“In Afghanistan, following a typical tradition of Central Asia, families celebrate the birth of boys but not of females. Women are considered naqis-e-aql, that means stupid at birth and the term woman is used by men as an insult”. Princess Soraya Malek of Afghanistan, niece of Afghan King Amunallah and Queen Soraya has held heated talks about her home country while dedicating her life to Afghanistan’s women cause.
“Historically Afghanistan was, and to a large extent still is, a tribal, patriarchal country, based on a nomadic pastoralism which has almost disappeared following the civil war. Society is organized along patrilineal lines, with women being used as an economic resource the same as land, housing or livestock and belong to a man” she tells sitting on an old Afghan sofa surrounded by family pictures.
“Like other societies in the same area, Northern India and Pakistan, Afghan society is culturally opressive towards women who are often made to sacrifice their health and their lives. Women in this culture do not have the right to knowledge because education and culture could induce attitudes of revolt against the father and later the husband. Whenever a progressive government has tried to change the laws of the Afghan society, the societal reaction has always been violent”.
In the 1920s, King Amanullah tried to modernize the country and queen Soraya created the first schools for girls, even authorizing some of them to go to study medicine in Turkey.
In 1921 the king promoted a family code that protected women’s rights. His reform program has been one of the most progressive political campaigns in all of Asia with the aim of improving conditios for women throughout the Middle East.
His wife had a very important role in this campaign also. A year earlier during a meeting organized in Kabul and attended only by women – the queen was then 20 years old -, she declared: “You women represent 50% of the Afghan population but in our country you count very little. We must strive to make all women have access to education, learn to read and write, educate sons and daughters so that one day they can participate fully in the renewal of our nation”. A committed woman who held the ideals of her father Mahmoud Beg Tarzi and her mother Asma Rasmya Tarzi, she was undoubtedly one of the protagonists of the female emancipation of her country and is still loved and admired by Afghans.
A few years after Russia left the country in pieces, the Taliban regime (1994-2002) implemented Pushtunwali, the tribal code of the Pushtun population, erroneously attributing its norms to Islam. From this point onwards the conditions for women continued to deteriorate.
Let’s look at what those years were like. “My grandmother was encouraged in her mission by her husband who in 1921 promulgated a law that eliminated slavery and abolished, among other initiatives, marriage with minors”.
King Amunallah imposed law so that all Kabul inhabitants were obligated to send their children, male and female, to school, made feasible through economic aid given to families. “I remember my grandmother telling us what she had said during a public speech in 1925 in Kabul. “There are people who make fun of us and say that Afghan women only know how to cook. All this is over. In the past not even a penny was spent on education and women’s health. Now things have changed due to the attention our king gives to these problems”.
During their reign the use of the veil was strongly discouraged because it was an impediment to women’s emancipation. Its use was then totally forbidden in schools in 1928 when the king publicly urged for the abandonment of the purdah, which was “not imposed by the Koran”. One year later with the help of Great Britain, the king was overthrown and sent into exile.
King Amunallah had touched not only touched on Afghanistan former Taliban president Mohammed Omar’s sensibility but the power of those states that fought against Indian independency.
After the royal family left Afghanistan they travelled to India first and then to Italy. They established their residency in Rome.
“We were living all together in a big house in Prati” the princess continues. “The house had 84 rooms, considering that the king had 8 sons and daughters, most of them were married and had their own children. We were brought up with equal rules and there was no discrimination between males and females. We went to public schools in Rome and had quite a normal life. There were some rules to follow though and we had to stand up when the grandparents entered the room.
My grandmother taught me to be kind and respectful to everybody, especially to people less fortunate than us. Knowledge and culture were considered the matrices on which to base education and I remember a succession of intellectuals both Afghan and Italian coming to pay visits to my grandparents. She missed Kandahar most of all and told me that every year when the navab was sending precious gifts the king would reciprocate with 9 grape vines from Kandahar”.
Today 60% of the Afghan population is under 25 years old. In Kabul and other cities however technology infrastructure is slowly developing, although the use of the internet remains restricted. Also the percentage of women in the universities is increasing.
What kind of a future can they strive for?
“Not a happy one in the medium run. My regret is that Americans, in Afghanistan for 18 years, have spent lots of money in armaments but they were not interested in the development of civil society. Instead both Russian and American have put tribes one against the other”.
Tribal culture is part of Afghan DNA but it has been difficult for those countries to recognize it. Pashtun is the Afghan primary ethnic group, Taliban are also Pashtun but not all Pashtun are Taliban. Afghan kings belong to Pashtun for example.
“The difficulty lies in the fact that American are convinced, or pretend so, that all Afghans are pro Taliban. Absolutely not. In addition religion controls society, the perfect scenario for a future conflict.
So there is no hope then?
“Hope is in the hands of the few women who are striving as much as they can to leave with dignity in Afghanistan. I try in my own small way to raise their voices as much as I can. Unfortunately at the moment to be born female in Afghanistan is a huge burden to bear”.