1944 • Afghanistan
Afghan social activist
Soraya Parlika was one of the foremost female activists in Afghanistan, even during the period in the 1990s when the country was under severe Islamic rule of the Taliban. For twenty-two years—from 1979 to 2001—Afghan women faced severe deprivations, first under Soviet Union domination, followed by civil war, and later Taliban rule. They were subjected to rape, forced marriages, domestic violence, torture, persistent fear, and general exclusion from society. These conditions caused not just physical harm, but long-lasting mental problems.
"It was a very emotional moment. After years, the women of Afghanistan came out in the open. Under the Taliban we all wore burkas and did not know each other. Now we all know each other's faces."
Because the Taliban banned females from education, Parlika operated secret schools for young women in the Afghanistan capital of Kabul during their rule from 1996 to late 2001. She also secretly hosted women's rights meetings in her home. Parlika had a great concern for the poor of the world and found the women of Afghanistan as impoverished as any group of people in the world.
Soraya was born in 1944 to wealthy parents. Parlika was a Pashtun, a long-standing ethnic group that lived in parts of Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan. During the 1970s, the Communist government of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan was established under the watchful eye of the Soviet Union. Communism is a system of government where a single political party controls all aspects of society including all economic production and distribution. All religious practices are banned. Parlika and her brother became active Communist Party members. He was appointed a foreign minister in the Afghan government. Parlika was a good student and earned a university degree. She stayed in the academic setting as a university administrator. Parlika also became head of the Afghanistan Red Crescent, the Middle East branch of the Red Cross (see box).
The Red Crescent
When the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in 1996, Soroya Parlika was head of the Afghan Red Crescent organization. The Red Crescent is the same humanitarian organization that people in the Western world associate with the Red Cross. The goal of the Red Crescent and Red Cross organizations is to ease human suffering often caused by prejudice and its resulting violent consequences.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was founded in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1863. A branch was founded in each of almost two hundred nations, including creation of the American Red Cross in 1881, in the United States. During a war between Russia and Turkey in the late 1870s, a new symbol was adopted in place of the Red Cross—the Red Crescent. It was feared the Christian likeness of the cross would alienate Muslim soldiers. The Red Crescent, they believed, would be more acceptable. The ICRC adopted the Red Crescent as an official symbol of the humanitarian organization in 1878 for non-Christian countries. In 1919, following World War I, the League of Red Cross Societies was established to better coordinate Red Cross activities. By 1983, the League was renamed the League of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to reflect the growing number of Red Crescent branches that represented almost all nations that had majority Muslim populations. They included around 33 of 185 worldwide branches.
By the late 1970s, Communist rule was becoming increasingly harsh toward its citizens, particularly toward Afghan women. Political opponents were frequently executed or sent to prison. The oppressive strategies only increased the number of people in Afghanistan opposed to the Communist rule. Many Afghans fled to neighboring Pakistan and Iran, where they organized resistance movements (groups of people fighting invaders of their country either through force or nonviolence) seeking independence from Soviet control.
In 1979, Parlika was arrested and sentenced to eighteen months in prison for organizing a women's movement that opposed the policies of Afghan president Hafizullah Amin (1929–1979) and his Communist rule. While in prison, she was tortured and bore for life the scars from cigarette burns on her arms. The government officials wanted the names of the women in her women's rights group, but she refused to tell them.
Civil war and rise of the Taliban
As nationalism (desire for independence) increased in Afghanistan, the Soviets grew uneasy. Islamic guerillas known as the mujahideen proved increasingly effective against the Afghan army. In late December 1979, Soviet secret police assassinated Amin as regular Soviet troops launched an invasion into Afghanistan to reestablish firm control. The mujahideen with U.S. backing proved very effective in their war against the Soviet Union, and eventually achieved victory in 1989.
The end of Communist rule left a void in Afghan political leadership. Much of the country was locally ruled by various rival militant leaders known as warlords. Various factions competed for control, which led to a civil war by 1992. During the Afghan civil war, women suffered greatly as the country experienced tremendous destruction. The modest economic development accomplished under Soviet rule was devastated. Many women were murdered and raped by the mujahideen factions as civil strife raged for several years.
