The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, generally known as Afghanistan, is a landlocked country, slightly smaller than the state of Texas. Afghanistan is bordered by six countries: Iran lies to Afghanistan’s west while Pakistan lies to its south and east. Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan run along Afghanistan’s northern border, and China touches the easternmost edge of the country.
Afghanistan has cultural, ethnic, linguistic, and geographical links to each of its neighbors, and sits at the crossroads of Asia. Afghanistan is located within both Central Asia and South Asia, and is at times said to belong to the Greater Middle East.
Afghanistan is mostly arid, rugged and mountainous. In the southwest and north there are plains, the central plateau region includes the Hindu Kush mountain range, and the eastern end contains the Pamir Mountains. The country has cold winters and hot summers with little rain. Afghanistan does not have much arable land and is subject to earthquakes in the mountains. The country is plagued by a shortage of fresh water, poor soil conditions, massive deforestation, and high levels of air and water pollution. While the country has significant oil and gas reserves in the north and valuable mineral deposits including copper, lithium, lapis lazuli, and emerald, the recent decades of unrest in the country have left these resources mostly untapped and the overall economy in tatters. Its main export is currently illicit opium.
Afghanistan’s population is approximately 33 million. Over 80% of the population depend directly upon the natural resource base for their survival, either through farming, shepherding livestock, or similar livelihoods. The life expectancy for Afghans, both male and female, is currently about 62. The average number of children born to Afghan women is about five. Infant mortality is high, however, since waterborne diseases such as typhoid and various types of diarrhea are prevalent. Malaria is also a threat in lower elevations between March and November.
The country is made up of various ethnic groups, the most prevalent being Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara, and Uzbek. Most Afghans are Muslim, with both Sunni and Shi’a traditions represented in the country; there are also small Sikh and Hindu communities.
If literacy is defined as individuals over the age of 15 who can read and write, only 38% of the Afghan population is literate. Approximately 52% of the male population is literate. The female population fares much worse, with a literacy rate as low as 24%.
Afghanistan’s War-torn History
Humans have lived in what is now Afghanistan for at least 50,000 years, with urban civilization dating as far back as the time of the Indus Valley civilization. Given its central location, Afghanistan has often been subject to invasion by conquering empires, including those of Alexander the Great, the Parthians, the Sassanids, and the Mongols. The country has alternately been a seat of commerce, a hotbed of creative culture, and a devastated land. In the early thirteenth century, Chinggis (aka Genghis) Khan laid waste to Afghanistan, and brought the Mongols to rule. Despite the Persians’ success in conquering the area around the mid-17th century, peace did not follow. Various tribes fought for control of the region. In 1747, various Pashtun ethnic groups known as Afghans were able to unify sufficiently to create the nation-state of Afghanistan under the leadership of Ahmad Shah Durrani. However, the empire that followed lasted less than a century before intertribal conflict and outside wars threw the country into disarray once more.
As the Russian and British empires grew in scope and power, Afghanistan became a pawn in the Great Game between the two behemoths. Great Britain invaded Afghanistan multiple times, until the latter was finally able to reassert full independence in 1919 under King Amanullah Khan. The king introduced reforms to quickly modernize the country, including abolishing slavery in 1923 and calling for universal mandatory education for both girls and boys. His reforms, including a ban against the burqa, enraged traditional tribal leaders, leading to his overthrow in 1929. In 1933, Mohammed Zahir Shah attained the throne, and under his rule Afghanistan experienced decades of relative calm. Pursuing reforms more gradually, King Zahir Shah was able to slowly modernize his country, eventually enacting a democratic constitution in 1964 that led to what’s been termed the “Democracy Decade.” In 1973, Daoud Khan, the king’s brother-in-law, led a coup abolishing the monarchy that eventually led to his own death and to the Great Saur Revolution that put a Communist government in control.
Thereafter, Afghanistan was plunged into the Cold War. The United States funded anti- communist forces inside Afghanistan, mostly Muslims known as mujahidin who opposed the atheistic stand of communism. To shore up the communist government, the Soviet Union occupied Afghanistan, and the country descended into violence. By 1989 the constant conflict of the Soviet occupation had taken a terrible toll on both the Afghan and Russian people. The USSR finally withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989 and within a few years disintegrated. While Russia continued its efforts to prop up Afghanistan’s communist regime, the US lost interest in the war-torn country once it achieved the USSR’s physical removal from the region. By 1992, Afghanistan’s communist government had crumbled. Local warlords, largely supported by fighters from their own ethnic group, filled the power vacuum and fought each other in a series of shifting alliances. In response to the country’s chaotic conditions the Taliban, a movement of fundamentalist Afghan students, rose to power in a bloody civil war. The Taliban imposed strict interpretations of Islamic law that followed the Wahhabi sect’s teachings, forcing all women to wear the burqa, preventing women from working outside the home or obtaining an education, or going out in public without a male family member. The Taliban also tolerated and in some cases provided support for terrorist organizations such as Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda.
