Globalizing the Local: Transnational Feminism and Afghan Women’s Rights

by Val Moghadam

Director of Women’s Studies

Associate Professor of Sociology

Illinois State University

(on leave 2003-04)



In the latter part of the 1990s, the ruling elite of Afghanistan, known as the Taleban, instituted the harshest and most bizarre theocratic dictatorship in the world, with a gender regime that was particularly severe on women, though men also suffered. Most of the world came to know about the dire condition of Afghan women through the efforts of women’s organizations working within their countries and transnationally. What is less well known is how and why the Taleban emerged; the role and responsibility of the United States – as well as Pakistan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia – in the subversion of a reformist, modernizing regime and the proliferation of fundamentalists, arms and narcotics; the extent of the human rights and women’s rights tragedies that followed under both the Mujahidin and the Taleban; and the sordid details concerning a planned oil pipeline from Central Asia through Afghanistan (see Rashid 1999; Moghadam 2002).

The focus of this paper is an examination of the process by which « the woman question in Afghanistan » shifted from a local/national issue during the 1980s and early 1990s to a matter of global concern beginning in the second half of the 1990s. I seek to explain the feminist silences of the earlier period, and highlight the role of expatriate Afghan activists, international feminists, and transnational feminist networks in bringing the plight of Afghan women to global attention. In examining one such initiative, that of the U.S. Feminist Majority’s « Gender Apartheid Campaign », I draw attention to the promises and perils of international/U.S. feminist solidarity. Finally, I offer an assessment of the overarching influence of Global Feminism, and the implications thereof for Afghan women’s future roles in reconstruction, development, and governance.


International/Transnational/Global Feminism

International feminism has existed for over 100 years, international women’s organizations have been in existence for decades, and links were established among women’s movements in various countries in the early part of the 20th century. Examples are the International Women’s Council, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Women’s International Democratic Federation, International Federation of Business and Professional Women (see Rupp, 1998; Berkovitch 1999). However, international is not the same as transnational, which suggests a conscious crossing of national boundaries and a superseding of nationalist orientations. When second-wave feminism emerged in the 1960s it was, like many other social movements of the time, initially nationally-based and nationally-oriented. In the 1970s, clashes occurred among nationally- or regionally-framed feminisms, mainly due to disagreements between Western feminists, who tended to emphasize women’s need for legal equality and sexual autonomy, and Third World feminists, who tended to emphasize imperialism and underdevelopment as obstacles to women’s advancement. These arguments were especially noticeable at the United Nations’ first and second international conferences on women, which took place in Mexico City in 1975 and in Copenhagen in 1980, respectively.

During the decade of the 1980s, a shift began to take place. In the socio-demographic context of a worldwide growth in the population of educated, employed, mobile, and politically-aware women, feminist discourses and networking began to spread and to take on not only an inter-national but a transnational form. The new information technologies, along with the changing and increasingly harsh economic environment and the emergence of fundamentalist movements, broadened the horizons of women’s organizations, resulting in considerable international networking and many joint initiatives. Feminists from the North came to appreciate the relevance of economic conditions and foreign policies to women’s lives, while feminists from the South came to recognize the pertinence of “body politics”. The Nairobi conference in 1985 seems to have been the turning point, and several transnational feminist networks were established around the time of the conference.[1]

The United Nations played a key role in facilitating interaction and cooperation among feminist organizations. Key UN events were the four UN world conferences on women and the UN conferences of the 1990s, as well as numerous regional preparatory meetings in advance of the conferences. Many transnational feminist networks were formed, and numerous women’s organizations came into contact with each other between the 1985 Nairobi conference and the Fourth World Conference on Women (in Beijing in 1995). Almost as important as the networking at Nairobi and Beijing were the women’s caucuses that formed in connection with other UN conferences of the 1990s. These were the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992), the World Conference on Human Rights (held in Vienna in June 1993), the International Conference on Population and Development (held in Cairo in September 1994), and the World Summit on Social Development (held in Copenhagen in March 1995). The result of these meetings and caucuses was the emergence of “global feminism” and of transnational feminist networks.

Global feminism has been discussed by several authors (e.g., Bunch and Carillo 1990; Afkhami 1995) and may be defined as the discourse and movement of women throughout the world aimed at advancing the status of women through greater access to resources, through legal measures to effect gender equality, and through the self-empowerment of women within national boundaries but through transnational forms of organizing and mobilizing (Moghadam 2000). It is predicated upon the notion that notwithstanding cultural, class, and ideological differences among the women of the world, there is a commonality in the forms of women’s disadvantage and in the forms of women’s organizations worldwide. During the 1990s, women’s organizations increased their networking and coordinating activities, engaging in dialogue and forms of co-operation, solidarity, and mutual support. They sent representatives to meetings in other countries and regions, and utilized a similar vocabulary to describe women’s disadvantage and the desired alternatives. This common vocabulary found expression in the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, adopted at the end of the UN’s Fourth World Conference, in September 1995.

The Beijing conference also saw the active participation not only of nationally-based women’s organizations but of transnational feminist networks as well. Transnational feminist networks bring together women from three or more countries around a common agenda, such as women’s human rights, a feminist critique of economic policy, peace and anti-militarism, and reproductive health and rights. Feminist groups and women’s organizations have remained rooted in national or local issues, but their vocabulary, strategies and objectives have much in common with each other and have taken on an increasingly supra-national form. Moreover, some of these groups and organizations have joined or helped to form transnational feminist networks, thus bridging the local, national, regional, and global levels. They engage in information exchange, mutual support, and a combination of research, lobbying, advocacy and sometimes direct action towards the realization of their goals of equality, autonomy, and empowerment for women and justice and democratization in national and global governance. As Sen and Grown (1987: 22) put it in a now-classic publication that heralded the formation of DAWN:


We know now from our own research that the subordination of women has a long history and is deeply ingrained in economic, political, and cultural processes. What we have managed to do in the last few years is to forge grassroots women’s movements and world-wide networks such as never existed before, to begin to transform that subordination and in the process to break down other oppressive structures as well.


Transnational feminist networks and global feminism were absent from the international scene when revolution, reaction, and civil conflict took place in Afghanistan over divergent political agendas, cultural understandings, and “the woman question”. In 1978, following a revolution that brought to power the leftist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PFPA), the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA) sought to implement a wide-ranging reform program that included measures to establish women’s rights within the family and increase their public participation. A tribal-Islamist rebellion quickly formed to resist these measures. During the 1980s the conflict in Afghanistan was conventionally cast as one pitting hapless guerrillas against a government’s war machine and Soviet occupying forces. The reality was somewhat more complex.


The Woman Question in Afghanistan Over Three Periods

There is now a fairly prodigious feminist literature that establishes the centrality of gender (like class) in the construction of nation, modernity and cultural identity. Research has showed how intimately definitions of womanhood are tied to concepts of national or cultural identity, to the reproduction of the community, to understandings of modernity and tradition, and to formulations of the “ideal society” (Jayawardena 1986; Kandiyoti 1989; Papanek 1994; Moghadam 1994; Yuval-Davis 1997). During the 20th century, as Afghanistan confronted modernity and nationhood, struggles ensued between center and periphery, in which conflict between the emerging state and the traditional social forces often entailed contention over the role and status of women (Moghadam 1989, 1993). Gregorian (1969) has described the travails of nationalists and modernizers in the first half of the 20th century, when small groups of educated Afghans tried, largely unsuccessfully, to institute political reform, socio-economic development, and the advancement of women. Similarly, Nawid (1999) has examined the religious reaction to King Amanullah’s attempted reforms in the 1920s, especially around the rights of women and girls.

