Coming from Afghanistan, my culture and upbringing have both had a very powerful impact on how I see gender inequality. It is also the main reason as to why I believe women are partly responsible for the gender inequality which remains occurring to this day.
Women’s rights in Afghanistan have changed considerably in the past few decades. This is because of the unstable political situation that began with the 1990s Civil War. Since then, the life of women markedly changed with many of their rights and independence being taken away from them. The Taliban spread across Afghanistan and forced their regime upon the people of the country. Women suffered the worst from this. They were restricted from being able to work, go to school or even dress the way they wanted. Anyone who disobeyed the laws of the Taliban, risked their life- they ruled by fear. More than half of the girls were forced into marriage before their 18th birthday and most would be pregnant a few months after. Afghanistan saw a large spike in maternal mortality rate, one of the highest in the world, as a result of these child marriages. During this time, a strict and rigid way of life, especially towards women, was enforced. As a result, many women convinced themselves that this was an acceptable way of life since it was the only way they could be safe.
Since then, the country has seen marginal improvements in female rights. In recent years, some women have been given the relatively rare chance to seek an education, build a career and the right to vote. Despite this, there still remains a considerable gender gap to this day, and it has permeated into Afghan society, culture and communities.
One might first think that the responsibility for a gender divide like this primarily lies with men. The chauvinistic and oppressive regimes in Afghanistan’s past were all enforced by men who would mistreat and demean women. However, whilst this is the case, women also contribute to this inequality- often without realising they are.
After having several personal conversations with Afghan women, it became clear to me that there are a handful of women who believe ‘too much freedom’ for women is wrong. Almost as if they believe women aren’t entitled to the same rights as men. In other words, they are against gender equality. Their upbringing and previous way of life prevent them from seeing men and women as equal. Not only does this negatively impacts their life, but also the children they raise and their fellow Afghan women. Their concepts of honour, respect and independence are completely different for each gender. According to most Afghan men and women, a woman is seen as someone who should stand behind a man and let him take the lead. Her education, career or even when and who she marries is not in her choice. It is not a decision she can make for herself. In contrast to this, men are encouraged to be independent, build a strong career and take up leadership roles. It is extremely heartbreaking to me on a personal level to see such beliefs still exist in our world today and see people acting on those beliefs to restrict Afghan women from achieving their potential.
It is easy for young Afghan women to recognise how wrong this is when they are raised with an education and exposed to life outside home. Those who have realised the importance of gender equality are then more able to escape the manipulation and threats that many Afghan children receive from home or people of their community, enforcing their beliefs upon them. The intense pressure and the use of harsh, strong language used means many people, especially the young, convince themselves that this is for their best and they try to make their life a compromise. This is extremely damaging and dangerous and it must stop.
Women being treated inferior to men, at some point in her life, occurs in almost every home in Afghanistan. More often, other women in their households are bystanders to them being treated inferior or being abused. The norm in a place like Afghanistan is to live with in-laws after marriage or be heavily involved with them. However, after marriage, the woman is expected to obey her in-laws and husband. Where she refuses to go against them, this could lead to her getting physically beaten. Otherwise, her husband is seen as a coward or someone who can’t control his woman. The women within the same household watch her go through this and may even be the ones who encourage this type of behaviour upon each other. Where one has no voice or support it leaves them with little choice but to go according to what they are told. It is ironic that although Afghan women suffer like this, they still allow and watch other women go through the same.
Morality, humanity or sympathy towards women is hardly in the culture of Afghanistan anymore in many areas. Controlling them, beating them up, blackmailing them or even killing them is more common for some in this country. These people are getting away with it and I strongly believe it will stay like this as long as women of Afghanistan, or any other country going through this, don’t change first. How can you expect a man to be empathetic or equal towards you if you’re not even equal towards your own gender? How can you expect a man to stand up for you if you’re one of the reasons why the people of your own gender are being brutally abused? If you want change, if you want equality towards yourself, then you have to initiate it, practice it and fight for it. Gender inequality does not have to be perpetrated by men; women can be equally responsible for this.
