Pashtun People - Women

Women

Further information: Women's rights in Afghanistan and Women in Pakistan

In Pashtun society there are three levels of women's leadership and legislative authority: the national level, the village level, and the family level. The national level includes women such as Nazo Tokhi (Nazo Anaa), Zarghona Anaa, and Malalai of Maiwand. Nazo Anaa was a prominent 17th century Pashto poet and an educated Pashtun woman who eventually became the "Mother of Afghan Nationalism" after gaining authority through her poetry and upholding of the Pashtunwali code. She used the Pashtunwali law to unite the Pashtun tribes against their Persian enemies. Her cause was picked up in the early 18th century by Zarghona Anaa, the mother of Ahmad Shah Durrani.

The lives of Pashtun women vary from those who reside in conservative rural areas, such as the tribal belt, to those found in relatively freer urban centres. At the village level, the female village leader is called "qaryadar". Her duties may include witnessing women's ceremonies, mobilising women to practice religious festivals, preparing the female dead for burial, and performing services for deceased women. She also arranges marriages for her own family and arbitrates conflicts for men and women. Though many Pashtun women remain tribal and illiterate, others have become educated and gainfully employed.

In Afghanistan, the decades of war and the rise of the Taliban caused considerable hardship among Pashtun women, as many of their rights were curtailed by a rigid and inaccurate interpretation of Islamic law. The difficult lives of Afghan female refugees gained considerable notoriety with the iconic image of the so-called "Afghan Girl" (Sharbat Gula) depicted on the June 1985 cover of National Geographic magazine. The male-dominated code of Pashtunwali often constrains women and forces them into designated traditional roles that separate the genders.

Modern social reform for Pashtun women began in the early 20th century, when Queen Soraya Tarzi of Afghanistan made rapid reforms to improve women's lives and their position in the family. She was the only woman to appear on the list of rulers in Afghanistan. Credited with having been one of the first and most powerful Afghan and Muslim female activists. Her advocacy of social reforms for women led to a protest and contributed to the ultimate demise of King Amanullah's reign. Civil rights remained an important issue during the 1970s, as feminist leader Meena Keshwar Kamal campaigned for women's rights and founded the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) in the 1977.

Today, Pashtun women vary from the traditional housewives who live in seclusion to urban workers, some of whom seek or have attained parity with men. But due to numerous social hurdles, the literacy rate remains considerably lower for Pashtun females than for males. Abuse against women is present and increasingly being challenged by women's rights organisations which find themselves struggling with conservative religious groups as well as government officials in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. According to researcher Benedicte Grima's book Performance of Emotion Among Paxtun Women, "a powerful ethic of forbearance severely limits the ability of traditional Pashtun women to mitigate the suffering they acknowledge in their lives."

Pashtun women often have their legal rights curtailed in favour of their husbands or male relatives. For example, though women are officially allowed to vote in Afghanistan and Pakistan, some have been kept away from ballot boxes by males. Traditionally, Pashtun women have few inheritance rights and are often charged with taking care of large extended families of their spouses. Another tradition that persists is swara, the giving of a female relative to someone in order to rectify a dispute. It was declared illegal in Pakistan in 2000 but continues in tribal regions.

Despite obstacles, many Pashtun women have begun a process of slow change. A rich oral tradition and resurgence of poetry has inspired many Pashtun women seeking to learn to read and write. Further challenging the status quo, Vida Samadzai was selected as Miss Afghanistan in 2003, a feat that was received with a mixture of support from those who back the individual rights of women and those who view such displays as anti-traditionalist and un-Islamic. Some Pashtun women have attained high political office in Pakistan. In Afghanistan, following recent elections, the proportion of female political representatives is one of the highest in the world. A number of Pashtun women are found as TV hosts, journalists, actors and singers on several TV outlets, especially at AVT Khyber. Khatol Mohammadzai serves as Brigadier general in the military of Afghanistan, another Pashtun female became a fighter pilot in the Pakistan Air Force. Some notable Pashtun women include Suhaila Seddiqi, Zeenat Karzai, Shukria Barakzai, Fauzia Gailani, Malalai Kakar, Naghma, and the late Ghazala Javed.

Substantial work remains for Pashtun women to gain equal rights with men, who remain disproportionately dominant in most aspects of Pashtun society. Human rights organisations continue to struggle for greater women's rights, such as the Afghan Women's Network and the Aurat Foundation in Pakistan which aims to protect women from domestic violence. Due to recent reforms in the higher education commission (HEC) of Pakistan, a number of competent Pashtun female scholars have been able to earn Masters and PhD scholarships. Most of them have proceeded to USA, UK and other developed countries with support from their families.

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