A feminist lens reveals that in at least three periods during the 20th century, women’s rights and divergent conceptions of “women’s place” became highly politicized and central to political conflicts in Afghanistan. The first period is the 1920s, when efforts by reformers, nationalists, and modernizers to improve the status of women, to establish an education system, and to modernize the economy and society met with the fierce resistance of traditionalists and ulama (Islamic clergy). In the second period, the 1980s, two opposing movements — one Marxist-modernizing and the other Islamist-traditionalist — fought a long and bloody war over political agendas and conceptions of « women’s place » that were wildly at odds with each other. And in the 1990s, the third period, the Taleban gave new meaning to “social exclusion” – a term popular in European social theory and development studies – when it instituted draconian policies against not only women’s public participation but their very visibility.

During most of the twentieth century, political conflicts in Afghanistan entailed power struggles between the center (the emergent state) and the periphery (autonomous tribes, khans, and ethnic groups) and struggles over reforms pertaining to the status of women. Particularly contentious has been any attempt to modernize family law and improve the status of wives within it, and to establish schooling for girls. Although many countries have experienced political conflict over definitions of nationhood, modernity, identity, ethnicity, and women’s rights, the literature on Afghanistan has been largely silent on the significance of “the woman question” to the power conflicts between center and periphery and to issues of ethnic and national identity in Afghanistan. Some studies, in fact, have played down its importance. Olivier Roy, a French anthropologist, penned an influential book on the Mujahidin and Islamist politics that was largely sympathetic. Here is a sample from his book, written first in French in 1980 and translated and published in English in 1988:


“Value judgements on Islamism need to be revised, and its modernity must once more be emphasized. … Its outdated views on social customs need not engage us unduly.  The most controversial question, the role of women, involves a cultural element which goes far beyond Islamism, and even Islam itself; … . The fact that such attitudes are commonplace in Muslim countries leads to the conclusion not only that the problem is often posed out of context, but that the virulent polemics one hears too frequently in the West concerning the treatment of Muslim women conceals a deeper preoccupation.  In any case, we should make a distinction between two quite different things: the position of Muslim women in traditional society, which cannot be blamed on Islamism, and the way in which Islamism is attempting to ensure that urban, educated – and therefore emancipated – women should come to accept the dictates of Islam. (Roy 1988: 8-9)[2]


Why has the question of women’s rights been so vexed during Afghan modern history? As I have argued elsewhere (Moghadam 1989, 1994a, 1994b, 2002), the issue of women’s rights in Afghanistan has been historically constrained by three factors and forces. First, there is the patriarchal nature of gender and social relations, deeply embedded in Afghanistan’s traditional communities, and expressed also in the form of pashtunwali, the highly masculinist Pashtun tribal code. The second is the existence of a weak central state, which has been unable, since at least the beginning of this century, to implement modernizing programs and goals in the face of “tribal feudalism”, especially among the Pashtuns. The above two factors are interconnected, for the state’s weakness is correlated with a strong (if fragmented) society resistant to state bureaucratic expansion, civil authority, regulation, monopoly of the means of violence, and extraction — the business of modern states (see Rubin 1995). The third factor is opportunistic intervention by neighboring countries, Great Britain, and the United States, which has served to intensify tribal-based conflict, stall or set back development, reinforce Afghan patriarchy, and increase women’s insecurity.

These factors were behind the defeat of the modernizing efforts of King Amanullah in the 1920s, the incapacity of modernizing efforts during the Zahir Shah era (1933 – 1973), and the defeat of the DRA’s attempt to implement a wide-ranging program for land reform, women’s rights, and social development in the 1980s. The patriarchal social structure and tribal feudalism also explain the disintegration of the U.S.-backed Mujahidin government (1992-96) and the inability of both the Mujahidin and the Taleban to undertake reconstruction and development, much less women’s rights.  The persistence of a particularly entrenched form of patriarchy and a tribal-based social structure in which only men have rights, equality, and unlimited access to public space, and the absence or failure of the developmentalist, welfarist state, has meant that apart from a very small (albeit very talented) urban female elite, the vast majority of Afghan women have experienced social exclusion, illiteracy, poor health, and subordination.

Between the 1920s and 1990s, the women of the small, urban modernizing elite received the benefits of schooling and higher education in Afghanistan and abroad and by the 1960s their numbers were such that they formed women’s organizations and became involved in the new political parties. The 1964 new Constitution granted women the right to vote and be elected, and in the 1965 parliamentary elections, four women won seats. On the left, women formed the Democratic Organization of Afghan Women (DOAW) and joined the PDPA. The University of Kabul became a hotbed of various types of political activism – pro-Soviet, Maoist, Trotskyist, monarchist, Islamist – and in 1977 a young woman named Mina Kamal formed the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). Although there were now more educational and employment opportunities for women in Kabul, most Afghan women continued to live under patriarchal controls. Thus, on the eve of the 1978 revolution, Afghanistan was behind its neighbors Pakistan and especially Iran – not to mention the Soviet republics of Central Asia – on every socioeconomic and demographic indicator, such as literacy, life expectancy, fertility rate, and maternal health. Fully 94 percent of women were illiterate. World Bank data show that in 1981, the secondary school gross enrollment rate for girls was only 4.9 percent, compared with 33 percent in Iran (and 7.9 percent in Pakistan).[3] There were also significant gender gaps in life expectancy, literacy, and access to schooling, and a sex ratio that favored men. The vast majority (89 percent) of village, primary and secondary schools were for boys, while only 11 percent were for girls. The realities of poverty, underdevelopment, and patriarchal attitudes limited girls’ access to school.

When the DRA sought to improve the status of women through a radical reform program announced in 1978, a fierce tribal and Islamist backlash formed. That backlash was deemed a “resistance movement” and supported by the United States, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, especially after Soviet troops intervened in December 1979 to keep the Kabul government from toppling. Still, it was under the communists (1978-92) that some progress was made in schooling for girls (see Table below). Moreover, non-elite women began to acquire education and jobs as teachers, nurses, doctors, civil servants, and so on.  Thus by 1991, the year before Kabul fell to the Mujahidin, large percentages of the civil service and teaching staff at all levels were female. According to the 1989 UN Report on Afghanistan (by the UN’s Special Rapporteur, Dr. Felix Ermacora), there were seven higher education institutes in Kabul with a total of 15,319 students of both sexes. The Medical Institute under the Ministry of Public Health had 3,000 students, making a total of over 18,000 – compared to a total enrollment of 7,000 in 1977/78. In 1989, Kabul University had about 7,000 students, of which 65 percent were women.


Enrollment and Educational Data, Afghanistan, 1981 – 1991

1981 1982 1983 1991
 Primary education pupils – % female 18.6 31.5 33.8
Primary education  teachers – % female 20.6 46.7
Female primary school enrollment – % gross 14.1 9.2 10.6 18.6
Female primary school enrollment – % net 12.5 8.3
Secondary enrollment, female – % gross 4.9 4.8 4.9 9.0
Secondary school pupils – % female 32.2



Note: blanks indicate data not available.

Source: World Bank, World Development Indicators 2002, CD-ROM.


