Second Class Citizen: The Life of an Afghan Woman

Sold to pay for family debts, little or no access to education and jailed for fleeing forced and abusive marriages. This is the life of the Afghan woman: a second class citizen in her own country. Last Saturday the Afghan parliament had the opportunity to change this and take a step towards recognising women as equals in society, deserving of the same rights and respect as men. However, rather than take this opportunity, the parliament rejected it outright, demonstrating just how far there is to go in the struggle for women’s rights in Afghanistan.
Afghan women wearing the traditional Burqa walking down a commercial street in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Under current Afghan law women have little legal protection and are subjected to widespread abuse and violations of their most basic human rights. However, rather than protecting women from such abuse, the law endorses it. For example, Human Rights Watch has recently noted a soar in so called ‘moral crimes’ since 2011. According to The Guardian, more than half of female prisoners in Afghanistan are in jail for ‘moral crimes’. Women are imprisoned for fleeing their homes in an attempt to escape abuse, underage marriage, and forced prostitution. Even rape victims are imprisoned and charged with ‘forced adultery’, sex outside marriage being a crime under Afghan law.

Moreover, women have little or no access to education. Under Taliban rule, women were forbidden from being educated, girls forced to leave schools and colleges. The effects of this repression can still be felt. According to USAID (2011), approximately eight million students are enrolled in primary and secondary education in Afghanistan; however, only 37% of these students are female.

On 18 May 2013, the Afghan parliament had the opportunity to take a historic step towards protecting women’s rights by voting in favour of a law banning child marriage and the sale of women to settle disputes. It was hoped that the parliament would further strengthen this law (adopted by presidential decree in 2009) by parliamentary vote, preventing its future reversal. Instead, parliament debated the matter for a mere fifteen minutes before throwing it out, claiming it violated basic principles of Sharia law. Some MPs even demanded that men be immune from prosecution for marital rape. This is a hammer blow to the protection of women’s rights in Afghanistan and shows just how far there is still to go before women are treated as equals.

However, it is not all doom and gloom. Many women across Afghanistan are starting to stand up for their rights, challenging the status quo. They are no longer afraid. It is through these grass root movements that change is most likely to occur. Particularly inspirational is the work of Shabana Basij-Rasikh. As a child growing up under Taliban rule, it was illegal for Shabana for go to school. Refusing to accept this, Shabana, accompanied by her older sister, dressed as a boy to attend a ‘secret school’, each day taking a different route to avoid suspicion. Today, Shabana continues to fight for the right of Afghan women to be educated. She is co founder of the School of Leadership Afghanistan (SOLA), an organisation dedicated to providing educational and leadership opportunities for Afghan women. Through organisations such as these, Afghan women need not wait for change, they are creating change.

For more information about Shabana and SOLA please see:



“Soaring number of Afghan women jailed for ‘moral crimes’” (The Guardian, 22 May 2013)

School of Leadership Afghanistan (SOLA):

“Afghanistan: Surge in Women Jailed for ‘Moral Crimes’” (Human Rights Watch, 21 May 2013)

USAID (2011):


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