Many people might undermine some of these issues or see it as unimportant in the grand scheme of things. However, I believe equality should occur in every aspect of life, where possible, for a happier society and more successful relationships. What I have said by no means applies to all women, and I do not mean any offence towards anyone. And whilst some women do perpetuate patriarchal norms in society, it is not entirely their fault. This is because of the culture they have been brought up in which makes them believe that this way of looking at women is acceptable. There are a range of many factors building up to such thoughts. In countries like Afghanistan, a big contributing factor to this is that unfortunately many females can’t easily pursue an education, especially higher education, and it still remains more of a rare privilege in many communities. This makes it difficult for the people of the country to adopt an unbiased mindset or have the intellectual tools necessary to question their oppressed lifestyle and initiate real change in their community.
Additionally, the majority of people in power in Afghanistan are still men who continue to enforce unfair treatment towards women. The system of power puts men at a more superior position than women, even at the cost of this system being detrimental to both the gender, it's still a system which gives more power to men and takes away power form women which makes women inherently suffer more. In Afghanistan, this is yet to change and will certainly take more time. However, Afghan women still have the power to stand by each other and strive for the equal opportunities that they deserve. If they see another woman being abused, they must stand up for her instead of just being a bystander. They should realise that they are not alone. Education in school and in mosques (or any place of worship) is critical so that communities can address this issue and take active steps to fix it. Women should be taught about the power of standing together. From this, women can understand their own value and the rights they are entitled to, and become strong, caring and emphatic individuals who can then go on and pass these values to the next generation.
Surprisingly, even in more developed countries, gender inequality still exists in communities and women contribute to this. In relationships, many girls expect ‘the guy should text first’ or he should pay the for the first date, as if females are more entitled than men. Women seek equality when it comes to making decisions or sharing opinions, but then some women don’t seek that same equality in other aspects of the relationship, such as finance. If women can cry, have mood swings or get emotional, so can men too. We have to be the ones who encourage this because men are human too regardless of whether he’s your partner, brother, father, friend etc. This is why in many countries, looking at the suicide ratio for men to women, the ratio for men is far higher because of these unfair societal standards and expectations: 78% of all suicides are men and this statistic includes countries such as England and Australia.
This is because of how society, including women, like to perceive men as strong and able to withstand any sort of pain without realising how these unrealistic and unfair stereotypes can be leading to men taking their lives. Men are not robots, so they should be free to express how they feel without any hesitation or judgement. Men who wear pink, show their emotions or even by nature have feminine body features, are called gay, weak or ‘girly’ as if being a girl or gay is a bad thing. We need to recognise how our so-called social norms are damaging our society and holding back both men and women alike.
Gender inequality still happens in many working environments. Men in many occupations are still paid more than women for doing the same job for the same working hours. Every time we marginalise the issue regardless of being a man or woman, gender inequality wins. Women should raise their voice and take a stand even if they don’t have the support of men because if they don’t stand up for themselves then they can’t expect the rest of society too. It is unfair, unjust and it is a toxic reality that we must address openly. However, women are not the only ones who suffer from this inequality in the working environment. Where women can be disadvantaged from jobs traditionally lead by men, this also applies to men who want to take up jobs that are primarily led by women. For example, jobs involved in nursing and education. Extending on this, multiple studies show that men are just as likely to face domestic abuse. However, there are more domestic violence shelters for women as well as the focus on women facing violence being much greater than men. We have been too focused on shifting our approach towards women been victimised, that we are neglecting men.
The correct approach would be to make awareness of issues for both genders. If both are facing the same issue (but in different ways) then there needs to be fair coverage of both sides. In my opinion, men who don’t take a stand for both genders are just as selfish as women who don’t take a stand for both genders.
We need to recognise that unrealistic social stigmas can damage men as well as women. This is part of the reason as to why many men don’t come forward and report their experiences. Men also need care and compassion and giving that to them will not take anything away from protecting women against abuse but help aid our society towards equality and fairness for everyone. If we want men to stand up for women’s rights, then women should also stand up for men. The way to equality is by including all voices and listening to everyone: men and women.
Many women and men believe in equality for both genders. But the group of people who are letting the rest of us down need to learn to change their mindset and learn why equality makes our lives healthier and happier. As an Afghan woman, I deeply care about this matter. The aim of this piece of writing is to show that the way to a more egalitarian society is not just about changing men’s views but also women too. What is needed is a more holistic, inclusive and objective approach to realistically solve these issues.