Women lost legal status after the Mujahidin takeover in 1992 and also became victims of kidnappings and rape by warlords. But the real gender shock came under the Taleban, when women’s status became that of an outsider, without legal rights and excluded from decision-making; the status of an object, on whom pronouncements were made and punishments inflicted; the status of a prisoner, confined to the home and darkened windows, or enveloped in an all-encompassing tent-like veil, while men roamed freely, unencumbered by anything but their guns. It was only then that Afghan women began to receive international solidarity and support. International feminist action was very effective at that time, resulting in the diplomatic isolation of the Taleban regime (recognized only by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE) and the defeat of a proposal for an oil pipeline from Central Asia through Afghanistan. This can rightly be called a feminist success story. I will elaborate on this successful campaign below.

But why did international feminism discover Afghan women only in 1996, when the Taleban came to power? Why were feminists silent in the 1980s, when the Mujahidin were waging war not only against the Soviet-backed Kabul government but also against women’s rights, including the right of girls to attend school? Where were feminists in the early 1990s, when members of the erstwhile Mujahidin alliance were turning their guns on each other, destroying Kabul, and bringing about new insecurity and destruction?  Where were the voices of outraged feminists when Afghan women were being kidnapped and raped by warlords and former Mujahidin commanders?[4]

It should be noted that feminists in Pakistan – for example, those around women’s organizations such as Shirkat Gah and ASR (e.g., Khawar Mumtaz, Shahida Fareed, Negat Said Khan) – had been aware of and opposed to the Mujahidin’s patriarchal agenda, and were particularly appalled by the misogyny evident in the refugee camps of Peshawar. Practices such as the confinement of widows in a separate camp, the allocation of food to males only (for only a male could be a household head and thus recipient of food aid), the miniscule number of girls’ schools as opposed to boys’ schools – all carried out with the tacit approval of the international aid workers – was criticized by Pakistani feminists. But this criticism did not reach an international audience. Indeed, although the Mujahidin’s Islamist movement was explicitly anti-feminist and its misogyny quite evident, it received more international support during the 1990s than did the modernizing government of the DRA. One would have thought that feminists around the world, including American feminists, would have rallied around the idea of equality for Afghan women, criticized the Mujahidin and even the Kabul government, and come to the aid of Afghan women, as they did in the early 1990s in the case of Bosnia (e.g., Stiglmayer, 1994; see also Bunch and Reilly, 1994). Why was this not the case?


The Slippery Slope of Anti-Communism and Cultural Relativism

One reason was certainly that the Mujahidin were perceived as attempting to liberate their country and culture from Soviet domination. Thus the journalist Jan Goodwin wrote a book during the 1980s in support of the Mujahidin and in denunciation of the DRA (Goodwin 1987).[5] The well-known author Doris Lessing did the same (Lessing 1987). The right-wing administration of President Ronald Reagan was not alone in designating the Mujahidin “freedom fighters”; many Europeans and international aid workers in Peshawar popularized the Mujahidin, and the men expressed their support by donning the distinctive Afghan cap (see Moghadam 1994c). The Mujahidin were celebrated by a number of Western writers and scholars (e.g., Leon Uris, Olivier Roy, Louis Dupree).

Another reason for the absence of support for the women’s rights and reform program of the DRA was a widespread perception that this was somehow inappropriate in a developing Muslim context, and an imposition of Western/Soviet (or First World/Second World) values. It should be recalled that during the 1980s, in the context of post-Marxism and post-modernism, academic and political debates raged around issues of universalism versus cultural relativism, women’s rights and community rights, orientalism and neo-colonialist discourses, the nature of Islamist movements, and the meaning of development. The universalizing discourses of the Enlightenment, Marxism, and “Western feminism” were criticized as eurocentric and wrong-headed “metanarratives”, and a new emphasis was placed on identity, difference, contingency, and agency.[6] Feminists from around the world had not yet found common ground, and there existed a notion that there was a feminism for the West, but different priorities for the women of the South. Mai Ghoussoub’s essay on patriarchy, Islamism, and the plight of feminism in the Arab world was criticized for “essentialism”, an “orientalist conceptualization of Islam”, and a “narrow definition of feminism specific to the lives of bourgeois women”.[7] The question of who had the right to speak for or about Third World women was also a point of contention, as exemplified by Chandra Mohanty’s criticisms of Juliette Minces and other feminist writings.[8]

Thus, in the mid-1980s, anthropologist Nancy Tapper could denigrate the DRA’s reform program by claiming that it was “casting the issues of poverty and women’s status into a basically First World perspective”, and that “this perspective has many critics in the Third World and elsewhere » (Tapper, 1984: 291). For many, in a misguided version of anti-orientalism, veiling and seclusion were regarded as cultural artifacts not to be criticized. Thus Kathleen Howard-Merriam (1987:104) wrote: « The Mujahidin leaders recognize women’s importance to the jihad (holy war) with their exhortations to preserve women’s honor through the continued practice of seclusion. The reinforcement of this tradition, … serves to strengthen the men’s will to resist … Purdah provides the opportunity for preserving one’s own identity and a certain stability in the face of external pressures …”. Even European social democrats who otherwise placed a very high premium on social and gender equality, balked at criticizing the Mujahidin’s position on women.[9]

During the 1980s, therefore, Afghan women were held hostage to the notion that women’s rights were Western and that the modernizing government of Afghanistan was merely replicating the so-called bankrupt Western (or Soviet) model. The idea that there might be something inherently wrong with enshrouding women in a burqa, confining them to their homes, denying them the right to schooling, and excluding them from any form of public decision-making – in contrast to the visibility, mobility, and power of Afghan men – was totally eclipsed by the widespread indignation over the Soviet invasion, the equally widespread denigration of the social policies and reform program of the so-called Soviet puppets in Kabul, and the suspension of critical judgment regarding gender practices in the face of a mindless cultural relativism.

Today, these misguided notions are behind us. In more recent years, feminists from around the world have come to converge on issues pertaining to women’s rights and interests. A turning point came in the years following the 1985 UN conference on women in Nairobi, which saw the formation of a number of transnational feminist networks (TFNs) around the implications for women of structural adjustment, poverty, and development policies (e.g., DAWN and WIDE) and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism (e.g., Women Living Under Muslim Laws, the Sisterhood is Global Institute). Another turning point was the 1993 UN conference on human rights in Vienna, where feminist claims for rights were finally included under the rubric of human rights, and later led to a major international agreement whereby rape came to be designated a human rights violation and a war crime.  The subsequent UN conferences – notably the conference on population and development in Cairo in 1994 and the fourth world conference on women in Beijing in 1995 – reinforced the emerging consensus on the universality of women’s rights to reproductive autonomy, equality, empowerment, political participation, and the various aspects of social development. Those opposed to this consensus in whole or in part – for example, the coalition of Catholic, conservative Protestant, and Muslim delegations at the Cairo and Beijing conferences that was opposed to reproductive and sexual rights – faced the ire of what was by now an organized and transnational feminism.

In contrast to the decade of the 1980s, which was characterized by the waning of the Cold War world order and the rise of post-modernism, the 1990s saw growing recognition of the implications of globalization-from-above and the emergence of globalization-from-below. For global feminists, especially those active in and around TFNs, the twin dangers of fundamentalism and neoliberal capitalism meant a rejection of cultural relativism and an insistence on the inalienability of women’s rights across national and cultural borders and boundaries. TFNs such as WLUML, SIGI, and DAWN have come to link feminists and women’s groups in developed and developing countries alike, framing the issues not in the dialect of postmodernism but in the language of universal and non-negotiable women’s rights and human rights (Moghadam, 2000). It is no longer possible to speak of a feminism for the West versus a different set of priorities for the Third World. Feminists from around the world are now agreed on the basic issues of education, income, and reproductive rights for women, no matter what the cultural context, and they are struggling for greater political representation and participation in economic decision-making. Feminist movements have proliferated in the Muslim world – for example, in Algeria, Turkey, Morocco, Iran, and Pakistan – and they have taken strong objection to discourses of cultural relativism (Afkhami, 1995, 2001; Peters & Wolper, 1995; WLUML, 1998).  Cultural relativism and the “hands off” approach of the past are explicitly rejected by WLUML, as well as by Afghan women’s groups such as RAWA. The Beijing Platform for Action – which many international feminists invoke in their local campaigns for women’s rights – may be called the manifesto of global feminism.


