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Afghan Women Will Only Be ‘Empowered’ When They Are Free From Violence

Many international donors want to invest in Afghan women’s economic potential. But the country needs to transform its entire gender infrastructure to really change women’s lives, writes Ayesha Ahmad.

Written by Ayesha Ahmad Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Niloofar Rahmani, an Afghan Air Force pilot was supposed to be a trailblazer for women. Instead, threats and abuse have led her to seek asylum from Afghanistan in the United States.Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images

In Afghanistan, “economic empowerment” is a buzzword of the day, most frequently used by starry-eyed donors and development workers as they implement employment schemes, skill-development programs and community participation initiatives throughout the country, all in the name of gender equality.

But what does “empowerment” mean for Afghan women?

While international organizations are focusing on developing programs that help women gain education and employment skills, many local women are busy fighting against the taboo of revealing their own name.

The Where is My Name? campaign has been gaining momentum since it was established by a small group of women in the city of Herat in 2017. It refers to an Afghan tradition that prevents women’s names from being used on official documents. In death, a woman’s identity is buried with her: Her husband’s or father’s name is used on her headstone.

#WhereIsMyName is evidence of a fundamental battle against discrimination, and it reveals an uncomfortable truth about international efforts to “empower” Afghan women.

Financially independent women, or those who ease the economic hardship within a family, may appear to tick the boxes of a functioning, gender-equal society. But the cultural ground that these women walk on still rejects the full weight of their existence.

And while campaigners are fighting for their own identity as Afghan women – women who have names as well as jobs – Western-run programs are focusing on narrow definitions of “empowerment” that fail to address such deep-seated, damaging norms.

Does this mean Afghan women are not being heard by development organizations? Certainly, there are words missing from the dialogue.

Living With Violence

It is vital that economic development programs consider the meaning of power for an Afghan woman, which means freedom from violence.

Afghanistan has extremely high rates of violence against women and girls, a situation perpetuated by a combination of impunity for offenders and the general acceptability of extreme unequal gender norms in the post-Taliban era. The poetry and stories of the Afghan Women’s Writing Project starkly illustrate the woven narrative of violence that follows from birth to death for women and girls.

Many development programs focus on providing women with work in farming, sewing or making handicrafts. But these schemes won’t fix high rates of violence against women and girls. (AFP/Hoshang Hashimi)

It’s true that tackling gender-based violence is strongly linked to improving the economic basis of women’s lives.

While men commit violence against women of all backgrounds, poverty can increase the risk. Without economic independence, women can be bound to violent domestic settings amid serious wider security threats.

But that does not meant that economic advancement programs will end gender-based violence on their own, nor should it mean that those programs should not try to address violence.

A New Gender Infrastructure

When Afghanistan was under the control of the Taliban, between 1996 and 2001, systematic, instrumental strategies were implemented to omit women from public life, and as a result, the country’s economic development.

The Taliban is no longer in power, but serious challenges remain on both a societal and governmental level; with a recent analysis showing that the Taliban still threatens 70 percent of the country, its restrictions are far from a distant memory.

Today, there is international pressure on the Afghan government to rebuild the rights of women. This requires the construction of an entire infrastructure in which women and girls can freely exist – where they are able to get an education, travel freely and eventually earn a living, free from danger.

This is far from the case now. In November 2017, Kabul University veterinary student Zahra Khwarai killed herself by ingesting rat poison after her thesis was rejected for the eighth time by her supervisor. Her roommates had tried to take her to hospital, but they were not granted permission to leave the premises by the person in charge of the women’s dormitory, who claimed they did not have the required accreditation.

Working Within the System

The fundamental problem with “empowerment” programs is that they try to operate within restrictive gender norms, rather than helping to build a new infrastructure for women’s advancement.

Various organizations and schemes continue to fund women-led businesses, programs to improve women’s livelihoods and increase women’s participation in decision-making. While these programs can generate economic growth within their community, the projects typically fund activities such as vegetable production, sewing clothes or handicrafts that conform to existing gender roles. There is little scope for women to carve out their own identities.

More ambitious programs can also be fraught. In 2015, Promote, a U.S. aid scheme, invested $416 million into programs to strengthen women’s economic development in the form of mentorship, leadership programs and schemes to get more women into the civil service. But it has been questioned whether the 75,000 women it targets will benefit.

Saley Ghaffar, who represents the Solidarity Party of Afghanistan, is a staunch critic of U.S. and NATO’s involvement in the county. She says women are used as “showpieces” by the government to provide the illusion of progress on gender equality.

A telling example is that of Niloofar Rahmani, Afghanistan’s first post-Taliban female fixed-wing pilot. After undertaking training in the U.S. as part of efforts to increase women’s representation in Afghan security forces, she was impelled to apply for asylum due to a widespread backlash against her public role, resulting in threats not just from extremists, but also from her relatives.

Unearthing the Roots of Violence

Whilst economic development is most certainly one of the routes forward for Afghan women, such attempts will be futile unless the root of violence is unearthed.

In a sense, focusing on women’s economic “empowerment” at all is a misnomer. Women are cut off from society, including the workplace, because of structural violence, not because of a lack of capability or inherent power. Afghan women are navigating their survival in one of the most hostile and dangerous places in the world. That is very powerful.

But as long as they live under the threat of personal and institutional violence, and as long as they are unable to use their own names, their potential will never be reached.

The views expressed in this article belong to its author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Women’s Advancement Deeply.

This article is part of “Beyond Empowerment,” a collection of pieces that interrogate the dominant narratives around women’s economic advancement and propose alternative ways of thinking about gender equality. Read more in the series:

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