Insights and Analysis

CFR’s Isobel Coleman Interviewed on Women’s Fragile Gains in Afghanistan

June 6, 2012

Isobel Coleman

Isobel Coleman, Council on Foreign Relations

Ahead of the second annual Lotus Leadership Awards in New York City on June 7, Asia Foundation’s Women’s Empowerment Director Carol Yost interviews featured panelist Isobel Coleman, senior fellow and director of the Civil Society, Markets and Democracy Program at Council on Foreign Relations, on women’s advances in Afghanistan, why this progress is so fragile, her “national hero,” and more.

CY: According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2011, greater economic prosperity in some Asian nations has helped advance women’s progress in areas like education, economic opportunity, and political participation. In what ways has this progress been made in Afghanistan over the last decade?

IC: Women have made a lot of progress in Afghanistan in the past decade. In fact, it still is awful in many ways, but in other ways, women are further ahead today in Afghanistan than they have been ever before. There are more women-owned businesses and women in the media, women on television, women on the radio, and soap operas that depict women’s lives and issues in very real and compelling ways that have sparked a lot of debate and discussion in the broader society. There is a very popular soap opera, “The Secrets of This House,” on Tolo TV that portrays women and their struggles in a very real light and it reaches a broad section of society, is highly watched, and gets people thinking and talking about women’s role in society – that in itself is a big step forward.

But, there have been other periods in Afghanistan when women have made gains and then fallen back significantly. It’s important to keep in mind the gains that have been made are very fragile and at risk of backsliding.

CY: Today, girls make up 37 percent of the 7 million Afghan students in primary and secondary schools. How has this been achieved?

IC: In 2001, there were a very small number of girls who attended school, even under the Taliban years, although they were mostly secret schools or schools in people’s homes. You also had millions of Afghan refugees in Iran and Pakistan going to school in the camps there. However, an actual school system that accommodated girls really didn’t exist in Afghanistan in 2001. And, today it does. But there are huge variations across the country: in some regions, 60 percent of girls are in school, but there are other areas, particularly in the south and east, where the percentage of girls attending schools is still in the low single digits. The issue of girls in school continues to be highly contested in society, and at times violently contested. In recent weeks, we’ve once again seen reports of girls being poisoned at school, and the Taliban have taken credit for it.

Education has been a big focus for the international community working in Afghanistan. Over the last decade, there has been a big push to open schools for girls, but as I said, it has been uneven progress across the country, and some of these schools have been built but were later burned down. Girls have been attacked at school, they’ve had acid thrown in their faces, teachers have been killed, and the principal has been assassinated. And yet families continue to send their daughters to school, again and again, because they recognize that getting an education is the difference between having a shot at a better life or not. To me, the tenacity and the determination of families to educate their children is remarkable.

CY: In your book, Paradise Beneath Her Feet, you argue that the efforts of activists who are working within the tenets of Islam to create economic, political, and educational opportunities for women, are critical in the fight for women’s rights. How is this playing out in Afghanistan?

IC: In Afghanistan, the role of Islam is central. The local mullah has enormous influence and power and Islam is a pervasive cultural, religious, and political force. So, you ignore it at your own peril. Women well understand that they have to figure out a way to work within this. Religion has been used against women in Afghanistan for a very long time, and the Taliban have based their oppression of women on Islamic arguments to justify their actions. But, you also have a group of reformers who are looking to more progressive interpretations of Islam to bolster their own reform agendas. They point to Koranic teachings to show that it’s ok for girls to go to school, and it’s ok for a woman to travel a distance to the market to sell her goods, and in fact, it’s not ok for men to beat their wives. If you can use religion to help promote those ways of thinking, then it’s powerful.

CY: Can you talk a bit about some of these men and women activists and how they’ve contributed to greater opportunities for women and girls in Afghanistan?

IC: Afghanistan now has a woman governor, Habiba Sarabi of Bamiyan Province – she has been governor since 2005 and she’s popular. There are also high profile women leaders of civil society organizations, like Sima Samar who is the head of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. There are women in parliament, many of them actively speaking out and representing their country at international conferences in places like London and Bonn. Everyday, these women fear for their lives, they recognize that they are targets, and yet they are very determined to make a difference for their country and they have been at it for a long time now. Many of them have paid for their public leadership with their lives.

One of my favorite examples is Sakena Yacoobi, founder of the Afghan Institute of Learning and recipient of this year’s Lotus Leadership Award. I think of her as an Afghan national hero. She has devoted her life to improving the health, rights, and education of Afghan women. By extension, she has touched the lives of millions of Afghans – women, children, husbands, brothers. She embodies the approach that I discussed earlier of being culturally sensitive in her approach and appealing to more progressive Islamic arguments to strengthen her work. She refers to the Koran to help local communities understand why women, for example, should have access to health care professionals during childbirth, or access to family planning and birth control, or that girls should have a say in who they marry. She weaves Koranic arguments throughout her teachings and works with male leaders and heads of households to allow women in the family and community to access the trainings that she provides.

CY: As Afghanistan transitions, what is at stake for Afghan women? How can the international community ensure that the gains that have been made don’t slip away?

IC: Polls show that 85 plus percent of Afghan people support a girl’s right to go to school, and the majority believes that women should be able to work outside of the home. But, there are groups who have committed themselves to a certain vision and a constrained role for women is very much part of that vision. And, they use force and violence to uphold it, as we’re seeing in the recent attacks on girls’ schools.

The drawdown of international forces will leave segments of Afghan society vulnerable, and women are one of those segments. There has been a big investment in the Afghan domestic security forces but it is questionable how well they will protect women when international forces are gone. With few troops on the ground in the future, the international community’s ability to do that will be limited.

Making sure that local women leaders and women-led civil society organizations have a voice is the most important thing that the international community can do for women. To listen to them, give them a platform, and give them a megaphone to amplify their message; to not forget them, to not just wash our hands of the situation. These groups will be one of the few bulwarks against a re-Talibanization of society. Supporting independent media and making sure that women have a seat at the table when the big policy questions are being debated and discussed is also important. There is a lot of pressure to open up the constitution for review, and when that happens, it’s inevitable that the clauses that have enhanced women’s participation (one that states that women should have 25 percent quota in parliament and the other that women should enjoy equal rights to men) will inevitably come under attack.

Probably the worst thing that could happen for women in Afghanistan is if the country dissolves back into civil war. Given all of the blood and treasure that has been spilt in that country, I hope that the international community stays engaged enough to keep that from happening. On the other hand, I think that the continued international presence has worn out its welcome. Afghanistan’s future is going to be determined by Afghans, and there are very strong and determined women who will need the continued support of the international community to protect the gains they have achieved so far, and to keep pushing for new opportunities for the next generation.


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