Reducing ‘gender’ to ‘women’ is problematic

Reducing ‘gender’ to ‘women’ is problematic

Reducing ‘gender’ to ‘women’ is problematic

For much of the last century, it might be argued that the matter of women’s rights and their status has not been more disputed, both politically and socially, concerning any other country than Afghanistan. On the one hand, this topic has been a key source of struggle among a variety of actors: politicians, Jihadi groups, the Taliban regime and Afghan civilians themselves. On the other hand, the topic is raised internationally with arguments surrounding the need to “liberate women” from the Taliban’s oppression. This issue was, in fact  considered to be a justification for military intervention by US-leadership during the initial stages of launching its “war on terror” in late 2001.  The struggle for women’s rights has since become mostly depoliticized through NGOs and other projects, thereby undermining prospects for a solid women’s social movement in the country. 

After the fall of the Taliban regime, the notion of “Afghan women’s rights” has been turned into a symbol for development and modernity, which demonstrates the extent to which international efforts in Afghanistan have succeeded.

Afghan Women’s Orchestra “Zohra” perform for the Annual Meeting Closing Concert in Davos, 2017 [Source:]


Accordingly, reflecting on the International Women’s Day, here is an analysis regarding the situation of women in Afghanistan, as well as some suggestions to promote gender equality:

Developments in the context of Afghan women’s rights are undeniable; with a number of policies and plans codified, including the Gender Strategy of Afghanistan National Development Strategy (2008-2013), and the National Action Plan for the Women of Afghanistan (NAPWA) 2007-2017. Furthermore, a new national strategy to strengthen the implementation of the Elimination of Violence against Women law was recently launched to promote Afghan women’s status and gender equality. There are also several supportive programs from international aid organizations, such as “Promote” – the “largest” women’s empowerment program in USAID’s entire history. The practical impacts and results of these strategies and programs need to be studied and evaluated thoroughly to understand how they affect an average woman’s life across Afghanistan, from the villages to the cities.

Moreover, women and girls have become more visible at schools, in universities and throughout public spaces, at least in Kabul and other urban areas. However, imbalances in delivery of services and raising awareness within rural and urban settings, compounded by security threats, continue to pose challenges for women’s access to basic services such as education, health, justice and economic opportunities across the country. The government’s recent initiative on women’s economic opportunity and the Citizens’ Charter programs are some good attempts to tackle such imbalances, although the efficacy of such projects cannot be assessed yet.

Despite the above-mentioned accomplishments, Afghan women’s rights achievements are still very fragile, as women continue to face challenges in different fields and high rates of violence against women persist. According to the 2015 report of United Nations Development Programme, the Gender Inequality Index (GII) value of Afghanistan in 2014 was 0.693, placing it at 152 out of 155 countries. Also, during the first eight months of 2016, 2,621 domestic violence cases were recorded by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, around the same number as recorded the year prior. Moreover, mass media occasionally reveals shocking violence against women in different parts of Afghanistan.

In my opinion, one of the most significant obstacles to achieving gender equality in Afghanistan is the reduction of “gender” to “women” or “women’s rights,” as well as the ignoring of men’s roles in achieving women’s rights. After over a decade, “gender” is still equated to “woman” in Afghanistan, when in reality the gender concept actually refers to the roles of men and women. Such a reduction disregards the key role of men and boys in ensuring gender equality, whether at policymaking levels or in civil activities. In a stereotypical image, Afghan men are solely known as the agents of patriarchal systems. In effect, they are considered to be misogynists who commit gender based violence rather than seen as part of the solution. As one of AREU’s recent studies on Afghan masculinities and gender inequalities shows, before anything else a man is considered to be the provider of Nafaqa[i], and the head of household in charge of protecting his family and country. In return, domestic duties have become the most important responsibilities for women.

 Men and Women in bazaar, Afghanistan

This research indicates that men feel substantial pressure to fulfill their expected roles to prevent them from being labeled “be ghairat” (“dishonorable”) or “na mard” (“coward”).  According to one such recorded case, an Afghan man committed suicide in one of Kabul’s villages because he could not afford to provide for his family.

Also, the current toxic notions on masculinities need to be replaced by new critical definitions. The relation between definitions of masculinities and committing violence against women in the Afghan context has clearly indicated that some men and religious informants believe there are rules in Islam that permit “men” to commit violence against women who disobey them or are “nashiza” (“rebellious”).

Therefore, in order to abandon these practices and achieve Afghan women’s rights, it is necessary for Afghan men and young boys to be considered as partners in creating gender equality.

In considering the Afghan context, these definitions must challenge the existing gender order. This requires that the advantages and consequences of gender equality for both men and women, families and Afghan communities need to be clarified. Family members must also be instructed on and understand the numerous kinds of violence against women that exist, and assured that such acts have no place in Afghan culture or religion.

[i] A man, as the husband and the head of a family, is obliged to provide his family’s maintenance and upkeep. Based on Islam, nafaqah is “a woman’s right and a man’s duty” and includes all needs of the wife and the children of a man, notably food, clothing, housing, medical care and education, which are provided through his earnings.

A Dari version of the above-mentioned analysis can be found at:


SayedMahdi Mosawi is Senior Research Officer on Gender Studies at AREU.