society and norms – Gender Roles: overview
Gender equity is an extremely controversial issue in Afghanistan, particularly under the Taliban’s rule. Afghans generally agree on the underlying principles of gender equity. It is the application of these principles that varies from group to group; and there is a wide range of standards set for accepted female behavior, as well as differences in male attitudes toward correct treatment of women. Contradictions arise between traditional tribal or ethnic practices, many of which are alien to the spirit of Islam. Further, the dictates of Islam are subject to diverse interpretation among reformists, traditionalists and ultraconservatives. Debates between these groups can be highly volatile. Westerners who try to urge Afghan women to assert their rights are likely simply to confuse or frighten the women. Moreover, the men in the community will very likely take such urgings as an insult to their honor and will withdraw their cooperation.
Historically, the conduct of women (and men) has been strictly governed by rigid tribal behavior codes, as much as by Islamic law. The concept of Purdah [PUR-dah] (meaning veil or curtain) establishes and represents the physical boundaries between men and women. This manifests as female seclusion -- considered necessary for the protection of the woman’s and her family’s honor. In Afghanistan, many women are required to spend their entire lives in purdah or “veiled”, literally: “behind the curtain”. Purdah can range from separate rooms for living and entertaining in the home, to the wearing of the burka or chadri [chad-REE] (the garment covering the body from head to toe which women wear when in public). Contrary to the assumptions of many Western people, some Afghan and Muslim women prefer to be covered in public. It affords anonymity and precludes social judgments – How is one dressed?; Is one wealthy?; etc.
It is a reality that a family's social position depends on the public behavior of its female members. Stepping outside prescribed roles and behavioral norms in public results in moral condemnation and social ostracism. It is the dictates of society that place a burden on both men and women to conform. Under such circumstances gender roles generally follow defined paths. Male roles reside in family economic welfare, politics, and relationships with outsiders; within the family they are expected to be disciplinarians and providers for aged parents. Female roles stress motherhood, child socialization and family nurturing. Even among professional career women, family responsibilities remain a top priority.
None dispute the centrality of women in Afghan society. Respect for women is a notable characteristic and few wish to destroy this esteemed status, nor deny what Islam commands or Afghan culture values. The debate rages over precisely what constitutes honorable behavior for women in terms of modern realities, especially in the light of today's monumental reconstruction needs which demand full participation from every Afghan citizen.