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Occasional Paper Gender Policy 4: The Politics of Gender and Reconstruction in Afghanistan

27 Jul 2005

  • Author(s): Deniz Kandiyoti


Discussions of women’s rights in Afghanistan often give rise to debates over “Western imposition” versus “indigenous culture”. This paper avoids such facile dualities. Instead, it unpacks the complex and multiple transitions—security, political and socioeconomic—entailed by post-conflict reconstruction, and examines the changing institutional frameworks and the various global and local actors that are setting out the new contours of women’s citizenship and legal rights in post-Taliban Afghanistan.

Current efforts to redefine women’s citizenship and legal rights in the reconstruction process build on a troubled history—most recently, more than 20 years of conflict, and the social transformations, including those in gender relations, brought about by the war economy.

The Bonn Agreement of 2001 stated a clear commitment to mainstreaming gender issues and redressing past injustices, and since then women have gained in the area of legal rights. The Constitution of January 2004 guarantees their political representation and equality as citizens.

But the limitations of such commitments become clear in this paper. “The expansion of women’s formal rights cannot, in any case, translate into substantive benefits in the absence of security and the rule of law. Moreover, women’s formal rights to civic participation may have limited impact in a context where women remain wards of their households and communities and where their most basic entitlements to education and health continue to be denied”, according to the author.

There remain what the author calls “crippling disjunctures” between different facets of post-conflict transition. Legal and governance reforms have advanced at a faster pace than has been achieved in the security sector or the transition to sustainable livelihoods. The time frames adopted and outputs expected by international actors driving the women’s rights agenda do not coincide with the length of time required for profound changes in societal relations to result from peace-building efforts.

Finally, women’s rights continue to be highly politicized. “As the historical record indicates, women’s rights have always been a contested issue in Afghanistan, with periods of reform followed by violent backlash and curtailment,” writes the author. “In the present context, many unresolved questions remain concerning the respective roles of Islamic and tribal laws and the stipulations of international treaties to which the government is a signatory. Without a process of consensus building through political normalization and reconciliation, the risk that women’s rights will again be held hostage to factional politics remains high.” This may itself produce unintended effects, with disempowering consequences for women.

Deniz Kandiyoti is a Reader in the Department of Development Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, United Kingdom.

Order OPGP4 from UNRISD; 37 pages, February 2005, US$ 12 for readers in industrialized countries and US$ 6 for readers in developing and transitional countries and for students.