What does the hijab mean to Afghan women, how did politics and the regime change impact them, and how does the current situation in the country hold them back?
AS the Taliban returned to power in August 2021 and the international community left Afghanistan, women’s rights have been brutally violated by the Taliban on different fronts. The Taliban has become popular for releasing many decrees against women in the country even as the whole world tries to confront it by holding conferences, donors announce different projects, and the media covers these brutal actions, to brainstorm and find the best approach to pressurise the Taliban. On the other hand, the Taliban strategically tries to remain in the media by announcing different roles and regulations to keep women inside their houses.
A culture that controls women’s bodies as well as a government that erases women from the society are both patriarchal traps and an interference in women’s freedom and choices.
Before understanding the current situation in the country, I believe that the hijab and the conversation around proper head covering for women was always politicised, and women have not had the opportunity and protection to decide what to wear or not to wear.
Here, I will try to cover what the hijab means to Afghan women, how politics and the regime change impacted women, and how the current situation in the country holds women back while other women around the world hold robust expectations. There is a brutal war on Afghan women, and the Taliban is bent on seeing women fully covered or remaining in their houses.
A frame to control women
The United States-led intervention in Afghanistan commencing in 2001 was, among other things, focused on rescuing women from the Taliban. Women hoped for twenty years to see their dignity and rights respected. This is because between 1996 and 2001, Afghan women experienced the restricted roles Taliban forced women to follow.
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For two decades, both civil society organisations and international partners framed women’s freedom to choose conservatively, and tied it back to the country’s religion and tradition. Some believed that donor support does not mean disrespecting Afghan culture. Such expectation held on, and women’s rights activists in the country conservatively accepted the narrative and never advocated for women to decide for themselves on wearing a proper hijab. External actors such as donors and the global North organisations remained silent, and never tried to advocate for women to have the right to choose their own dress code. Somehow, it was counted as disrespecting the culture and the religion.
The Afghan Constitution of 2004 gave both women and men equal rights before the law; this framing remained untouched, and freedom of choice for women was not prioritised. No one dared to engage with the option to not wear a hijab. Women without a proper hijab would be stigmatised as a ‘bad woman’, or rejected from the society for years.
I wonder how a patriarchal culture in which both women and men have been using the same judgment to limit women from choosing what to wear, remains dominant among many women’s rights activists and organisations in the country as well as donors who committed to support women in Afghanistan. I believe that a culture that controls women’s bodies as well as a government that erases women from society are both patriarchal traps and an interference in women’s freedom and choices.
A new Constitution
A new era emerged in Afghanistan in 2004. While redefining its national identity, the international community assisted Afghanistan in building for itself a new Constitution that could safeguard women’s rights and protect women from years of conflict and violation.
When women tend to be in a large number somewhere or in an environment where they feel safe, they dress in more colourful headscarves. For many years, one would see professional women and those who tend to work wearing smaller scarves, with a minority of such groups not covering their heads or faces inside workplaces and universities.
Afghanistan had not experienced a legal system that would play a central role in protecting the citizens; nor could it protect women from tyrannies and violence. For decades, women suffered not only from the lack of a strong legal system, but also from customary laws that play an important part in people’s lives. Traditionally, councils comprising men make community decisions and resolve community disputes. No women are involved in these decisions. As per scholars, “customary laws violate women’s rights under the standards of international law. Such practices include gifting of women as a punishment for murder, forced marriages and a strong disregard for the dignity of women in cases of rape.”
U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan in 2001 led to a new government and a new Constitution. This Constitution was envisioned to influence customary laws and its practices in the country. Article 22 of the Constitution, for instance, indicated that both women and men have equal rights and duties before the law, and that it would guarantee women and men equal protection. Article 53 emphasised the protection by the government of, among others, women without caretakers. Article 54 recognised “the family as the fundamental unit of the society and required that the state adopt necessary measures to ensure physical and psychological well-being of family, especially of child and mother.” These articles sounded hopeful to different groups and activists, something that had never happened in the history of Afghanistan.
Additionally, the new Constitution also focused on the country’s obligation to the United Nations (UN), and its specific conventions and treaties. For instance, Chapter 2 of the Constitution outlined the rights and duties of the people. Article 7 of the Constitution stated that the State should uphold international human rights standards and obligations. Afghanistan ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women in 2003. Articles 23, 24 and 26 of the Constitution guaranteed the rights to life, to liberty, and to immunity from torture, respectively.
