• Moving from an elite clique to the silent majority

Moving from an elite clique to the silent majority

07 March 2015

by Ghulam Sakhi

Researcher Ghulam Sakhi calls for more efforts to bring rural women into the workforce

Afghan women have made considerable strides during the past one decade under highly challenging circumstances. Their participation in legislature and government oversight has been impressive. Women now form 29% of the lower house of parliament, and 20% of provincial councils and are represented in previously male dominated parts of civil service; they form 10% of judiciary staff and 13% of the High Peace Council, a forum that ostensibly spearheads peace talks with the anti-women’s rights Taliban.

The 1,400-strong female police force and the 42% of female students attending primary school are also success stories in a country still facing a vicious conflict. This could not have been possible without the bravery of Afghan women and the significant support of international donors.

Flaws in women's support to date 

However, the remaining challenges are also real and severe. Afghanistan Human Rights and Democracy Organization (AHRDO) recently conducted a study of the structural roots of how women are treated and perceived in Afghanistan. With 25 in-depth interviews, 20 focus groups discussions, five referendums and interactive theatre performances with over 3, 900 participants in Balkh, Bamiyan, Kabul, Herat, and Nangarhar provinces, we found that the remaining challenges result partly from the way local and international actors have dealt with women’s role in society to date.

One such flaw is that the focus of the international and Kabul government’s investment has been on the cliques of elite and urban women at the expense of others. In fact, elite urban women benefited during the monarchy and leftist regimes from the opportunities that an urban setting and better protection can offer. The investments of the last 13 years have no doubt been rewarded as those women have become vocal today in the government and among the civil society organisations. But this has clearly been not enough.

From a vocal few to the silent majority

Afghan urban elite women have been weak in transforming their momentum into a country-wide women’s movement. Their enhanced financial prosperity and changed lifestyle hasn’t trickled down and has done little to trigger similar changes in the lives of women at the bottom of the social ladder in rural communities.

While the female urban elite have reached higher degrees of independence, self-confidence, creativity and leadership, the majority of Afghan women remain illiterate and innumerate or barely so. Unqualified for public sector and NGO jobs, they are furthermore constrained by cultural norms, family restrictions and abuses in the market environment.

The moment is ripe now to shift the focus to the empowerment of the silent majority of Afghan women. Our research confirms that the economic and financial dependence of women has affected their standing both inside and outside the family.

Social norms and financial causes  

Sons are still preferred to daughters inside Afghan families. Better food, clothing, education and healthcare are given to boys because it is expected that they can be the caretakers of parents when they grow old. Daughters, who will move to the husbands’ families on marriage, continue to be looked down on for this same reason. This harms them psychologically and further diminishes the windows of opportunity for their self-development.

Underage marriage and the selling of girls have financial roots too. It is poverty that forces many families to engage in these heinous practices. Girls, perceived as having no economic role, are considered a financial burden.  Skilled ones whose income can be easily pocketed by male relatives are seen as good exchangeable commodities. This tacitly legitimates and sustains violence against girls and women.

Misogynist market

AHRDO’s research also shows that the structure of the work force and market (defined mostly as private small-scale enterprises in our research) is highly gendered; either dominated or exclusively administered by men.

On the positive side, we learnt about women who run vegetable stalls, tailoring shops, restaurants and groceries in cities such as Herat, Kabul and Bamian. By and large their entrance into the market has been boosted by women-only business streets and districts. These foundations must be built on.

Women have been under greater pressure in mixed markets. For example, many aspiring girls who were running small businesses in Rezaee Business Centre in Kabul had to close their shops after persistent harassment by their male colleagues, clients and threatening calls and allegations of immorality by their relatives. Public harassment has turned into a persistent problem in urban areas especially Kabul.


Women and girls cannot afford to wait for gradual social and attitudinal changes to allow them to work in the market. Such social transformation and a good degree of protection could take generations to achieve. Higher education clearly plays an important role, as it provides knowledge and a level of skill to undertake more rewarding jobs. But those jobs with better protection, such as those in the public sector, NGOs and banks, have mostly benefited urban women.

The majority of Afghan women urgently need to get into the market for their own survival and that of their families.

Afghan policy makers, their international patrons and women rights’ activists will need to target the issues affecting the silent majority. Addressing the root causes of cultural norms and the provision of training in how to initiate and operate in mixed markets should be effective in the long run but they cannot solve the immediate needs of most women. The women-only markets in some cities have been shown to work. So let’s invest in more of them now.