Religious Language and Women’s Rights in Afghanistan - Helena Zeweri

Helena Zeweri

October 25, 2010

Taliban officials have been engaging in secret talks with the Karzai government regarding a prospective peace deal, according to a Washington Post report. In another report in the Toronto Star, Jennifer Rowell, head of policy and advocacy for Care International in Afghanistan expressed concern over the Afghan government’s possible reconciliation with Taliban militants, including the potential sacrifices of women’s rights in negotiations. She is not alone.

Almost nine years after the initial entry of American forces into Afghanistan, the condition of Afghan women’s rights remains precarious. Some of the fears that have re-emerged in recent weeks among Afghan women’s rights proponents might stem, in part, from the possibility of intense structural violence inflicted on women in the name of religion. In recent years, however, women’s activist organizations have come to realize that religion does not have to be a tool of oppression.

Religious language could be used to articulate one’s rights as an individual and a contributing member of society. Many Afghan women-run organizations, as of late, are encouraging the use of an Islamic language rooted in women's own religious worldviews, practices, and philosophies, to achieve long-term rights (i.e. the right to be protected from emotional violence and the right to choose one’s profession, among others) along with so-called “priority rights” (i.e. the right to security, the right to freedom of movement, among others).

For example, some Afghan women NGO leaders have vocalized in public conferences that education, economic development, and social mobility are hindered by the lack of public meeting spaces for women that would be conducive for political and social organizing. This has prompted activists to discuss the creation of women's mosques that could serve as spaces in which to discuss the relationship between religious rhetoric and democratic governance and women's roles within the family and larger society.

Women have also been increasingly enrolling in Kabul University to study law, Arabic, and Islam in order to develop the discursive equipment to potentially challenge prevailing attitudes about women's familial and other social roles. Engagement with religious texts and language has been channeled towards advocacy, fundraising, and awareness raising efforts, including the formation of mosque groups that gather women together for sermons on women's rights according to Islamic texts.

Using religious language to justify certain avenues for women's social advancement should be seen by activist organizations in Afghanistan as one part of a multidimensional approach towards better enabling Afghan women to transform how they perceive and practice their agency in different settings. According to a briefing paper released in 2005 by the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU), the symbolic participation of women in public institutions is too often positioned as a measure of success--the creation of physical space for women or the numbers of women present at public forums, such as shuras (local councils) are typically used to show progress towards gender equality, even though women do not necessarily play a greater role in such institutions' decision-making processes.

The use of religious language has proven, for some, to be an effective tool for justifying their ability to make decisions within these spaces, thus contributing towards a more tangible vision of gender equity rather than gender equality only. Activists have vocalized that the actions of Muslim women like Khadija, the Prophet Muhammad's first wife and 'A'isha, a later wife, serve as prime examples of women taking control of their economic lives and marital choices, and thus legal precedents for women’s agency in these realms.

The AREU report also suggests that some Afghan women perceive themselves as unfit for making decisions within local and social institutions due to a perceived lack of knowledge of community. More opportunities to increase women’s knowledge of Islamic texts may contribute to the development of a stronger sense of self and increased ownership over articulations of what progress means for them.

The use of religious language through both formal education in Islamic jurisprudence and the organization of more informal social spaces to discuss religious texts must be accompanied by more locally nuanced approaches by NGOs and top-down approaches that establish legislation that offers actual consequences for systematic violence against women. Positioning religious language as a mechanism to claim agency can be used as a way to tackle some of the more deeply entrenched challenges women face that infrastructure development and humanitarian assistance cannot directly affect--that of negative self-perceptions and adherence to systems of subordination, gender hierarchies, and family politics that are reinforced in realms in which laws do not always have direct impact, most notably the home. The use of religious language as an alternative paradigm for articulating rights should not be viewed as promoting the language of subordination or as an apologetic stance towards oppression, but rather as a way for women to assert power in a more easily legible and decipherable way within some local contexts.



Karen DeYoung, Peter Finn, and Craig Whitlock, “Taliban in Talks with Karzai Government,” The Washington Post, October 6, 2010.

Olivia Ward, “Alarm bells sound for women’s rights in Afghanistan,” The Toronto Star, October 6, 2010.

Margaret Mills and Sally Kitch, “ ‘Afghan Women Leaders Speak’: An Academic Activist Conference, Mershon Center for International Security Studies, Ohio State University, November 17-19, 2005,” NWSA journal 18, no. 3 (2006): 191-201.

Masuda Sultan, From Rhetoric to Reality: Afghan Women on the Agenda for Peace (Hunt Alternatives Fund,2005).

Shawna Wakefield with Brandy Bauer, A Place at the Table: Afghan Women, Men, and Decision-making Authority(Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, 2005).


Helena Zeweri is Director of Research for Femin Ijtihad’s New York Chapter. She received her MA in Near Eastern Studies from New York University.


Helena Zeweri