The Lives of Contemporary Afghan Women

[Editor's Note: The following post was written by Ashraf Zahedi, co-editor of Land of the Unconquerable: The Contemporary Lives of Afghan Women. Zahedi, along with contributor Amina Kator and moderator Kavita Ramdas, former CEO of the Global Fund for Women, will appear in conversation for an IMOW event next week, July 27. More information about the event can be found here.]
Photo by Sheryl Shapiro from Land of the Unconquerable: The Contemporary Lives of Afghan Women

The news from Afghanistan is not always promising. Yet despite hardships and horrors, life in Afghanistan continues. How are women faring against the odds? Sadly, gradually, it seems that many people in the West, so enthusiastic about liberating (and unveiling) Afghan women, have lost interest. The vast numbers of NGOs, so ubiquitous in the beginning, have decreased rapidly, especially in the neediest rural areas, which have become more and more dangerous for foreign aid workers. The Afghan government has little or no power outside the capital city. The Western media has reduced its presence and unless the news is sensational, reports of reconstruction and of how Afghans are coping are progressively more sporadic.

What explains this shift in the West’s socio-political and economic commitments? The short answer lies in limited understanding of Afghanistan and its complexity. Outsiders’ slanted and ahistorical views of Afghanistan and their dichotomous constructs of Afghan men as oppressors and Afghan women as oppressed have portrayed an unrealistic view of Afghan society and its gender relations. In many ways the hyped political promises and idealistic social policies have not served Afghan women well.

In Land of the Unconquerable: The Lives of Contemporary Afghan Women, Jennifer Heath and Ashraf Zahedi examine the reality of life for women today in Afghanistan. They explore what has been done for Afghan women through the efforts of governmental and non-governmental organization, and, most importantly, they consider how Afghan women themselves are rising to the immense challenges, how they envision and plan to meet the future.

Heath and Zahedi examine the complexities of Afghan women’s lives and approach the situation holistically, understanding that Afghanistan is made up of women and men whose suffering and triumphs are interwoven. Land of the Unconquerable draws on the diverse expertise of accomplished scholars, as well as humanitarian workers. These writers contextualize the structural and cultural impediments to Afghan women’s advancement -- as determined by Afghan women themselves. The book offers a large and full picture: historical background leading to insights, observations, and narratives of women’s lives in the present, and comprehensive solutions and social policy recommendations in chapters about the constitution, law, leadership and gender policy, mental and physical health, education, economics, family life and more. These writers propose potential short- and long-term solutions, requiring national and international commitments and resource allocation.

What needs to be done after ten years of engagement with Afghanistan is not withdrawal of support but its further expansion. But this time the aim should be to improve Afghan people’s lives through social measures that are driven by the Afghans themselves and not by the national or international donors. Long-term solutions should take precedence over short-term measures with no lasting impact. Today, more than ever before, Afghan women need non-Afghan support to secure their gains over the past decade and further build on them.