Violence or the use of force is often employed to create an ‘ideal society’. Within this ‘ideal society’ women commonly become the marker of political goals and cultural identity as their behaviour and appearance become constrained by the political and cultural objectives of a movement. This notion of ‘body politics’ is nowhere more prevalent than under the Taliban regime (1996-2001) in Afghanistan.

The Taliban’s oppression of women is a benchmark for their Islamic radicalism and their stated objective to ‘cleanse’ society. As a result, much of the rhetoric from this period engages exclusively with the Taliban’s harsh treatment of Afghan women and the restrictions imposed on them. However, this perspective wrongly portrays all Afghan women as victims of war – ‘someone killed, destroyed, injured, oppressed, or otherwise harmed by, or suffering from, the conditions of war’. This reductionist portrayal of passivity is far too simplistic: it ignores the many Afghan women who actively resisted the Taliban’s constraints on their lives and made crucial political and social contributions to society.

Afghan women were politically vital in demobilising men for fighting. In 2001, Barbara Ehrenreich wrote in the Los Angeles Times that Third World men were facing a ‘global masculinity crisis’. This was due to the entry of women into areas of employment and political participation. Ehrenreich used this analysis to account for the ‘hatred of women’ the Taliban exhibited, and deduced that the Taliban’s misogyny was the result of all-male madrasas devoid of the ‘potentially softening influence of mothers and sisters’.

This reflects an incomplete understanding of the position of Afghan women within their family. In fact, the victimisation of Afghan women wrongly focuses upon the visible, public sphere of society. This ignores private areas such as the household, in which Afghan women themselves claim to exercise the most political influence. The family context is central to women’s agency, as it was usually the mother who decided whether her husband, son or brother should go to the frontline. This is tied to the Quranic teaching that attaches supreme importance to the mother. She is seen as the gateway to heaven, and sons are required to obey her decisions in order to enter heaven. The power and value of an Afghan woman’s position in her family thus became critical to brokering peace through the demobilisation of men.

As social actors Afghan women worked together to create networks, norms and trust in their communities. This allowed them to operate underground services to support one another against the prohibitions of the Taliban regime. This was especially prevalent with regards to education. The desire for schooling ran deep in Afghanistan, rendering many women to turn their homes into underground schools.

Not only women and girls, but boys also benefitted from these schools that were organised and financed entirely by women. It was by word of mouth that news of these homes spread. Boys, girls and women hid their books and stationary, and risked their lives to attend these schools. Yet it enabled them to become educated in basic literacy and numeracy, as well as various other subjects at different levels. Running these underground schools also created income-generating opportunities for women, allowing them to survive financially: ‘[Ghamar jaan] secretly taught more than 800 students in her home. Many of us paid her as much as we could… This was very little money – she could hardly manage the household expenses – but it was better than nothing. Without her our daughters would have been illiterate’.

The survival of these secret schools was largely due to the levels of trust and support women gave to each other, and it created cohesion among networks, and solidarity within communities. The Taliban caught many women participating in these illicit activities. However, despite persecution, jail and torture, they continued their struggle. Hadeya Malekzad for example, continued teaching students in her home despite threats from the Taliban. She later became a key leader in the community, frequently discussing with other women the significance of education and employment.

Afghan women did suffer as victims under the Taliban – they suffered from human rights abuses that encompassed and imposed upon every aspect of their lives. But we should not fail to recognise the many empowered Afghan women who became aware of their abilities to organise and survive. To label them henceforth simply as victims, would be an injustice to both their political and social efforts.

By Anum Farhan