In 2001 when members of Al-Qaeda attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the United States asked the Taliban to stop providing safe haven to bin Laden. When the Taliban refused, the US responded by invading Afghanistan. The war was swift and led to the Taliban’s downfall. A series of democratic elections has created a functional central government based in the capital city of Kabul, but the reach of the Kabul government is not yet complete throughout the country and some regions are still controlled by local warlords or shadow Taliban governors. Many of the Taliban’s fighters escaped across the border into Pakistan, and have managed to regroup and continue to fight a guerrilla war against the central government and international forces stationed in the country.
Crisis for Female Afghans
For decades, the wars in Afghanistan have forced Afghan women to endure extraordinary violence, poverty, and oppression. Prior to the Soviet Union’s invasion and the Taliban’s ascent to power, women in the cities were often educated and held meaningful positions in society and government. The Taliban stripped women of their freedom, their privileges, and their rights. Women were prohibited from attending school or working. They were forced into the restrictive dress of the burqa and could not appear outside their homes without a male relative. Cosmetics, participation in athletics, bright colors, music, and loud laughs were all against the law. Under the Taliban, women’s financial resources dwindled, their literacy rates fell, and their access to medical care became nearly nonexistent. During the Taliban’s rule, maternal and infant mortality soared, and to this day remains one of the highest in the world. In short, under the Taliban, women in Afghanistan had no voice and no power.
Conditions are slowly improving. The 2001 invasion by US and allied forces put into motion the creation of a new government, beginning with a Constitution drafted with the contributions of women as well as men. A special committee comprised largely of female elected representatives injected into Article 22 of the constitution a gender equality provision, recognizing that men and women have equal rights and duties under the law. Additionally, the Constitution mandates that 25% of the seats in the lower house of Parliament be reserved for Afghan women (this compares to approximately 19% of house and senate seats currently held by women in the US). The Constitution was adopted by the 2004 Loya Jirga, an Afghan legislative body comprised of more than 20% female voting members. In addition, in 2009 the president enacted by decree an Elimination of Violence against Women (EVAW) Law, prosecuting perpetrators of violence and committing the government to providing safe houses and support for victims. However, despite these favorable legal developments, there is still a strong cultural resistance in Afghanistan to including women in government or promoting them to leadership positions, and women continue to struggle to enforce the new laws and obtain meaningful participation in society or even basic legal protection.
Work opportunities are increasing for women in Afghanistan. Laws restricting women’s movement, education, and right to employment have been lifted. Nevertheless, the outlook for Afghan women isn’t terribly bright. Misogynistic attitudes from the Taliban days persist. Economic conditions for both men and women are difficult. Years of war and the poverty that endless violence creates cannot be wiped away in a few years. The country is one of the world’s poorest, and the majority of the population lives on less than two US dollars per day. Severe drought persists throughout the country, and Afghanistan’s decades-long lack of agricultural and forestry management has exacerbated the drought’s effects.
Another obstacle to Afghanistan’s economic recovery is the population’s youth and inexperience. The average age of Afghans is seventeen, and the majority of the youth are unskilled laborers. Unemployment is extremely high while the creation of new jobs is slow. Industry is lagging while agriculture is dominated by illegal poppy crops. Illicit opium and its derivative drugs, morphine and heroin, are the largest cash crop in Afghanistan. Hashish is the second largest.
Such massive lack of opportunity coupled with the prevailing insecurity of the nation makes it difficult for women to make gains in education, society, and government. Tribal fighting, particularly in already depressed rural areas, makes it increasingly hard for women to move out of their traditional roles and into larger economic and political spheres. Many of Afghanistan’s fundamentalist clerics and conservative political leaders rely on the lack of security to press for reinstatement of the restrictions on women’s rights that were in place under the Taliban. In 2012, the country’s religious Ulema Council issued a declaration directly in conflict with Article 22 of the Afghan Constitution, naming men fundamental and women secondary. The Ulema Council’s statement, which received presidential endorsement, also asserted it was compulsory for women to cover themselves with a hijab, that women should not travel without a male family member, and affirmed polygamy.
The hope for a better future for Afghans, both male and female, lies in reconstruction. As their country moves out of its war-ravaged past toward a stronger economy and a stable society, opportunities in education, society, and government are growing. But the country’s path toward this goal is a long and treacherous one. It is a road that requires international help. Countries and non-governmental organizations around the world can help Afghanistan progress with fiscal, educational, and technological aid that will serve to improve the lives of all Afghans, male and female.
Written by Pam Duncan