The world often views Afghan women and girls as passive victims to be pitied, oppressed by religion, traditional Afghan culture, and the Taliban until the United States and their international allies liberated them after the invasion in 2001. This is incorrect on many counts Afghan women were denied their basic rights under the Taliban, but for decades they, similar to other women across the world, fought for and received their right to become educated and to participate in society. Afghan women are survivors who have served as active agents in civil society and the economy for decades. Their history is intertwined with their country's reform agenda; as tar back as the 19th century women's issues were a central component of Afghanistan's push for modernization.
The international community has invested billions in security and nation-building in Afghanistan since 2001, including an estimated US$57 billion in international aid. In 2010 alone, Afghanistan received approximately US$15.7 billion in international aid--amounting to over 90 percent of Afghanistan's total public spending. At the launch of the turn invasion, Afghan women sat front and center in the global spotlight. President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush, along with a slew of administration officials and US government leaders from across party lines, offered televised speeches, congressional legislation, and public commitments announcing their desire to boost women's rights in the region, citing the connections among women's rights, development, economic growth, and stability. Today, however, as the United States and its allies seek to end the war in Afghanistan, women are rarely mentioned and almost never invoked by policymakers worldwide. Moreover, as talk of reconciliation with the Taliban is increasingly seen as the only viable path to ending American's longest-ever war, Afghan civil society leaders fear that women's rights will be negotiated away in the attempt to craft a workable exit from the country.
Background: Women Before the Taliban
Reforms supporting women's rights began in Afghanistan at the end of the nineteenth century. During his reign from 1880 to 1901, Emir Abdur Rahman Khan allowed women to inherit property (in accordance with Islamic tenets), raised the age of marriage, and gave women the ability' to get a divorce--under certain circumstances. He opposed polygamy and encouraged girls' education. Much of this reform agenda did not extend outside the urban confines of Kabul, but it did mark the first significant attempt by a national ruler to improve the legal status or women.
From 1919 tol929, then-Emir of Afghanistan and grandson of Abdur Rahman Khan, Anianullah Khan, supported women's rights and spoke against mandatory veiling and polygamy. He is famously quoted as saying, "Religion does not require women to veil their hands, feet, and faces or enjoin any special type of veil. Tribal custom must not impose itself on the free will of the individual." Anianullah Khan wanted to rapidly modernize Afghanistan. He advocated for equal educational opportunities for girls and boys, and he defended the freedom of the Afghan press. He also established Afghanistan's first constitution in 1923, which guaranteed Afghans their civil rights for the first time, endowing them with "personal liberty." Similar to Abdur Rahman Khan's wife, Amanullah Khan's wife - Queen Suraya - campaigned for women's involvement in Afghanistan's nation-building. Additionally, Khan's sister, Kobra, founded Anjuman-e-Himayat (Organization for Women's Protection) so that women could speak out against discrimination. These reforms provoked backlash from conservative elements within Afghanistan and the civil unrest that followed Amanullah Khan's rule stifled farther attempts at reform.
The push for reform did not resurface until the 1950s when Prime Minister Daud Khan (who served from 1953 to 1963) campaigned against compulsory veiling and advocated for women's rights. …