Back in the 1920s things looked hopeful for women in Afghanistan. King Amanullah Khan and his wife Queen Soraya worked diligently to improve women's lives. The king discouraged polygamy, advocated against the veil, and pushed for greater personal freedom for females. "Tribal custom must not impose itself on the free will of the individual," he said. His sister, Kobra, created the Organization for Women's Protection while another sister established a women's hospital. Queen Soroya even founded the first magazine for women.
By the end of this progressive decade conservative tribal leaders pushed back against the growing freedoms for women and the King's successor acquiesced. Still, urban women entered the work force in the 1930s, mainly as teachers and nurses, and by 1959 many had unveiled. A1964 constitution gave women the right to vote and to enter politics.
All of these advances, and those that followed in the 1970s and 80s came to a crashing halt when the Taliban came to power in 1996 following Soviet rule. We're familiar with their brutal oppression of women symbolized by blue burkhas and stoning deaths.
Post Taliban, things seemed to improve. A woman was elected to the Loya Jirga in 2003 and the following year a new constitution codified that "the citizens of Afghanistan -- whether man or woman -- have equal rights and duties before the law." In 2008 the first political party dedicated to women's rights was launched and 35 percent of the more than five million children enrolled in schools were girls.
That was also the year that acid attacks on female students began.
The facts about Afghan women are chilling. Only 14 percent of them are literate. Their maternal mortality rate is the second highest in the world. Almost 80 percent of rural women have no access to health care. Nearly 60 percent of marriages involve girls younger than 16 and more than 87 percent of Afghan women are in forced marriage or suffer physical or sexual abuse by their husbands. Average life expectancy for women is 44 years.
"The fall of the Taliban brought global attention to the plight of Afghan women," a 2010 Afghan-web.com piece notes. "But even with a sizeable amount of aid and scores of consultants and projects, palpable changes remain elusive."
That year, prominent Afghan women gathered in Kabul to spearhead a campaign to improve the lives of Afghan women through legislation while changing the prevailing male mindset. For despite the 2004 Constitution old laws and tribal customs continued in the face of a government unwilling to enforce the law. Today, in spite of the efforts of many Afghan women who repatriated to help the women of their country, the situation remains bleak.