Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 02/2015

What War Has Wrought in Afghan Women's Lives

Jennifer Heath

November 2014

Watson Institute for International Studies, Brown University


The “liberation” of Afghan women became a justification of the George W. Bush administration for the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. Good intentions notwithstanding, Western feminists often painted a distorted portrait of absolutely helpless Afghan women buried alive in their burqas. One sad result of this black-and-white thinking, which overlooks the nuances and diversity of Afghan life and society, has been a severe curtailing of the quality, quantity, and endurance of whatever help Western women try to offer their Afghan sisters. This paper gives a historical overview of the realities of Afghan women’s lives, contrasting these with common perceptions about Afghan women held by those outside Afghanistan – often misperceptions upon which millions of dollars of foreign aid have been spent. A description of Afghan women’s social context touches on their views of the Taliban, women’s political rights and empowerment throughout history, and women’s access to healthcare and education. This paper argues that unless every step is taken with consideration for Afghan women’s concerns, within the diverse contexts of their real lives, there can be no lasting peace. Any peace agreements must include clear commitments from all sides to respect and protect women’s rights.