Beyond feminism: Engaging men and localizing gender equality in Afghanistan

Kaweh Kerami

Life can be extremely hard in a war-torn, impoverished, and underdeveloped country. For women, it can be far harder. I can tell this as a heterosexual, cisgender male, born in Afghanistan who spent a significant part of his childhood under such conditions. Today, my birth country is ranked as the worst country for women and the return of the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban to power may exacerbate the tragedy. Before delving into gender equality, I feel obliged to acknowledge that my understanding of gender (in)equality stems from a privileged position of being a male coupled with the limited knowledge I have acquired about the subject matter. Neither do I claim to have experienced what women themselves have been going through. Despite this reservation, I believe gender inequality is also a men’s issue and, therefore, I reject the exclusive, problematic contextualization of “women’s issue”. My belief isn't driven by any well-meaning sexism, including notions such as ‘women deserve men’s sympathy’ (which is patronizing on its own). Instead, it stems from the idea that a more equal society is beneficial both for men and women. While acknowledging women’s historical struggles for gender equality and their achievements, I believe it is time to adopt a deliberative gender equality discourse beyond feminism to bring about change. By that, I emphasize the need for a more localized gender equality trajectory rather than, for example, feminism transfer to non-Western contexts. ‘Are you a feminist?’

I recall my conversation with a journalist in Kabul (2019), in which she asked me whether I would call myself a feminist. Despite being a staunch supporter of gender equality, I hesitated to say yes. Neither was I ignorant of the misunderstandings about the popular concept nor had I anything against fundamentalist feminists. In fact, my caution about the use of feminism in contexts like Afghanistan had a functional value. I pondered to what extent the adoption of the concept of feminism (often perceived as an external project) in public discourse could effectively promote women's needs, re-evaluate the structure of gender roles and achieve gender equality in the extremely challenging context. In the war-torn, highly traditional society, women face systemic discrimination and human rights abuses. Violence against women is prevalent across the country. Since the return of the Taliban (August 15th), the minority of girls who had access to education (40%) have been banned from pursuing education. This backwards move is just a blow to women and societal progress made in the last two decades. If the Taliban eventually allow girls’ education, a major concern will be the educational content established by their regime. Given the fundamentalist nature of the Taliban, they will impose a curriculum that reinforces patriarchal mechanisms, perpetuating sexism. Short after their return to power, the Taliban said that the rights of women will be respected ‘within the framework of Islamic law’. The fetishism of labelling

Women in Afghanistan are subsumed under different labels such as ‘Muslim women’ and ‘Afghan women’. Given that language can produce the reality it names, ‘Muslim women’, for example, must by necessity be forced to conform to the configurations of meanings associated with the concept of Islam. Despite how the Islamic laws are interpretated (and by who), the fetishism of labelling may obscure the living reality of the women (which is more complex and diverse than it is admitted) and cannot be understood in terms of monolithic concepts. Afghan feminism is not an alternative either. While feminism could equate to women empowerment, the concept might be treated not only as something alien to the traditional society’s gender norms but also as an imperial-colonial project to disarm men of their informal rights/powers, mislead and corrupt “Afghan women”, and promote women’s superiority. There is also a valid critique on feminism transfer, because a Western style of gender norms may not be functional in different socioeconomic and political contexts, especially not in extremely challenging contexts like Afghanistan. This is what the international community should reflect on and take stock. If external inventions are not wisely crafted, not only do they doom to failure but could also be counterproductive. The two-decadelong of the costly US-led efforts (2001-2021) have largely failed, partly due to context insensitive and ignorant interventions (e.g., ignoring social and cultural barriers). Such flawed interventions also disrupt the organic dialog and contestation among various local actors which is needed to the advancement of gender equality, albeit slow-paced and incremental. Engaging men is the way forward

Given the vulnerable position of women in the highly patriarchal society, it seems very difficult if not impossible, that women alone could be the agents of change. This is where men could play an important role in promoting gender equality. For effective gender equality efforts, there is a need for a localized, inclusive approach that is somehow embedded in a wider, supra-national regime. This requires reflecting on the roles that both domestic and external actors can play in effectively promoting women’s needs at the local level and possibly facilitate the means for achieving those ends. Instead of setting out too ambitious goals that are often contradictory and short-termed, it is of paramount importance to prioritize gender equality in education (e.g. improving girls’ access to education) which may strengthen the economic independence of women through getting them into work and then gradually move towards a (more) equal society.