Women’s cultural rights in Afghanistan

Recent studies have emphasised how cultural rights are an inherent part of human rights. Here we take a look at what is currently being done to reinforce women’s participation in cultural life and cultural decision-making institutions in Afghanistan.

Women At Tm

Khalida Marifat and Lida Habibi from Asman Arts at Turquoise Mountain Institute

Cultural rights 

Afghanistan consistently sits in the lowest positions in the international ranking of women’s rights. Recent data on women’s education, employment, and abuse show that the situation is dire, and that despite some improvements, violence against women remains on the rise and the gap between the country’s rural and urban population in this regard is widening.

A regular feature of development projects, women’s involvement in sport, music, and handicraft has to a large extent come to represent the progress of women’s status in post-Taliban Afghanistan. Although not systematically presented as such, all these activities fall under the rubric of cultural rights, which are themselves a sub-group of human rights.

Cultural rights protect all individuals’ access to and participation in cultural life, education, development of scientific progress and the arts, and the interpretation and development of their own culture. Women’s cultural rights are guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 27) and the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Article 15).

This broad definition of cultural rights includes aspects as varied as the selection of women in decision-making committees at all levels of the government, to ensuring that girls can go to the theatre or freely access the internet. They are central to human rights as they represent unique opportunities for individuals and groups to engage with their community and heritage, and take control of their lives and environment.  

Women’s Cultural Rights in Afghanistan

Addressing women’s cultural rights in Afghanistan is challenging for several reasons. First, there is a lack of metrics to support quantitative studies on the topic. The recent increase in country-wide socio-economic surveying such as the Afghanistan Living Conditions Survey (ACLS) has provided a precious amount of data, but little that is directly relevant to assessing the state of Afghanistan’s cultural rights. Second, there is a strong taboo regarding the inclusion of women in society, especially in domains involving public exposure and male-female interaction. Third, the majority of development community efforts have focused on traditional metrics associated with employment or education, for example.

The broad assumption is that the status of women’s rights has generally improved since the end of the Taliban regime in December 2001. Before then, women were banned from working, attending school passed the age of 8, forced to wear the burqa in public, and not allowed to leave the house without a male guardian. Following the Taliban’s fall, we have seen overall positive trends in women’s education, employment and health, and a perceived improvement in security. Yet, despite these improvements, Afghanistan remains a challenging country for women, due to violence, discrimination, and economic vulnerability, amongst other factors.

Focusing solely for now on the existing metrics, a quick look at the quantitative information available draws a dire picture. Afghan women and girls face multiple obstacles throughout their lives in a place that remains one of the countries with the lowest female literacy rates in the world (20.4% for >15 years-old, with levels as low as 1.6% in some of the provinces). In 2013-2017, trends show a general decrease in primary school attendance, with an average decline of 4.4% in girls’ attendance at secondary school. 34.3% of the Afghan population and 51% of its women are either unemployed or underemployed, a rate that displays a slight increase since 2013-2014, with dramatic contrasts between urban and rural areas. This is also connected to the minimal involvement of women in key decision-making processes both at the local and national levels. 

143 Band

The Afghan hip-hop band 143Band, with its main singer, Paradise Souri.

From a qualitative perspective, there are numerous stories showing a consistent struggle for women in the fields of arts, culture, and cultural heritage. There is, for instance, the story of Paradise Sorouri, an Afghan female rapper who is part of 143Band; she sings in Dari about the difficulties of being a woman in this country, is the victim of numerous threats, and was physically assaulted by ten men, leading her to flee the country in 2015. Or Shamsia Hassani, who is a female graffiti artist in Kabul and has repeatedly mentioned receiving threats and insults as she carries out her activity in the streets, leading some of her female colleagues to stop practising.

Across the country, girls and women are deprived of such rights. In the course of our research, carried out by Turquoise Mountain staff within the community of Murad Khani, we have collected various stories about young girls being forbidden access to internet; women not being allowed to take part in any sport teams; and both women and girls being kept from learning specific crafts or practising musical instruments. 

Shamsia Hassani

Kabul Art Project’s Shamsia Hassani (http://www.kabulartproject.com/)

Women in Murad Khani

In order to best understand the impact of Turquoise Mountain’s work on women’s cultural rights, we have initiated a research project within the community of Murad Khani. Through a series of one-on-one interviews and analysis of data from five socio-economic surveys carried out over the past eleven years, our goal is to best understand the needs of the community, and the impact of Turquoise Mountain’s work on women’s access to cultural life.

Focusing solely on metrics comparable at the international level, we find that levels of education and literacy have steadily risen over the past ten years. In Murad Khani, a higher percentage of the younger generation is receiving an education up to 16 and the number of students from Murad Khani attending university has multiplied ten-fold since 2006. The proportion of illiterate women is smaller than the national average and, overall, the gender gap in literacy is also narrower. 

Other qualitative data gathered through focus groups has shown that women feel safer, and more likely to move around the community now than ten years ago. Young women feel and experience more freedom, especially in education, and a general desire to increasingly participate in the community’s cultural life outside of the household.

However, we’ve also identified some negative trends. Many women are still not allowed to study past 6th grade or even to leave the community of Murad Khani by themselves. This keeps them from attending classes, and acquiring the skills necessary to find employment. Women also seem disproportionately affected in terms of health, with, for example, higher levels of chronic and acute kidney disease, caused by a limited supply of drinking water. Finally, compared to national data, Murad Khani’s female unemployment rate remains higher at 59%, which could be due to the high renewal rate of the population in the community, which often receives new arrivals from rural areas affected by the conflict. 

Razia Faqhiri

Razia Faqhiri, a TMI jewellery student working on ring

We find that the question of improving women’s cultural rights is a constant challenge. Despite Turquoise Mountain’s work, many focal points of cultural life for women, such as the hammam or the Abul Fazl Shrine, provide limited access to women. Although employment and education levels for women have increased, many still face resistance when expressing the desire to work in cultural fields or participate in cultural events. At the national level there is an extremely low representation of women in cultural decision-making bodies, and a tenacious social pressure that discourages any women from engaging in cultural activities.

Limitations and perspectives

Women Rehearsing Play

Young women rehearsing a play in the context of a Bond Street Theatre workshop (source: Youtube - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iVUUpuir3NI)

Over the past ten years, Turquoise Mountain has attempted to further women’s rights by committing to specific thresholds regarding employment in the organisation and female participation rates in the Turquoise Mountain Institute for Afghan Arts and Architecture, contributing to improved security in the MK area, and providing women-friendly environments in the workplace. A long-standing presence in the community has allowed the creation of various professional opportunities for women in the organisation.

However, the impact of development work on the population is sometimes uncertain. Although data from the MK area suggest a general positive trend, other development programs have indirectly had negative consequences on women’s cultural rights. This was for instance documented by anthropologist Melissa Kerr Chiovenda, whose work shows how, in Afghanistan, some handicraft projects focusing solely on women tends to create abuse and discord within the family, ultimately having a negative impact upon them. As with any development project, there is therefore a need to thoroughly plan and monitor the impact of projects on at-risk populations. 

Across the country, we see Afghan women playing an active role in preserving and creating heritage, by joining music bands, artist collectives, theatre troupes, or again, crafts workshops. However, the proactive steps being taken by a new generation of Afghan women still stand clearly at odds with their level of representation in the decision-making process at all levels of the society. Acknowledging cultural rights as an inalienable segment of human rights can here provide some philosophical and legal basis to improve this representation across local, national, and international institutions.