Also read: Interpreting the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2593 on Afghanistan: change or status quo?
However, in contrast, Article 3 of this Constitution also mentioned that no law could be contrary to the Islamic law. The ambiguity of this article, with no other specific clauses, contradicts the second chapter, on fundamental rights and duties of citizens, of the Constitution.
Afghanistan was still in the midst of a war while implementing this Constitution. There has not been any robust research measuring the impact of the new legal system brought between 2001 and 2021 on customary laws. However, it did raise more awareness and pushed Afghan institutions to prioritise specific programs, quotas and regulations, both in the judicial system and other entities in the government.
What do women wear in Afghanistan?
Most Afghan women in the country wear a variety of the hijab outside the house. The most familiar one to the world is the chadari, which is also known as the burqa. There is also a Gulf-style hijab called abaya, which are loose dress coats for women, as well as trousers/jeans accompanied by a longer coat since 2001. Some argue that the chadari is not native to Afghanistan, and has been imported from Persia and later in the 20th century from India. It is further argued that in the past decades, Afghan women categorically rejected the chadari as a traditional dress code.
Furthermore, Afghanistan does not have a strict dress code and a specific hijab to follow. According to the Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent non-profit policy research and analysis organisation, “[i]t has been extremely rare for Afghan woman, even in recent years, to choose to be seen in public bare-headed, but the style of a headscarf can vary from a very long full Iranian-style scarf which covers the head and clothes (often called chador namaz, as many women also wear it to pray) to much shorter and colorful scarves.”
Women’s rights organisations and the whole civil society ecosystem is focused on pressuring the Taliban to commit to the fundamental rights of women, and is trying to maintain some of the achievements of the past two decades, even though the prospect of the same seems very bleak at present.
In addition to these forms of hijab, some women also wear more strict forms of covering such as niqab, which would also cover the face, depending on how much of their face they wish to expose in the public eye such as markets or work. The most common colours for these garbs are blue (chadari) and black (niqab). As per the Afghanistan Analysts Network, when women tend to be in a large number somewhere or in an environment where they feel safe, they dress in more colourful headscarves. For many years, one would see professional women and those who tend to work wearing smaller scarves, with a minority of such groups not covering their heads or faces inside workplaces and universities.
Since August 2021, with the return of the Taliban government, women rights activists have largely evacuated from the country, and the civil society ecosystem is vulnerable inside the country. Women in Afghanistan believe that the Taliban has not changed, and have used different platforms to advocate for the 2004 Constitution, warning the world that the Taliban’s return meant the death of the Constitution and twenty years of gains made. Afghan women remember the Taliban’s rule between 1996 and 2021.
In the last year and seven months, the Taliban has continuously released a number of decrees to limit women. Girls’ secondary education has stopped, university doors are closed to women, and women cannot work or travel without a male mahram.
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Afghanistan has become a blackhole that swallows women. To further demonstrate their credentials, the Taliban last year released a two-page order regarding women’s hijab. It says “99 percent of Afghan women are already observing Islamic hijab, there is no reason for the remaining 1 precent not to follow the Shariah-prescribed hijab.” The order also specifically said that black cloths and black scarves are accepted as a proper hijab in addition to chadari. According to this decree, the best form of ‘obeying hijab’ for women would be to not leave their houses without necessity.
Violators of the decree will be punished. The head of the household would be penalised by receiving a warning first, followed by three days in jail for the male guardian, and finally a court case. However, penalties for women are not included.
The Afghanistan Analysts Network in June 2022 stated that the Taliban has been giving mixed messages regarding new roles for women. It is not clear whether or not the Taliban would police women’s dress code or how dedicated it is toward implementing its new decrees.
Currently, in Afghanistan, women are prohibited from secondary or higher education; they have no right to work or travel, and are pushed to remain in the house. There has not been up-to-date data showing whether the legal system established under the 2004 Constitution is still in place. Women rights activists, the UN system, and the international community have not been able to counter Taliban’s decrees.
The current situation for women in the country does not allow activists to discuss women’s freedom, and their right to choose what to wear. Instead, women’s rights organisations and the whole civil society ecosystem is focused on pressuring the Taliban to commit to the fundamental rights of women, and is trying to maintain some of the achievements of the past two decades, even though the prospect of the same seems very bleak at present.