Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Cultures Clash Over Women's Rights

A European activist and a liberal religious scholar differ on the roles women can play in Afghan society.
By IWPR

With women comprising 40 per cent of the voters in last month’s presidential election, and a female candidate placed 6th in a field of 18, there are encouraging signs, from a western viewpoint, that the status of women in Afghanistan is improving.


But from the point of view of a leading mullah in Kabul province, the infiltration of western values into Afghan culture is a discouraging development that is corrupting society.


Shaikh Zada, 40, is an Islamic religious scholar who’s been working as a mullah from his base in Deh Sabz county in Kabul province, 20 kilometres northeast of the Kabul city, for 22 years. He is considered a liberal mullah.


In an interview with IWPR, he said that talk about changing the culture in Afghanistan is akin to occupation, while giving more freedom to women is “pursuing the European path and must be stopped”.


“Alexander the Great, who conquered the whole world, and the great prophet of Islam, Mohammad, peace be upon him, did not interfere in people’s customs, and people from other countries shouldn't interfere in ours,” he said.


But from the perspective of Rachel Wareham, the country director of Medica Mondiale, a German charity trying to advance the position of women, a change in Afghan culture is just what this country needs in order for women to gain the rights she says they deserve.


Her organisation has been operating in Afghanistan for the past two-and-a-half years, with programmes in Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat. It is one of several non-governmental organisations in the country seeking to help and protect women and advance their rights.


“Culture changes, and [traditional culture] shouldn’t be necessarily followed,” she told IWPR. “Otherwise, you would live in caves and kill each other, which is not possible. We should move towards civilisation.”


Wareham blames local traditions and Afghan cultural practices, rather than Islam, for women being denied basic human rights for so long.


Women’s rights regressed in recent years, especially under the rule of the Taleban, she added.


She cited restrictions on what type of clothing women are allowed to wear, where they are allowed to work and whether they are allowed to drive vehicles as recently imposed rules that have nothing to do with her interpretation of Islam.


Shaikh Zada agreed that there are some “negative Afghan cultural traditions” that are contrary to Islam. Many of the traditions he cited have to do with marriage, including marrying a woman by force without her consent; handing over a bride as compensation for a dispute between families; marrying a woman for her family’s money; and marrying a girl before she reaches puberty. In Islam a widow can get married again to anyone she wants, but in Afghan tradition she is commonly required to marry a near relative, generally a brother, of her late husband.


The issue of child marriage is of special concern to Wareham. Afghanistan’s law forbids families from marrying off their daughters before the age of 16, she said. But there is no law that prohibits men from marrying girls under 16. Medica Mondiale is working with the government to put such a law in place.


Shaikh Zada insisted that many of the restrictions placed on women that would be found objectionable in the West have a sound basis in Islam. For example, he pointed to rules prohibiting women from attending the cinema and requiring women to be accompanied by a male relative when they appear in public.


Wareham disagreed and argued that the Prophet Mohammad’s wife was afforded more rights than women in Afghanistan have today.


“The mullahs should be educated. The mullahs are not educated. They don’t know what the Koran says,” she said. “Everything the Prophet did was according to the law of Islam. His wife [Khadijah] was an educated woman and ran a business.”


“God, His Prophet Mohammad - and even I - mention that those mullahs who don’t have enough knowledge about Islam should be trained,” conceded Shaikh Zada, referring specifically to mullahs who say women have no right to receive an education or work outside the home.


But even here, Shaikh Zada said there are limitations imposed by Islam, For example, he said that women can’t study in the presence of men, although they can be taught by male teachers. It is unlawful for women to travel abroad to study unless they have a “mahram”, or blood relative, accompanying them.


Wareham said some progress had been made in the area of women’s education since the fall of the Taleban. But she said the practice of early marriage discouraged many women from seeking higher education.


Once they are married, or anticipate they will soon be wed, “they just stop going” to school, Wareham said. She said there are few female students in grades 9 to 12 and that female university students are a rarity.


Shaikh Zada said Islam placed a number of restrictions on women in the workplace.


“Women should not work with men because lust may lead to some things which are against Islam,” he said, alluding to pre-marital sex.


In addition, he said that women should not appear in the workplace or in public without hijab, clothing that covers their hair and extends to their wrists and ankles. He said that women should not wear fashionable clothes, makeup or perfume.


“Women are prohibited from doing those things which are a means of corruption,” he said. “They shouldn’t show their figure, except to their husbands, because the source of immorality begins at that point.”


Furthermore, “Women can use computers, provided that those who train them are also female, and they may only use computer skills for things that are not illegal under Islam.”


Wareham said there is still a strong prejudice against women working outside the home. Every working woman in the country encounters some degree of difficulty because of her gender, including pressure from her family and antagonism from her male co-workers, she said.


Wareham said this is especially true for women employed by western organisations, such as the United Nations or non-governmental groups.


Shaikh Zada said he can understand why people are reluctant to allow their daughters and wives to work and get an education.


“First, there is no security,” he said. “If someone violates her chastity, who will regain it?”


He said he feared that if women here were allowed to follow the practice of western women, including going out by themselves and working where they want, “they will get infected by HIV like the Europeans”.


Shaikh Zada faulted women who work in western organisations and the government for failing to adhere to Islamic dress codes. If they did, he argued, more people living in the villages would be willing to allow their daughters to receive an education and work.


Despite cultural and religious restrictions, women in Afghanistan are starting to take an active role in shaping their country’s future.


Massouda Jalal, a medical doctor, was the only female to run for president this October.


Habiba Sarabi, the Minister of Women’s Affairs, and Sima Simar, head of Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, are two other high-profile women in Afghan society.


Shaikh Zada said there is no prohibition in Islam on women participating in politics, but there are some restrictions. “These women can only be involved in politics in the presence of their mahrams,” he said.


Suhaila Muhseni and Shahabuddin Tarakhil are IWPR reporters based in Kabul.