Afghanistan’s long struggle with reforms and conservativism

For a hundred years, the Afghan people have struggled between two visions of their society—one that saw the need to reform society through women’s emancipation and the advancement of ethnic minorities, and the other that saw the future in the past and insisted on the most conservative views being dominant in social life. The Taliban is the apotheosis of the second path.

Published : Aug 22, 2021 06:00 IST

Amanullah and his wife Queen Soraya during their Europe trip, circa 1927-28.

In October 1911, Mahmud Beg Tarzi (1865-1933) began to publish a sparkling new journal in Kabul called Siraj al-akhbar (“The Torch of the News”). Tarzi, who came from an aristocratic family, had grown up in exile in the Ottoman Empire, where he imbibed the air of reform from the great intellectual itinerant Jamal ad Din al Afghani (1838-1897).

The journal promoted the reforms of King Habibullah, which were partly motivated by British control over Afghanistan (since the Second Afghan War of 1878-1880) and by the currents of modernity that Tarzi had experienced in Istanbul. Tarzi made the case that a society would not progress unless women’s education was placed at the heart of the reform agenda. In his journal, Asma Rasmya Khanum, who was born in Damascus in 1877, was influenced by the Tanzimat Reforms of the Ottoman Empire and had married Tarzi, published a series that celebrated famous women from around the world. In 1921, she began to edit a newspaper, Irshad al-niswan (Guide for Women), which remained in print until 1925. Their daughter Soraya Tarzi married King Amanullah Khan, who succeeded his father to the throne in 1919. In 1921, Asma Rasmya Khanum and Queen Soraya opened the country’s first school for girls, Maktab-i Masturat.

Under the influence of Tarzi and Asma Rasmya Khanum, King Amanullah Khan proceeded to accelerate the social reform in Afghanistan that had been gradually hinted at by his father. In 1928, one of Amanullah’s sisters, Princess Kobra, set up the Society for the Protection of Women (Anjuman-i-himayat-i-niswan), while another sister, Princess Siraj al-banat, directed the Women’s Hospital in Kabul from 1924 onwards.

Reforms such as these impacted mainly the aristocrats and the few state bureaucrats who lived and worked close to them. As many as 800 girls attended the school at a time. Nonetheless, the reforms promoted by Tarzi agitated the more conservative sections of society. In 1913, for instance, Mufti Muhammed Rafiq wrote to Tarzi to ask about why he had decided to focus on women as a mark of progress; why not, the mufti wrote, focus on men and machines? Tarzi responded, “There is no newspaper or magazine these days that does not mention something about the activities of women. Apart from European papers, Turkish, Arabic, and Indian journals have coverage on debates over women’s rights.” Deriving inspiration from the views of Tarzi, Amanullah Khan started a debate over a series of policies that bedevil Afghan society to this day. He signed a set of nizamnamahs (decrees) to forbid child marriage (the age of consent set to 13), to forbid polygamy, to allow widows to remarry, to remove the chador (veil), and to regulate mahr (dowry).

It is important to point out that King Amanullah had defeated the British in the Third Anglo-Afghan War of 1919. In its aftermath, the British spent enormous energy trying to undermine Amanullah’s regime. When Amanullah and Queen Soraya travelled through Europe in 1927-28, they met a range of people. During the trip, Soraya was photographed in public without a veil, at a dinner table with men other than her husband, and having her hand kissed by French President Gaston Doumergue. British intelligence distributed these photographs inside Afghanistan, inflaming conservative sections who already felt disturbed by the basic reforms undertaken by Amanullah. A warlord, Habibullah Kalakani (or Bacha-i Saqao), was backed by these conservative sections to march on Kabul, overthrow Amanullah, and take power. Kalakani called the King a kafir (non-believer), closed girls’ schools, revived the veil, and abolished all the other basic reforms of Amanullah.

From 1919 to the present day, Afghanistan has struggled between reform and reaction, the latter used effectively by imperial powers to undermine the sovereignty of the country. A weak Afghanistan enabled the British Empire to use it as a forward post against the Soviet Union. Nothing that Tarzi and Asma Rasmya Khanum did would have surprised people in other countries, since their suggested reforms—many adopted by Habibullah and then Amanullah—were modest. But these reforms did upset the more conservative sections of Afghan society, who found an ally in the British Empire to undermine Afghanistan’s social development.

The defeat of Amanullah was not the end of the story. Two more phases remained, another long period of reform from 1953 to 1992, and another period of dark reaction from 1992 to the present. The British no longer were the main outside agent. That role fell to the United States of America, backed fully by Saudi Arabia.

Gender equality & literacy

Afghanistan had four constitutions (1923, 1964, 1976, and 1987) that enshrined equality between men and women and provided a pathway to widespread social reform. These constitutions emerged out of a combination of elite reform, such as those promoted by Tarzi, and grassroots struggles, such as those promoted by the Communists and by women’s organisations. Each of them advanced an agenda to bring literacy to a population where under 20 per cent were literate in 1979. The gap between the policies of the liberal aristocrats (such as Prime Minister Muhammad Da’ud) and the Communists (such as Anahita Ratebzad) was narrow, since both worked over these decades to increase literacy and education, to improve the living conditions of the population, and to enhance their cultural opportunities.