Afghanistan Meets Global Feminism

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, criticisms of the Mujahidin and advocacy for women’s rights were almost non-existent. Exceptions were communiqués by RAWA (in those days written in rather poor English), writings and speeches by Pakistani feminists, and my own writings and lectures. The situation changed in the mid-1990s, as a result of the developments described above. Armed with the new international consensus regarding the rights of women – or “global feminism” – and with the advantage of easy access to information technologies and especially the Internet, feminists in Europe and the United States were ready to organize, mobilize, and act when the Taleban took control over Afghanistan in September 1996 and instituted a draconian gender regime. Amnesty International had earlier turned its attention to the women of Afghanistan, and with the help of Pakistani researchers (e.g., Habiba Hassan, 1995) discovered what it called “a human rights catastrophe” for the women of Afghanistan under the Mujahidin (Amnesty International, 1995, 1996).

Pakistani feminists – including those associated with WLUML – tapped into their networks in South Asia and elsewhere, and lent support to collective action by Afghan women expatriates. The Afghan Women’s Network, which was based in Islamabad and Peshawar, Pakistan, issued a statement on 15 October 1996 that read in part:

We are a group of Afghan women and their supporters who live in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In a country where over 90% of the women and girls are illiterate, we are a group of women who were encouraged by their families to become educated. Many of us have university degrees. Many of us previously worked in Afghanistan as lawyers, engineers, professors and doctors. Now we are working with NGOs, UN agencies and schools. Some of us are widows. Many of us are the sole support of our families. Because we are educated, we believe that we have the responsibility to speak out for ourselves and for other Afghan women who have not had the opportunities we have had.

We ask for your support for the participation of Afghan women in the peace process and the guarantees of women’s rights to employment outside the home and women’s and girls’ human rights to education and security.


Their statement noted the concern that had been expressed in a press release by UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali on 7 October and listed the support they had received from organizations such as the International League for Human Rights, Equality Now, Amnesty International, People’s Decade for Human Rights Education, Working Group on the Human Rights of Women, Refugee Women in Development, Sisterhood is Global Institute, Women Living Under Muslim Laws, and UN Agencies (WLUML, 1998).  At the same time, action alerts were dispatched by the Sisterhood is Global Institute (SIGI) and WLUML. In mid-October 1996, Human Rights Watch, Women in Development Europe (WIDE), Refugee Women in Development, the International Women’s Tribune Center, and the Center for Women’s Global Leadership drafted an “Urgent Appeal Letter Concerning Women’s Rights in Afghanistan” addressed to José Ayala Lasso, the UN’s Human Rights Commissioner. ISIS International, a feminist communications network, reported that it was delivered to him on 17 October on behalf of 61 organizations from Asia, Europe, Latin America, and North America (see WLUML, 1998: 154).

In Europe, Afghan refugee women formed coalitions with French, Italian, Spanish, and other European feminists, who petitioned members of their national parliaments and members of the European Parliament, demanding that European countries condemn the actions of the Taleban and deny diplomatic recognition of the new regime. The Afghan women’s group Negar was formed in France in October 1996, and it put the spotlight on the Taleban’s denial of education to women and girls. Emma Bonino, an EU official and member of Italy’s Radical Party, made a dramatic visit to Afghanistan in 1997, was briefly arrested, and returned to Europe to champion the cause of Afghan women. On 2 February 1997, a large number of Spanish feminist organizations held a demonstration in Madrid in support of the human rights of Afghan women. And in May 1997 the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, or ICFTU, called for work stoppages in support of women in Afghanistan (WLUML, 1998: 174).[10] Their solidarity campaign continued. Meeting in Brussels on 26-27 March 2001, the ICFTU’s Women’s Committee issued a resolution deploring “the constant repression, violence and harassment against women” that contravened various international conventions, urged ICFTU affiliated organizations “to press their governments to use every means of pressure available” to condemn the repression and ensure that the Taleban restore women’s right to work, to health care and freedom of movement.[11]

By early 1998 only three governments – those of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE – had recognized the Taleban government, and the European Parliament urged them to withdraw their diplomatic recognition and support (Reuters, 20 Feb. 1998). Clare Short, British minister for international cooperation, and Emma Bonino, then EU Commissioner for Humanitarian Rights, designated International Women’s Day on 8 March 1998 as a day of solidarity with Afghan women. Feminists and progressives demonstrated in front of UN offices in Brussels, Moscow, and Rome against the Taleban’s “gender apartheid”. That same spring, Italy’s Association for Women in Development (AIDoS) held a press conference in which Ziba Shorish-Shamley, a co-founder of the U.S.-based Women’s Alliance for Peace and Human Rights in Afghanistan (WAPHA) spoke. WLUML organized or took part in numerous actions, issued action alerts and petitions, and compiled a dossier on violations of Afghan women’s human rights and the responses of international feminists (WLUML, 1998). The WLUML News Sheet, which was produced by the Lahore-based Shirkat Gah feminist group, carried information on Afghan women in almost every issue.

Throughout the world women expressed outrage at the Taleban. On March 8, 1998, Massoumeh Ebtekar, the highest ranking female official in Iran, visited Mazar-e Sharif (still under the control of the Northern Alliance), condemned the Taleban as unIslamic and expressed support for the “Islamic human rights” of Afghan women. That same month, the UN Commission on the Status of Women “condemned the continuing violations of the human rights of women and girls in Afghanistan.” UNICEF director Carol Bellamy lodged a strong protest with the Afghan authorities concerning their treatment of women and girls, during a visit in early April 1998. In September 1999, the UN Special Rapporteur for Violence against Women, Radhika Coomaraswamy, denounced the Taleban’s policies on women after completing a four-day visit to Afghanistan.

In the United States, the Feminist Majority issued an appeal to their network in [June?] 1997 to urge the U.S. government not to recognize the Taleban. In March 1997, I gave a talk at Illinois State University (which I had just joined as Director of Women’s Studies) and at the University of Illinois in Springfield, in which I discussed the history of women’s oppression in Afghanistan, described the violations of women’s human rights under the Mujahidin and the Taleban, and highlighted the irresponsible role of the United States in the growth of Islamist extremism. I recommended that the Taleban be denied diplomatic recognition, that Afghan refugees be given safe haven wherever they went, and that humanitarian assistance be provided to Afghans, especially women and girls. I reiterated my view, first made in a 1994 article, that aid to Afghanistan be subject to “gender conditionalities”.[12] The plight of Afghan women under the Taleban was so extreme that even the U.S. State Department’s human rights report for 1997 (published in early 1998) had to concede the progress that women had made under the communists and which they had lost after the communist collapse.

