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In Afghanistan, Gender Not Always Indicator of Support for Women’s Rights

December 13, 2017

By Tabasum Akseer and Fahim Ahmad Yousufzai

During a meeting last week with female lawmakers on the role of women in state-building and government, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani declared that “discrimination against women is not our culture.” 

There is a robust relationship between the strength of democracy, gender equality, and security. This relationship is implicit in the National Unity Government (NUG) efforts to strengthen the rights of Afghanistan’s women. Since the ousting of the Taliban in 2001, and the adoption of the Afghan constitution in 2004, many gains have been made in public attitudes toward women’s role in politics and leadership. More than 78,000 women have been appointed to government positions since 2001, and over 8,000 women currently hold government offices. However, many areas of progress for women have stagnated. The reality today is that Afghanistan continues to be one of the most dangerous countries in the world for women.

When Afghan women are asked what their two most significant challenges are, those who are able to articulate a response identify education, domestic violence, unemployment, lack of rights, and forced marriage.

The stagnation can in large part be attributed to hardline conservative attitudes toward women still entrenched from the Taliban era. The Asia Foundation’s recent Survey of the Afghan People, the longest-running and broadest nationwide survey of Afghan attitudes and opinion, confirms the continued presence of conservative cultural attitudes across society, among both men and women. 

In terms of advancement of women’s rights, it is not surprising that in many instances, women are significantly more supportive of women’s equality and basic rights than men. For example, despite being more fearful to engage in peaceful demonstrations (37% female, 25% male), to travel to another part of the country (38% women, 32% men), and vote in an election (15% women, 12% men), female respondents continue to have stronger support of women’s rights, such as their independence in voting (63% women, 57% men). 

And in a sample size where 66 percent of women have no formal schooling (compared to 35% of men), women are more supportive of equal opportunities to education at all levels than men; Islamic madrasa (3 percentage points higher than men), primary school (2 percentage points), high school (7 percentage points), university in province (11 percentage points), university outside of province (7 percentage points), and studying abroad on a scholarship (9 percentage points). 

When Afghan women are asked what their two most significant challenges are, those who are able to articulate a response identify education (38%), domestic violence (22%), unemployment (22%), lack of rights (21%), and forced marriage (15%). The latter finding forced marriage as the most significant challenge is interesting as it refers to harmful cultural practices that are often imposed on Afghan women. Forced marriages are a part of the practice of baad and baddal. Baad is the traditional practice of giving away a daughter to another party as a penalty or payment to settle a debt or resolve a dispute, grievance, or conflict between families. Baddal refers to the exchange of daughters in marriage between families. Both practices are often, but not always, a form of forced marriage. 

Fortunately, support for these practices continues to decline among both men and women in Afghanistan. In reviewing these findings, one would assume gender differences in support of the practices, with women overwhelmingly supportive of women’s rights in general. Since more women highlight forced marriage (15%) as a challenge than do men (9%), the assumption that more women would be against this practice is a valid one. Yet this is not the case. According to survey data, the level of agreement for both practices is almost the same among men and women. 

The survey reveals other paradoxical findings. When asked whether it’s acceptable for women to work outside the home, 72 percent of respondents agree women should be allowed to work outside the home. This represents a substantially higher percentage of women than men who agree with women working outside the home (81% and 64%, respectively). Looking at the 26 percent who disagree with women working outside the home, the most commonly cited reasons are: uncertain conditions (24%), that it’s against Islamic law (19%), they are not needed outside the home (12%), bad security (12%), the family doesn’t allow it (9%), don’t know (6%), it prevents moral corruption (4%), and that women should not work alongside men (4%). 

Nearly twice as many men as women (23% vs. 12%) believe women working outside the home is against Islamic law. Surprisingly, at the same time, 9 percent of female respondents say   women should not work alongside men, compared to 1 percent of male respondents. Whether women are concerned about workplace discrimination or morality, it is unclear from the data. However, as global outrage over harassment mounts, a few brave women have recently spoken out about sexual harassment in the workplace. The #MeToo movement inspired by women across the globe has salience with female Afghan journalists who promise to “leave no sister behind” by highlighting the experiences of women and girls entrapped by abuse and gender-based violence. 

Yet, this sisterhood of support for one another is unique and inconsistent. Early on in this blog we suggest women are at the forefront of support for gender equality. With this in mind, if we gender disaggregate the 26 percent of Afghans who do not agree women should work outside of the home, we see 67 percent are men, and, interestingly, 33 percent are women. A deeper dive into this data reveals women who don’t support women working outside the home are more likely to:

  • be uneducated (20%) or have only 1-6 years of formal schooling (20%);
  • be sympathetic to the Taliban (25%);
  • say religious leaders should be involved in politics (67%)
  • be married (17%);
  • live in rural areas (19%);
  • report not having a skill or activity to generate money (17%); and
  • use radio (20%), community shuras (19%), and mosques (17%) for obtaining news or information.

We can compare this to overall factors that predict support for women’s rights at the national level; the survey finds Afghans who support women’s rights, are more likely to be: educated, urban dwellers, feel safe participating in socio-political activities, have access to media, and report that politics and religion should not be mixed. Most importantly, they are more likely to be women and less sympathetic to the conservative Taliban. 

These findings demonstrate the complexity of support for women’s rights in Afghanistan. They interrogate the assumption that gender is an indicator of women’s rights, and make inferences to how deeply engrained cultural practices are for certain Afghan women. The Survey shows that one in four Afghan women are unable to even articulate what their biggest problem is, and when they do, more women than men cite forced marriage. But when looking at specific cultural practices that condone forced marriage, women are unable to identify the very same practices as being harmful to women. 

Clearly, a more complex analysis is required when looking at Afghan women’s support for cultural practices. As Afghanistan’s government works toward ending discrimination and advancing women’s equality, this data is important in ensuring informed decision-making for the country’s future. 

Tabasum Akseer is The Asia Foundation’s director of Survey and Research in Afghanistan. Fahim Ahmad Yousufzai is a data analyst in the Survey and Research department. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.

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