Citizenship: Reflections on the Middle East and North Africa




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The Saur Revolution and Women’s Rights in the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan


In April 1978, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) seized power, in what came to be called the Saur (April) Revolution, and established the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA). Soon afterwards, the PDPA introduced rapid reforms to change the political and social structure of Afghan society, including patterns of land tenure and gender relations, in what was one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world. The government of President Noor Mohammad Taraki targeted the structures and relations of “tribal-feudalism,” enacted legislation to raise women’s status through changes in family law —including practices and customs related to marriage — and initiated policies to encourage female education and employment. As in other modernizing and socialist experiments, the “woman question” constituted an essential part of the political project. The Afghan leadership was motivated by a modernizing outlook and socialist ideology that linked Afghan backwardness to feudalism, widespread female illiteracy, and the exchange of girls. The leadership resolved that women’s rights to education, employment, mobility, and choice of spouse would be a major objective of the “national democratic revolution.” The model of revolution and of women’s emancipation was Soviet Russia, and the Afghan Revolution was considered to belong to the family of revolutions that also included Vietnam, Cuba, Algeria, the PDRY, and Ethiopia.

Governmental decrees on land redistribution and the cancellation of peasants’ debts and mortgages were in part measures to wrest power from traditionalist leaders. In addition, the government promulgated Decree No. 7, which was designed to fundamentally change practices associated with marriage, including household indebtedness through excessive marriage expenditures, extremely high dowers, and the monetary exchange of girls. It was further intended to ensure women’s equal rights with men. The first two articles in Decree No. 7 forbade the exchange of a woman in marriage for cash or kind and other payments customarily due from a bridegroom on festive occasions; the third article established an upper limit of 300 afghanis (the equivalent then of US $10) on the mahr. The legislation aimed to change marriage customs so as to give young women and men independence from their marriage guardians. Articles four to six of the decree set the ages of first engagement and marriage at sixteen for women and eighteen for men. The decree further stipulated that no one, including widows, could be compelled to marry against her will (referring to the customary control of a married woman by her husband and his agnates, who retained residual rights to her in the case of her widowhood). The decree also stipulated that no one could be prevented from marrying if she or he so desired. In a speech on November 4, 1978 President Taraki declared that through the issuance of Decrees Nos. 6 and 7, “the hard-working peasants were freed from bonds of oppressors and money-lenders,” and that the decrees ended “the sale of girls for good as hereafter nobody would be entitled to sell any girl or woman in this country” (quoted in Tapper, 1984:292).

Along with the promulgation of Decree No. 7, the DRA embarked upon an aggressive literacy campaign. This was led by the Democratic Organization of Afghan Women (DOAW), whose objectives were to educate women, bring them out of seclusion, and initiate social programs. Throughout the countryside, PDPA cadre established literacy classes for village men, women, and children; by August 1979, the government had established 600 new schools. The DRA’s rationale for pursuing the rural literacy campaign with some zeal was that all previous reformers had made literacy a matter of choice; male guardians had chosen not to allow their wives, sisters, or daughters to be educated. As a result, 96 percent of all Afghan women were illiterate. It was therefore decided that literacy would no longer remain the choice of men, but would rather be the law.

The DRA was attempting to implement what reformers and revolutionaries had done in Turkey, Soviet Central Asia (see Massell, 1974), and South Yemen, as well as to carry out what earlier Afghan reformers and modernizers had tried to do in the early 20th century but had failed (see Gregorian, 1969). However, DRA attempts to change marriage laws, expand literacy, and educate rural girls met with strong opposition by rural vested interests. Decrees 6 (on land reform) and 7 (on marriage) deeply angered rural tribesmen and the traditional power structure. In the summer of 1978, refugees from Afghanistan began pouring into Pakistan, giving as their major reason the forceful implementation of the literacy program among women. There was also universal resistance to the new marriage regulations which, coupled with compulsory education for girls, raised the threat of women refusing to obey and submit to family authority. An Islamist opposition organized and conducted several armed actions against the government in the spring of 1979. By December 1979, the situation had deteriorated to such an extent that the Soviet Army intervened. A long civil war ensued during which the Islamist forces were assisted by the United States, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and China.

In 1980, the PDPA slowed down its reform program and announced its intention to eliminate illiteracy in the cities within seven years and in the province within ten. The DRA was not able to centralize power or impose its will through an extensive administrative and military apparatus. Nor did twelve years of civil war and a hostile international climate provide conditions propitious for progressive social change. In 1987, the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan was renamed the Republic of Afghanistan, and the liberation of women took a back seat to national reconciliation. In 1990, the PDPA changed its name to the National Party, or Hizb-e Watan. Similarly, constitutional changes were made; clauses that expressed the equality of men and women were eliminated, and Muslim family law was reinstated. In 1992 the whole experiment collapsed, and the Mujahideen set up an Islamic regime. Their very first act was to make veiling compulsory.

The Rabbani regime, however, was unable to engage in state-building, due to the collapse of the Mujahideen alliance and the onset of internecine warfare and lawlessness. In 1996, Rabbani and his allies were overthrown by a new opposition group, the Taleban, whose practices and policies give new meaning to male privilege and female exclusion. Although citizenship rights do not exist in what is essentially a pre-modern communal society, the new codes and policies legislate an exaggerated concept of male-female differences in which politics and warfare are completely masculinized, while the invisible Afghan woman, confined to her home or engulfed in her burqa, symbolizes national identity, cultural authenticity, and religious purity.
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