Afghan expatriates Zieba Shorish-Shamley, Zohreh Rassekh and others formed WAFPA (vafa in Dari/Persian). WAPHA’s action alerts, appeals, and petition drives, sent via Internet, became a very effective advocacy and lobbying tool, and educated many American feminist academics and activists.[13] Zieba Shorish-Shamley testified before Congress and traveled extensively throughout the United States and Europe, while Zohreh Rassekh helped carry out two influential and widely-cited studies on Afghan women’s health for Physicians for Human Rights (1998, 2001). In October 2001 the New York chapter of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom developed a website called Peace Women, and included an extensive link on Afghanistan with information on the activities of various Afghan and non-Afghan feminist groups. (See

RAWA stepped up their activities and became especially vocal and visible during the Taleban era, issuing numerous appeals in now perfect English. They forged links with the U.S. Feminist Majority, who sponsored visits by their representatives to campuses and conferences (e.g., the Feminist Expo in Baltimore in summer 2000). RAWA became exceptionally media-savvy, giving interviews to the press, and appearing on the Oprah show and on the Larry King Show.[14] RAWA produced an extensive website in English and Dari that was/is informative and interactive. It described in detail the array of RAWA activities in Peshawar and underground in Afghanistan (e.g., health clinics, schools, fact-finding), included photo galleries and video clips, expressly invited Oprah viewers to send comments or queries, and describes “our plans for the future”. The latter, incidentally, includes attention to be paid to “the taboo subject of women’s own sex preferences.” At the same time, RAWA remained militant and almost dogmatic in their position on the Taleban, the jehadis (their name for the former Mujahidin now in the Northern Alliance/United Front), and the communist era. They kept a distance from other Afghan expatriate groups but remained very active internationally.

WAPHA made contact with U.S. feminists and in early 1998 began to lobby against the planned oil pipeline from the Caucasus through Afghanistan that Unocal, a US oil company, wanted to build in concert with other oil corporations. WAPHA, NOW, the Feminist Majority, and the Center for Women’s Global Leadership put pressure on President Clinton, who agreed not to recognize the Taleban government and withdrew support for the Unocal deal. The efforts included organizing outside the embassies of Afghanistan and Pakistan, mobilizing women’s groups across the U.S. to pass resolutions condemning the Taleban, lobbying Congress and the UN, and meeting with the State Department and White House officials (Morgan and Ottaway, 1998). On 5 December 1998, Unocal withdrew from the consortium, “because of concern over low world oil prices, the presence of Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, and pressure from feminist groups protesting the company’s contacts with the Taleban” (Bloomberg, 15 Dec. 1998; NYT, 5 December 1998).

A major achievement during the period was the Conference for Women of Afghanistan, which took place in late June 2000 in Dushanbe, Tajikestan. Organized by Negar, the two-day conference brought together expatriate Afghan women living in the United States and Europe, about 250 Afghan refugee women from Tajikestan and Iran, and 45 non-Afghans from countries such as Algeria, France, Spain, and the U.S. The non-Afghans included Khalida Messaoudi, the famous Algerian secular feminist and militant anti-fundamentalist, whose keynote address drew a sustained standing ovation, and the French-Algerian writer Juliette Minces. At the conference, Negar declared its support for the World March of Women 2000, an initiative of feminists in Quebec, Canada that targeted neoliberal capitalism and violence against women.[15] The conference itself produced the “Declaration of the Essential Rights of Afghan Women”, based in part on UN documents and the Afghan constitutions of 1964 and 1977.[16]

The Feminist Majority and the Gender Apartheid Campaign: Strengths and Weaknesses

Bouyed by the Unocal victory, the Feminist Majority expanded its Campaign to Stop Gender Apartheid and mobilized numerous groups and individuals in the United States to condemn the Taleban and support the human rights of Afghan women. Its website included an extensive section called “Help Afghan Women”, as well as an informative link called “Global Feminism” (see Groups that endorsed the campaign included the American Nurses Association, the American Medical Women’s Association, the YWCA of the USA, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, NOW, WAPHA, General Federation of Women’s Clubs, and the Coalition of Labor Union Women. Prominent women such as Hillary Rodham Clinton signed on, giving speeches and contributing funds to support underground schools and clinics for women and girls in Afghanistan. Mavis Leno, wife of the popular late-night comedian and talk-show host, Jay Leno, became chair of the campaign and took the campaign to Hollywood, where more funds were raised. The Feminist Majority and its local chapters sponsored visiting delegations from RAWA, who spoke at conferences, on campuses, and with the media. The Feminist Majority took part in, endorsed, and helped to publicize the Dushanbe Conference and its Declaration. After the tragic events of 11 September 2001, women senators joined the bandwagon, and in October 2001, Barbara Boxer won passage of an amendment to the Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill calling for the inclusion of Afghan women in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. She then joined Barbara Mikulski and Kay Bailey Hutchinson in introducing new legislation aimed at helping to alleviate the healthcare and educational crisis facing Afghan women and girl refugees.[17]

The campaign for Afghan women’s rights is significant for at least three reasons. First, it is illustrative of the way that global feminism is invoked, transnational feminist networks are mobilized, and international feminists respond. Second, it was the campaign that helped to “internationalize” the American feminist movement and its key organizations, largely at the instigation of expatriate Afghan women’s groups such as WAPHA. Third, the Feminist Majority’s Campaign to Stop Gender Apartheid and the battle against Unocal was perhaps the first time that a woman’s issue had galvanized so much interest as to affect U.S. foreign policy. This is the sense in which the non-recognition of the Taleban and the prevention of the Unocal pipeline deal may be deemed a success story of transnational feminism, including U.S. feminism.

But the American campaign was not without its problems. For one, the Feminist Majority tended to exaggerate the situation in Afghanistan under the Taleban and oversimplify the situation before the Taleban. Numerous Feminist Majority statements asserted that before the Taleban came to power, “women were educated and employed, enjoyed equality and participated fully in public life”, or that “before the Taleban came to power, 40% of doctors, 60% of teachers, and half the university students were women”. Such statements – which may have been an effective way of raising consciousness and recruiting supporters but were not entirely accurate – caused concern among those more familiar with Afghan political history, its social structure, and its gender relations. How one organization of scholars responded to a Feminist Majority appeal exemplifies the concern that context, history, and accurate statistics should be part of the arsenal of feminist advocacy.

In early April 1999, the Association for Middle East Women’s Studies (AMEWS) received an on-line open letter on Afghanistan from the Feminist Majority, asking for signatures. The AMEWS president and past president forwarded the letter and petition to the members of the board for our review and action. The Feminist Majority letter was addressed to President Clinton, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan. It condemned the violations of women’s human rights in Afghanistan and called for an end to “gender apartheid”. Consisting of five paragraphs, it began by expressing outrage over the Taleban’s restrictions on women and went on in the second paragraph to call these restrictions “a backlash against women”. It claimed that “before the Taleban’s control, women in Afghanistan were educated and employed. At Kabul University half the students and 60% of the teachers were women. In addition, women made up 50% of civilian government workers, 70% of teachers, and 40% of doctors”. The open letter ended by asking the U.S. government and the United Nations not to recognize the Taleban; not to allow the Taleban access to a UN seat; and to “do everything in your power to restore women’s human rights to work, education, health care and safety in Afghanistan, including pressuring Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to stop supporting the Taleban”.

