Dr Farooq Yousaf and Hareer Hashim
Analyses on women’s rights and gender equality in Afghanistan have historically depicted a clear binary: patriarchal and conservative men resisting aspirational women. Neglected in these analyses are the many men who have spoken up for women’s rights and have worked for a gender-just society in Afghanistan. For instance, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) in Afghanistan has had as many as 10,000 active members, out of which nearly 3000 have at times been men. These figures, for many, may come as a surprise. However, these numbers also suggest that while Afghan men are largely judged through the lens of militarised and rigidly patriarchal masculinities, very little attention is paid to the men who, while keeping a low profile, regularly work alongside women activists to achieve gender equality in their country.
Afghan men have historically been broadly portrayed as rugged, violence-condoning, and uncivilised individuals, whose cultural and religious values and norms stand in contradiction to “liberal (western) values”. Even when a recent study found that two-thirds of men in Afghanistan thought Afghan women had too many rights, the media failed to explore the opinions and attitudes of the other third who did not agree.
In the case of WILPF Afghanistan, at least 3000 Afghan men have chosen to join an organisation that has “the advancement of women’s rights” as its very raisons d’être. Therefore, to understand their personal stories and to counter major myths and stereotypes about Afghan men, WILPF spoke to some of its male allies to get a better understanding of their work and motivations. Our interviewees and allies – Dr Fazal Ghani Kakar, Firdous*, and Irshad* – all come from different backgrounds. Their responses, however, are indicative of how assumptions about the “typical Afghan man” can be wrong and why it is important to highlight both our allies’ personal stories and their struggle within a largely patriarchal society.
Dr Kakar is one of WILPF’s allies and co-founder of Nahdlatul Ulama Afghanistan (NUA). His life and work are a counter-narrative to how Islam and religiosity are perceived and how they are often bracketed with violence and extremism in the Global North. This is because his opinions and mission for gender equality are strongly rooted in the “teachings of Islam”. For him, “Islam means peace and stands for solidarity”. In his quest for gender equality in Afghanistan, Dr Kakar works with local youths to promote women’s rights, demilitarisation, and a commitment to peace and reconciliation in the country, and Dr Kakar is not alone. Irshad, whose professional career working in various government and non-government positions spans over two decades, argues powerfully that the Quran and Islam strongly advocate gender equality and education for all.
However, it is not only religion that inspires Afghan men to work for gender equality. Firdous recounts how during his university days in the 1990s, women were not allowed to pursue higher education during the first Taliban regime (1996-2001). He witnessed first-hand how devastating this ban was on his three sisters who were left disappointed and frustrated at not being able to continue their education. He knew instinctively the ban was unfair and it made him question why women, “who were mothers, sisters, wives and made-up half of Afghanistan’s population”, were systematically ignored and excluded by the regime. It was this introspection that played a crucial role in shaping his worldview and set him on the path to becoming a gender rights and gender equality advocate in Afghanistan. For Firdous, working with women activists was like “working with his own sisters”, as they struggled to gain access to financial security, health, and education in their homeland.
These men foresee difficult times ahead. Irshad wants to continue his support for gender equality, particularly “education for all” in Afghanistan. However, due to the current political situation, he is finding it incredibly difficult to pursue his work. Firdous, faces similar challenges as well as constant threats from the Taliban and its affiliates due to his beliefs and activism. Currently, his main focus is on relocating to a safer environment that will allow him to continue his work. Dr Kakar “hopes” that the Taliban’s near-total control of Afghanistan, unlike the previous governments, enables him to travel to other parts of the country and continue his work. His hopes are rooted in his religious network of male and female scholars, who may be in a better position to convince the Taliban, through Islamic teachings, on gender equality. He also encourages the international community to engage with moderate religious leaders, who are respected within their communities, to promote gender equality through Islamic teachings in Afghanistan.
Even though these male allies see the Taliban’s August 2021 takeover as a step back for gender equality in the country, they believe there is still hope and all is not yet lost. Firdous believes the Taliban’s victory should not be regarded as something that “ends all hope for gender equality in Afghanistan”. Instead, for him, it should signify a starting point, especially for young Afghans and human rights defenders working together towards achieving equal rights in the country. On the other hand, Dr Kakar believes that even though the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam is extreme and harsh, for him, it is now the responsibility of the international community and civil society organisations to engage with the Taliban and induce a positive change with regard to gender equality. For Irshad, however, the situation is as dire as Firdous fears. Even though he is strong in his resolve to work for girls’ education even with the Taliban in power, he feels that the international community, especially the media, is not highlighting the difficulties male allies like him now face in Afghanistan. He, like many Afghans and particularly women, feels that the international community has abandoned them.
It is due to such feelings of abandonment that the valuable work of male allies for a gender-just society in Afghanistan becomes more important than ever. Women activists in Afghanistan are constantly harassed and detained, and the Taliban, so far, have indicated little flexibility in ensuring civil liberties for women. The international community, particularly Afghanistan’s European partners, have informally started their engagement with the Taliban representatives. This engagement should not come at the cost of a rollback of gains made in the last two decades towards gender equality, especially in education, healthcare, and financial security. Therefore, these gains, according to WILPF’s male allies, need to be consolidated. Finally, even though the country is on the cusp of a major humanitarian disaster, requiring some level of engagement and negotiation with the regime, international partners should not forget and abandon the male allies of feminist peace in Afghanistan. Through supporting these male allies for women’s rights and creating space for them at the negotiating table alongside women, civil society in Afghanistan can work towards a better and more equitable future for women in the country.
*Names anonymised due to the current political and security situation in Afghanistan
Dr Farooq Yousaf and Hareer Hashim
Dr Farooq Yousaf grew up in Peshawar, Pakistan, and is currently based in Basel (Switzerland) working as a Senior Researcher at swisspeace (Basel). He focuses on Postcolonialism and Gender, Peace and Security in South Asia. He has previously completed his PhD in Politics from the University of Newcastle in Australia, and his book Pakistan, Regional Security and Conflict Resolution: The Pashtun ‘Tribal’ Areas examines peace and conflict resolution on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
Hareer Hashim coordinates WILPF Afghanistan’s Countering Militarized Masculinities initiative, building alliances between women peacebuilders and men who work for gender equality. Hareer recently left Afghanistan in August 2021. Her work now focuses on advocating for the rights and protection of human and women rights defenders, whose lives are at stake, especially with the new political regime in Afghanistan. Hareer graduated with honours from the American University in Dubai (AUD), majoring in International Relations with a certificate in Middle Eastern Studies.