “This is the first time that the issue of the protection of women’s rights as mothers and toiling citizens of Afghanistan is an agenda item for political discussion at a high official level and is included in an official platform.” The persistent pursuit of women’s rights irked the conservative forces.

In opposition to PDPA’s progressive reforms, many tribal elements went to refugee camps in Pakistan, where girls and women had very few educational opportunities and were extremely isolated. To escape these difficulties, many of them joined the Islamic Association of Afghan Women and the Um al-Muslima Organization, established by the Rabbani and Hekmatyar to uphold the sexual division of labor and the atrocious rural system of masculine honor and exchange between patriarchs.

An internal tribal-Islamist insurgency was soon launched against PDPA. Initially, it took a sporadic form, starting with the local murder of teachers and the burning of schools. The ruthless mullahs, however, were craving for large-scale bloodletting. In March 1979, an anti-communist revolt began in Herat against the government initiative to teach girls to read. PDPA administrators, women and children were rounded up, tortured, cut to pieces and their heads stuck on poles for parading around the city.

Pakistani intelligence, Saudi financing and American political backing strengthened the mujahedeen attacks. Infighting within the Left exacerbated the situation, drawing the Soviets into Afghanistan. This internationalized civil war lasted till September 26, 1996, when Taliban conquered Kabul. They did away with the communist-era decrees that empowered women and instead passed strict Islamic laws that denied women education, ordered them to cover, forbade their travel without a male relative, and punished adultery with stoning.

Women who did not properly obey the rules – either they showed a little leg, or their burkas were not made of heavy enough fabric – were publicly beaten, in many cases by men wielding chains, and in at least one case in front of the women’s crying children. This catastrophic closure of Afghanistan’s revolutionary experiment could have been avoided if it were not for the continuous intervention of imperialist powers in support of the vicious jihadists.

Yanis Iqbal is an independent researcher and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India and can be contacted at [email protected].

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