Several of us immediately urged that AMEWS not sign the petition, even though the petition had already been signed by numerous organizations. It was suggested that AMEWS prepare its own, alternative statement on the plight of Afghan women and the responsibility of the international community. The main objection was that the statement was politically misleading and contained ambiguous or inaccurate information on the socio-demographics of Afghanistan. It gave the impression that the oppression of women began with the Taleban, and that the Taleban initiated the backlash against women in 1996, who otherwise had been educated and employed under the Mujahidin government in Kabul (1992-96). Some of us felt uneasy with the phrase “do everything in your power to restore women’s human rights …”, particularly in the wake of the U.S. bombing of Sudan and Afghanistan over the presence of Osama bin Laden (not to mention the Gulf War and the bombing of Yugoslavia) and the U.S. tendency to resort to military action. Nowhere was there reference to the responsibility of the United States for the coming to power of misogynistic tribal-Islamist forces. And again, statements such as “women’s rights need to be restored in Afghanistan” occluded the fact that for the vast majority of Afghan women, there were no rights, as could easily be discerned from the rather sad social indicators on literacy and health.[18]  Another objection had to do with the way the Feminist Majority seemed to be assuming the mantle of savior of the women of Afghanistan. Up until then, its publicity had not cited or given credit to the activities of expatriate Afghan women or their organizations.[19]

The discussion of the Feminist Majority statement among AMEWS members proceeded for about two weeks in April 1999. During this time, members received an on-line report on the celebrity-studded fundraiser organized by the Feminist Majority and Mavis Leno. The report, written by an Afghan woman and former student of one AMEWS officer, was not only critical of the Feminist Majority’s gender apartheid campaign but also sympathetic to the Taleban. It claimed that the Feminist Majority misrepresented and exaggerated the plight of Afghan women; that the Hollywood bash was an affront, given the hunger and deprivation of most Afghans; and that sanctions and similar actions hurt women and girls. It was clear to us that in the midst of these polar positions, AMEWS urgently needed to formulate its own stance. After putting the question to a vote, I was asked to draft an alternative statement, which was circulated among members of the boards, approved, and published in the May 1999 issue of the AMEWS newsletter, The AMEWS Review.

Another problem with the Feminist Majority campaign – particularly irksome to Muslim feminists, though not necessarily to secular feminists from the region – was its focus on the burqa as the sign of Afghan women’s oppression. The Feminist Majority and similar feminist groups seemed to think that veiling had begun under the Taleban, and they were obviously unaware of the longstanding battle over schooling for girls. Nor did their literature spend much time on issues of poverty and underdevelopment as these pertained to Afghan women’s status. Instead, the Feminist Majority latched on to the all-enveloping veil as the main indicator of Afghan women’s subordination and exclusion. The donning of the burqa at rallies, protests, and fundraisers, the selling of swatches of the mesh eye-covering of the burqa, and similar tactics may have worked for dramatic effect in the United States, but they irritated or even alienated others. For example, in Afghanistan, General Dr. Soheila has stated: “The first priority should be given to education, primary school facilities, the economy and reconstruction of the country but the West concentrates on the burka and whether the policies of the Taleban are better or worse than other regimes.”[20] To others, statements such as this (from the Feminist Majority website) again are oversimplified:


This swatch of mesh represents the obstructed view of the world for an entire nation of women who were once free. Wear it in remembrance – so that we do not forget the women and girls of Afghanistan until their right to work, freedom of movement, education and health care are restored and they are free once again.



This well-intentioned statement again obscures the fact that the majority of Afghan women have never been “free”, given the patriarchal constraints within which they lived, and that the removal of the veil by the masses of women is a long-term project that will be realized only after Afghanistan embarks on a comprehensive plan for social and economic development – and then only with massive amounts of foreign aid. The Feminist Majority would do well to encourage the U.S. government to increase its funding for Afghanistan’s reconstruction and development, and in particular to commit resources to the construction of schools for the education of all Afghan women and girls.

In April-May 2002 a new controversy erupted when RAWA launched a scathing attack on the Feminist Majority and Ms. Magazine. Feminist Majority had now become the owner of the magazine, and its spring issue contained a lengthy article on the Afghan women’s rights campaign entitled “A Coalition of Hope”. On 20 April, RAWA issued an open letter to the editors of Ms. in which they lambasted the organization for “claim[ing] a foremost role in ‘freeing’ Afghan women” and called the magazine “the mouthpiece of hegemonic, U.S.-centric, ego driven, corporate feminism.” RAWA was especially incensed that its own important role in the struggle for Afghan women’s rights had been ignored by the article. They wrote:


Over the past 25 years of its existence, a longer history than the Feminist Majority can claim, RAWA … has provided humanitarian assistance and political consciousness to Afghan women and men and has been the voice of the people, documenting abuses that would have gone unreported and are the basis of much of the knowledge that Western groups such as Feminist Majority have about the atrocities in Afghanistan.


The RAWA open letter also criticized the Ms magazine article for its apparent endorsement of the Northern Alliance, despite the Mujahidin/Northern Alliance record of human rights violations, including kidnapping and rapes of women and girls.[21]


Peace-building, Reconstruction and Development with Women

As a set of claims, principles and objectives toward the realization of women’s equality and empowerment, global feminism inspired the worldwide campaign for Afghan women’s rights. Global feminism emerged in the period after the 1985 Nairobi conference and was fully articulated in the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action. It was fostered by the United Nations but practiced and theorized by those transnational feminist networks and international feminists who were part of what had become a worldwide social movement of women. By the time the Taleban came to power in 1996, it was no longer possible to use the language of cultural relativism to justify or ignore the status of women in Afghanistan. The Taleban’s gender regime became the target of an organized and mobilized transnational feminist movement with a commitment to the universality of women’s human rights and the benefit of technological know-how. Thus the “woman question in Afghanistan” evolved from a purely domestic and national problem in the 1980s and early 1990s to a matter of global concern in the second half of the 1990s. The international campaign against the Taleban and in support of Afghan women’s rights exemplified “globalization-from-below” and the active role of transnational feminist networks. The Unocal campaign and the Dushanbe conference and declaration show the promises of transnational feminist approaches based on solidarity, universalist values, and respect for local priorities.

At the same time, the criticisms of the Feminist Majority campaign and RAWA’s angry response to the Spring 2002 issue of Ms. Magazine suggest the limits of transnational feminism and the perils of international solidarity work that is not self-conscious, sensitive, and inclusive. While one could argue that RAWA and the Feminist Majority both have an unfortunate tendency toward self-aggrandizement, it behooves feminist organizations of the global North to display more modesty about their achievements in international work, especially when their own nation-states are seriously implicated in questionable or destructive foreign policies.

On the other hand, there is still cause for optimism. Transnational feminist networks and many nationally-based feminist organizations have continued to monitor the situation of women in post-Taleban Afghanistan, advocate for the right of Afghan women to participate in and benefit from peace-building, reconstruction, and socio-economic development, and to lobby the relevant governments, donor agencies and inter-governmental organizations.