President Da’ud’s Civil Law of 1977 mirrored Anahita Ratebzad’s decrees as Minister of Social Affairs in the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA). For instance, Anahita Ratebzad’s Decree Number Seven regulated dowry and marriage expenses, which had already been regulated by Amanullah Khan and then by Da’ud. There was nothing specifically communist about these reforms, although Anahita Ratebzad was a Communist.

What differentiated Amanullah and Da’ud from Communists such as Anahita Ratebzad was that the latter moved to increase the literacy of the population. Anahita Ratebzad was one of four women who were elected to the Grand Assembly in 1965 (the others were Khadija Ahrari of Herat, Masuma Esmati Wardak of Kandahar, Roqia Abubakr of Kabul, and Ratebzad of Kabul). As a founder of the Democratic Organisation of Afghan Women (DOAW, founded in 1965), she participated in building mass struggles to urge Da’ud towards the 1976 Constitution and the 1977 Civil Law. Article 27 of that Law stated, “All the people of Afghanistan, both women and men, without discrimination and privilege, have equal rights and obligations before the law.” This was a substantial gain, which was built upon by the Communists after they took power in April 1978. In the second half of 1978, DOAW and other mass organisations worked with the state structures to launch a remarkable literacy programme in the country.

At the time of the Communist coup in 1978, the literacy rate in the country was a mere 18.6% (the numbers for women were negligible). Some 18,000 instructors went into rural and urban areas to hasten the people’s literacy, which was seen as the necessary foundation for any social reform. Hundreds of women left colleges each year as teachers and as doctors, as government officials and as professors. They took the ideas that had been developed in Kabul and brought them to rural areas, where they directly confronted the tribal leaders, the landlords, and the clergy. Both the mass literacy and the land reform campaigns were seen by the conservative sections—the landlords and the clergy—as an assault on their control over society. This is what had to be stopped by any means necessary.

An era of counter-reform

From 1919 onwards, reformers faced extreme resistance from the landlords, many tribal leaders and most of the clergy. Even monarchs could not save themselves from the wrath of this coalition, egged on by the British and later U.S. imperialists. King Amanullah was forced to abdicate due to his reforms in 1929, and King Nader Shah was assassinated for his reforms in 1933. As waves of reform churned in Afghan society, the conservatives gathered their forces, led by Burhanuddin Rabbani (who taught Islamic theology at Kabul University), into the Jamiat-e-Islami in 1972. The Jamiat was inspired by the views of Abul A’la Maududi and the Jamaat-e-Islami of Pakistan. The Jamiat fought the reforms, which is why Da’ud called for the arrest of Rabbani, who escaped to Pakistan in 1973. He took with him a section of the Jamiat, who rooted themselves in refugee camps along the Pakistan-Afghan border from which would emerge both the U.S.-Saudi-Pakistani-backed mujahideen of the 1980s and the Taliban of the 1990s.

Rabbani’s Jamiat pronounced the importance of polygamy and child marriage, while attacking both women’s education and women’s role in public life. Rabbani drew veteran student activists from Kabul University, such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar into his movement. Hekmatyar had made his name in Kabul in 1969 by throwing acid on the faces of female students. Two decades later, his followers would again throw acid on the faces of female teachers and aid workers in the refugee camps of Peshawar. These are nasty men, each one of them utterly opposed to the long century of Afghan social reform. Hekmatyar is currently in Kabul and is likely to be absorbed into the Taliban-dominated government.

The mujahideen, backed fully by the U.S., ran the refugee camps in Pakistan. A survey in these camps in 1986 found that only 5 per cent of girls between the ages of 5 and 11 and only 1.4 per cent of girls between the ages of 12 and 17 went to school. In 1990, 200 Afghan clergy in Peshawar signed a decree that forbade female education. “This is not the right time for women and girls to become educated,” they wrote. In 1993, the Office of Research and Decrees of the Supreme Court of the Islamic State of Afghanistan—the mujahideen’s government—said that “women need not go out of their homes at all.” “Schools are whorehouses,” the Decree stated, “and centres of adultery and fornication.” This was all before the Taliban came to power. These were the U.S.-backed mujahideen, who would then refashion themselves as the Northern Alliance in 2001.

In March 1990, Fatimah Yasir, the President of the Islamic Organisation of Afghan Women, the exact opposite of Anahita Ratebzad, spoke at a conference in Peshawar on the future of “Islamic Afghanistan”. Fatimah Yasir said that women could participate in public life, but only if they strictly followed the letter of Islamic law, including wearing a veil and being involved only in women’s duties (child-rearing, sowing, embroidery). Even her stance was rejected by the men in her ranks. They would not tolerate even such a minor reform.

For a hundred years, the Afghan people have struggled between two visions of their society—one that saw the immense need to reform society and advance the goals of all sections through land reforms and literacy campaigns, through women’s emancipation and the advancement of ethnic minorities; another that saw the future in the past and insisted on the most conservative views being dominant in social life. The Taliban is the apotheosis of the second path, the conservative path, the path that does not tolerate anything that was brought back from Istanbul and Damascus by Mahmud Beg Tarzi and Asma Rasmya Khanum and then refined in Kabul by Anahita Ratebzad.

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