Beyond feminism: Engaging men and localizing gender equality in Afghanistan

Kaweh Kerami

Life can be extremely hard in a war-torn, impoverished, underdeveloped country, and it can be far harder for women. I can tell this as a heterosexual, cisgender male born in Afghanistan who spent a significant part of his childhood under such conditions. "The worst country for women" often characterizes my country of birth, 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 does not stem from 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 an 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.

My caution about the utility 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 highly challenging context. Women face systemic discrimination and human rights abuses in the war-torn, highly traditional society.

Violence against women is prevalent across the country. Since their return to power (August 15th), the Taliban have banned secondary school girls from pursuing education. This regression is just a blow to women and society's gains in the last two decades.

If the Taliban eventually allow girls' education, a primary 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. Shortly after their return to power, the Taliban said that women's rights would be respected 'within the framework of Islamic law.'

The fetishism of labeling

In Afghanistan, women 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 interpreted (and by who), the fetishism of labeling may obscure the living reality of the women (which is more complex and diverse than admitted).

Afghan feminism is not an alternative either. While feminism equates to women empowerment, the concept might be treated as alien to traditional society's gender norms and as an imperial-colonial project to disarm men of their informal rights/powers, mislead and corrupt "Afghan women," and promote the women's superiority. There is also a valid critique on feminism transfer. Western-style gender norms may not be functional in different socioeconomic and political contexts, especially not in highly challenging contexts like Afghanistan. This matter is what the international community should reflect on and take stock of it.

If external inventions are not wisely crafted, not only do they doom to failure, but they 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 advance 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. It is where men could play an essential role in promoting gender equality.

For gender equality efforts to succeed, there is a need for a localized, inclusive approach embedded in a broader, supra-national regime. It 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 facilitating the means for achieving those ends.

Instead of setting out ambitious goals that are often contradictory and short-termed, it is paramount to prioritize gender equality in education (e.g., improving girls' access to education). Doing so may strengthen women's economic independence by getting them into work and then gradually moving towards a (more) equal society.