Following the tragedy of September 11, events moved quickly in Afghanistan. The U.S. began a bombing campaign to “rout out” Osama bin Laden and the Taleban; in this they were assisted on the ground by the Northern Alliance. Women’s organizations around the world – including the Feminist Majority in the United States – objected to the bombings and to the civilian deaths and the environmental damage caused by the attacks. Nonetheless, they continued until the Taleban were removed. The United Nations, the European Union, and the United States then convened a special meeting in Bonn, Germany, in November 2001, to select an interim government. Three of the 30 official representatives were women, although they were part of the delegations of three of the political factions, not representatives of Afghan women’s organizations. A six-month interim government was decided upon in Bonn, and two women – the respected surgeon Dr. Soheila Siddiqi and the activist Sima Samar, also trained as a physician – were appointed to the posts of health and women’s rights, respectively. This was followed by the launching of an electoral process to elect a representative government and begin preparations for the drafting of a new constitution. The process involved the convening of a Loya Jirga, the traditional Afghan assembly, and it was encouraging that several women, including the brilliant Soraya Parlika, had been appointed to the Loya Jirga commission, and that the vice-chair of the commission was a woman, Mahboubeh Hoghoughmal.[22] It was also an achievement that talented and experienced women such as Siddiqi, Samar, Parlika, and Hoghoughmal had managed to transcend their divergent political backgrounds and past ideological conflicts to work together toward the building of a new Afghanistan.[23]

The arduous but necessary process of building a modern state and modern civil society in Afghanistan will require that its women leaders and the representatives of the Afghan women’s organizations have a voice in decision-making. Certainly Afghan women can count on the continued support, solidarity and technical assistance of the transnational women’s movement. At the same time, the welfare and rights of Afghan women depend very much on the success of peace-building efforts, the type of government and legal system that are formed, the reconstruction and development of the country’s social and physical infrastructure, and the amount and allocation of foreign aid. Afghan women have suffered oppression, exclusion, and deprivation for a very long time. With a literacy rate estimated (optimistically) at only 20 percent and a life expectancy of only 43 years, Afghan women will require massive amounts of financial resources and technical assistance from the international donor community, and a serious commitment on the part of the national government to provide health, schooling, and employment opportunities for women and girls. An Afghan Women’s Fund, separate from the amount that was pledged for reconstruction by the international donor community in January 2002, may be the way forward.[24] Investing in the women of Afghanistan and ensuring that women’s groups participate in negotiations and decision-making are necessary steps to bring about development, modernization, and women’s rights in Afghanistan. This is the best campaign around which international feminist organizations, especially those from the North, can mobilize.


References Cited

Afkhami, Mahnaz (ed.). 1995. Faith and Freedom: Women’s Human Rights in the Muslim World. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.

—–. 2001. “Gender Apartheid, Cultural Relativism, and Women’s Human Rights in Muslim Societies”, pp. 234-245 in Marjorie Agosin, ed., Women, Gender, and Human Rights: A Global Perspective. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Amnesty International. 1995. Women in Afghanistan: A Human Rights Catastrophe. New York: Amnesty International.

—–. 1996. “Women in Afghanistan.” Focus, vol. 12.

Bunch, Charlotte and Niamh Reilly. 1994. Demanding Accountability: The Global Campaign and the Vienna Tribunal for Women’s Human Rights. New Brunswick, NJ: Center for Women’s Global Leadership.

Goodwin, Jan. 1987. Caught in the Crossfire. New York: Dutton.

Gregorian, Vartan. 1969. The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan. Stanford Univ. Press.

Hasan, Habiba. 1995. “Women in Afghanistan: A Human Rights Catastrophe”, Pakistan Journal of Women’s Studies: Alam-e Niswan, vol. 2, no. 2: 105-110.

Howard-Merriam, Kathleen. 1987. “Afghan Women and their Struggle for Survival.” Pp. 103-114 in Grant Farr and John Merriam, eds., The Afghan Conflict: The Politics of Survival. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Jayawardena, Kumari. 1986. Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World. London: Zed Books.

Kandiyoti, Deniz. 1989. “Women and the Turkish State: Political Actors or Symbolic Pawns?” In Nira Yuval-Davis and Floya Anthias, eds., Woman-Nation-State. London: Macmillan.

Lessing, Doris. 1987. The Wind Blows Away our Words. New York: Vintage.

Moghadam, Valentine M.  1989a. “Revolution, the State, Islam and Women: Sexual Politics in Iran and Afghanistan.” Social Text, no. 22 (Spring): 40-61.

—–. 1989b. « Against Eurocentrism and Nativism: A Review Essay on Samir Amin’s Eurocentrism and Other Texts. » Socialism and Democracy (Graduate Center, CUNY), No. 9, 81-104.

—–. 1992. « Patriarchy and the Politics of Gender in Modernizing Societies: Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. » International Sociology, vol. 7, no. 1 (March): 35-53.

—–. 1993. Modernizing Women: Gender and Social Change in the Middle East. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1993. [Ch. 7 on Afghanistan.]

—–. 1994a. « Revolution, Islamist Reaction, and Women in Afghanistan ». Pp. 211-235 in Women and Revolution in Africa, Asia, and the New World, ed. Mary Ann Tetreault. Univ. of South Carolina Press.

—–. 1994b. “Reform, Revolution and Reaction: The Trajectory of the Woman Question in Afghanistan.” In V. M. Moghadam, ed., Gender and National Identity: Women and Politics in Muslim Societies.  London: Zed Books.

—–. 1994c. « Building Human Resources and Women’s Capabilities in Afghanistan: A Retrospect and Prospects. » World Development (22) (6), June, 859-876.

—–. 1999. “Revolution, Religion and Gender Politics: Iran and Afghanistan Compared.” Journal of Women’s History, vol. 10, no. 4, (January): 172-195.

—–. 2000. “Transnational Feminist Networks: Collective Action in an Era of Globalization.” International Sociology, vol. 15, no. 1 (March): 57-85.

—–. 2002. “Patriarchy and the Politics of Public Space in Afghanistan.” Women’s Studies International Forum, vol. 25, no. 1 (Spring 2002): 1-13.

Morgan, Dan and David B. Ottaway. 1998. “Women’s Fury towards Taleban Stalls Pipeline”, The Washington Post (11 January).

Nawid, Senzil. 1999. Religious Response to Social Change in Afghanistan 1919-1929: King Amanullah and the Afghan Ulama. Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda Publishers.

Papanek, Hanna. 1994. “The Ideal Woman and the Ideal Society: Control and Autonomy in the Construction of Identity.” In V. M. Moghadam, ed., Identity Politics and Women: Cultural Reassertions and Feminisms in International Perspective. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Peters, Julie and Andrea Wolper (eds.). 1995. Women’s Rights Human Rights: International Feminist Perspectives. New York and London: Routledge.

Physicians for Human Rights. 1998. The Taleban’s War on Women: A Health and Human Rights Crisis in Afghanistan. Boston and Washington, DC: Physicians for Human Rights.

—–. 2001. Women’s Health and Human Rights in Afghanistan: A Population-Based Assessment. Boston and Washington, D.C.: Physicians for Human Rights.

Rashid, Ahmed. 1999. Taleban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Roy, Olivier. 1988. Islam and Resistance in Afghanistan.  Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. 2nd ed., 1990.

Rubin, Barnett. 1995. The Fragmentation of Afghanistan.  New Haven: Yale University Press.

Sen, Gita and Caren Grown. 1987. Development, Crises, and Alternative Visions: Third World Women’s Perspectives. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Stiglmayer, Alexandra (ed.). 1994. Mass Rape: The War Against Women in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Translations by Marion Faber. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Tapper, Nancy. 1984. “Causes and Consequences of the Abolition of Brideprice in Afghanistan.” Pp. 291-305 in Shahrani and Canfield, eds., Revolutions and Rebellions in Afghanistan. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

Women Living Under Muslim Laws. 1998. Women’s Situation in Afghanistan/La Situation des femmes en Afghanistan: Compilation. Montpelier: WLUML (August).

Yuval-Davis, Nira. 1997. Gender and Nation. Thousand Oaks: Sage.



[1]  These included Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN), Women in Development Europe (WIDE), and Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML). For an elaboration from a sociological perspective, see Moghadam (2000).

[2]  More recently Roy has reversed his earlier stance, and is now extremely critical of political Islam, including the Afghan Mujahideen, whose cause he championed in his earlier book.  See his new book, The Failure of Political Islam.


[3]  The last official census was conducted between 15 June and 4 July 1979, though only 55-60% of the settled population was counted because of the armed conflict affecting many parts of the country. The Afghan Statistical Yearbook of 1983, based on projections from that census, gave a population of about 16 million for 1981/82 and stated that about 16% of the population was nomadic while another 16% resided in urban areas, nearly half of them in Kabul.

[4]  Former Mujahidin went on to form the Northern Alliance/United Front against the Taleban.


[5]  Goodwin later wrote articles decrying the oppression of women under the Taleban.


[6]  The post-modernist wave is now behind us, but at the time it was cause for considerable debates and controversy. I have elaborated on this in my review of Samir Amin’s seminal book, Eurocentrism, in which he criticizes both eurocentrism and its opposite, which he calls provincialism. The emphasis on “the right to difference”, he notes, is consistent with fundamentalist thought and practice.

[7]  Mai Ghoussoub, “Feminism – or the Eternal Masculine – in the Arab World”, New Left Review 161 (January-February 1987); Rema Hammami and Martina Rieker, “Feminist Orientalism and Orientalist Marxism”, New Left Review 170 (July-August 1988).

[8]  Chandra Mohanty took issue with several Zed books on women’s oppression in the Third World, especially the 1982 book by Juliette Minces called The House of Obedience: Women in Arab Society. Although her essay. “Under Western Eyes”, contained some valid observations, it may have served to silence or intimidate some critics of women’s oppression. Another example would be the widespread criticism of Kate Millet’s trip to Iran and her subsequent book, Going to Iran.


[9]  For example, at the annual Socialist Scholars’ Conference in New York in 1986, I attended a panel discussion on the civil war in Afghanistan and was dismayed to hear three Swedish social democrats speaking in support of the Mujahidin. When I pressed them on the Mujahidin’s opposition to women’s rights, they replied: “Those are not our values, but we cannot impose our values on other cultures.”


[10]  The ICFTU brief statement was among the more astute that were issued then or subsequently. It includes the observation that “the current condition for Afghani women is only the latest in the history of the Islamic radicalization since the fall of the Communist regime. Even before the arrival of the Talebans, the fundamentalist leaders of the anti-soviet resistance had already started to transform Afghanistan into a theocratic state similar to Iran and Saudi Arabia, two countries which invested millions of dollars in the country in order to encourage an Islamic revolution. Since 1992, women had disappeared from the TV screens and from radio waves, and had started to wear the veil in strict accordance with Islamic law.”


[11]  ICFTU,, accessed 10 April 2002.

[12]  See Valentine M. Moghadam, “Building Human Resources and Women’s Capabilities in Afghanistan: A Retrospect and Prospects », World Development (22) (6), June 1994, 859-876; and « A Reply to Maley », World Development, Vol. 24, No. 1 (Jan. 1996): 207-211.

[13]  See, e.g., “Appeal on Behalf of the Afghan Women, Men and Children! Powerless Afghan Women Beg for Survival!”, Sept. 22, 1997, via Internet.


[14]  See, e.g., Katha Pollitt, “Tearing at the Veil: Questions for Sajeda Hayat and Sehar Saba, New York Times Magazine, May 14, 2000. The two women also spoke at my institution, Illinois State University.


[15]   The World March of Women was launched by a rally by some 2,000 women in Geneva on March 8, 2000 and culminated in worldwide marches and rallies in October.

[16]  I am grateful to Maliha Zulficar, one of the Afghan participants, for drawing my attention to the importance of this conference. Information on the conference and Declaration may be found on


[17]  “Women Senators Step Up Fight for Afghan Women”, Feminist Daily News Wire, Oct. 25, 2001, via Feminist Majority website.

[18]  Such views continue. According to a report from Feminist Daily News Wire (Oct. 25, 2001, via Feminist Majority website), Senator Barbara Boxer stated that “Before the rise of the Taleban, women in Afghanistan enjoyed equal rights with men under the Afghan Constitution, adopted in 1964.” Boxer called the U.S.-led war on terrorism “an opportunity to return women to their rightful place in Afghan society.”

[19]  In fact, I had once sent an e-mail message to WAPHA’s Zieba Shorish-Shamley, asking why she thought this was the case. Her reply: “Dearest Val, I do not know why. Would you please ask them this question? I would be very grateful. Warmest regards. Zieba.” About two weeks later, I received an e-mail posting about a workshop to be held in the Netherlands. That first posting listed the Feminist Majority solely as the sponsor. This was followed by a second posting, which listed both the Feminist Majority and WAPHA as sponsors.

[20]  “West feminists under fire from female general”, New York Times, 28 November 2001.

[21]  RAWA, “An Open Letter to the Editors of Ms. Magazine”, posted on their website.

[22]  Soraya is a longstanding member of the Afghan intelligentsia and the women’s movement. In 1964 she helped to found the Democratic Organization of Afghan Women, which was later renamed the Afghan Women’s Council. She was head of the Red Crescent Society when I met her in February 1989, during research travel to Kabul. When I joined a UN research institute in Helsinki in 1990, I invited her to my first international conference, on identity politics and women, which was held in October of that year. We lost touch after the collapse of Dr. Najibullah’s government in April 1992, and I worried about her and the other women (as well as several Iranian political refugees) I had met in Kabul. My 1993 book, Modernizing Women: Gender and Social Change in the Middle East, was dedicated to Afghan women, and I included a chapter on Afghanistan that described the important activities of the Afghan women whom I had met and come to admire. In late 2001, Soraya resurfaced; she was featured in an article in the Dec. 3 issue of Newsweek and described as perhaps the principal feminist leader in Afghanistan. She had bravely stayed on in Kabul during the nightmare years of the Mujahidin and the Taleban (as had Dr. Soheila), and had held classes and meetings at her home for women and girls, in clear defiance of the Taleban.


[23]  Unfortunately, this sentiment is not shared by all outside observers. Jan Goodwin, who had supported the Mujahidin in the 1980s and wrote a book about her travels with them, claimed in April 2002 that “Many Afghans are outraged that a number of those on the loya jirga commission were ranking Communists during the Soviet occupation, including Soraya Parlika.” She cites just one Afghan, the expatriate Zieba Shorish-Shamley, who claims that “Afghanistan’s tragic legacy of total destruction began with the Communists.” See Jan Goodwin, “An Uneasy Peace”, The Nation, April 29, 2002, pp. 22-23.

[24]  The conference of donors in Tokyo in January 2002 pledged a total of $4.5 billion, including $297 million from the U.S. and $500 million from the EU. Other countries pledged funds over a period of years (e.g., Saudi Arabia pledged $220 million over three years.) The total of $4.5 billion, it should be noted, is less than the $5 billion that the United States and Saudi Arabia are said to have expended (conservatively) on the Mujahidin during the 1980s.

armanda dos santos

Armanda DOS SANTOS Mail: Journaliste & auteure Thérapeute Ayurvedique Praticienne en Panchakarma, Marmatherapie & Réflexologie Redactrice editoriale d'Ayurveda Magazine France, de The Bliss Way Webzine, co-fondatrice de Nature's Diet (UK), et redactrice pour Everyday Ayurveda (US). Executive Editor de la revue internationale JAHM (Journal of Ayurveda and Holistic Medicine). Membre d'Ayurvéda France, Association des professionnels de l'Ayurvéda en France. Membre de l'Ayurvedic Practitioners Association (APA), en UK. Membre de Yoga International. Maitre Reiki (Reiki Level I, Level II, Master Certification) Disciple du Maitre Zen Thich Nhat Hanh Hijama Therapist, Thérapeute en ventouso-therapie

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