The Taliban finally established control in 1996. With their rise to power, the Taliban suppression of the warlords was often brutal with executions. After 1996, the Taliban ruled about 70 percent of the Afghan population. Others remained under local rule. As described by Elaheh Rostami Povey in her 2003 article "Women in Afghanistan: Passive Victims of the Borga or Active Social Participants," the Taliban placed new restrictions on women. For example, one restriction was that they had to wear burkas (long flowing garments that cover the whole body from head to feet) at all times in public to conform to the modesty expected of women. Women who disobeyed could face execution. Meanwhile, the Afghan economy slowed to a halt. Hunger and poverty became widespread, affecting women and children the most.
The Taliban denied women their basic rights to education. Within three months of taking power in Kabul in 1996, the Taliban sent 103,000 girls home from schools; 4,000 women studying at Kabul University were forced to leave. They also fired 7,800 female teachers comprising 70 percent of all teachers, and 50 percent of government workers who were female.
Poorest of the poor
As reported by Povey, amid these changes existed some 3,500 female-headed households in the country. The number of these households increased following the death and devastation during the Soviet war and civil war. Women's husbands and other male kin had been killed at alarming rates during more than twenty years of fighting. These women were frequently referred to by other members of society in a derogatory fashion as "unprotected women."
According to Povey, they were marginalized (unable to enjoy full benefits of society like others) from society. Unable to find work and not allowed to obtain an education, they became the poorest of the poor in Afghanistan. They received food and clothes from female neighbors and relied on women's support networks for basic necessities, such as simple things like soap. The unprotected faced persistent discrimination and violence. They even received less food and few other necessities such as soap from aid agencies, largely because they were not registered citizens, and so basically did not have the official paperwork needed to receive aid. To survive, women made handicrafts and sold them to other women. Others simply begged. The Kabul streets were full of women and children beggars. Many suffered malnutrition and disease.
Afghan women's movement
During the years of civil war and Taliban rule, Parlika became leader of a small underground (secret) women's movement that steadily gained membership throughout the 1990s. At the time of the Taliban rise to power in 1996, Parlika lived on the third floor of a Soviet-built block tower apartment complex in Kabul. It was bullet-riddled from the wars fought in Kabul. The apartment became a secret gathering place for women from all across the city.
The Afghan women's movement, as in the West in the 1960s and 1970s, was largely composed of well-educated women of means, such as doctors, teachers, and lawyers. Reaching out to the unprotected and other women, many women such as Parlika risked their lives by using their own homes for schools and support centers. These networks were able to sustain some social unity in the region during these traumatic times of upheaval. This was critical for the process of reconstructing Afghanistan society that began in 2002 after twenty years of war.
A network of secret schools
As described by Povey in her 2003 article, in the early 1980s, the Women's Vocational Training Center was established in Kabul. It offered courses in English and other languages, computer skills, handicraft, animal husbandry, and other skills like sewing and knitting women could use to earn money. With the rise of the Taliban, these training programs had to go underground (into secrecy). The women participating in the underground schools risked imprisonment and torture. The courses continued to teach women how to make their own clothing and other necessities.
Parlika organized a network of secret schools for girls. They were located in private apartments across the city of Kabul. These loose networks of schools had little knowledge of each other. Courses included mathematics, computers, weaving, English, and music. The number of women in these home schools usually numbered from five to ten. The parents paid $1 each month for each course. Students had to hide their school books, notebooks, pens, and pencils under their head-to-toe burkas. Boys were also included in these networks and many men supported these schools, too. Not all Afghani men supported the subordination of women in society.
The Taliban's religious police from the Department for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice regularly patrolled the city looking for the secret classrooms in the network of schools. They often used tips from informers. They would raid a house and arrest and beat the women found there. Sometimes the men who owned the house were beaten as well. Usually detention lasted several hours.
Northern Alliance takes control
The deadly terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, brought worldwide attention to Afghanistan. The Al-Qaeda Islamic terrorist group was accused of carrying out the attack. The Taliban were accused of providing a safe haven for Al-Qaeda operations, including training camps.
With extensive military support from the United States, in late 2001 a coalition of various Afghan groups calling themselves the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan, also known as the Northern Alliance, started a war against the Taliban to gain control of Afghanistan. By early 2002, the Northern Alliance had gained control of most of Afghanistan. A transitional Afghan government led by Hamid Karzai (1957–), a Pashtun like Parlika, was established with the Northern Alliance maintaining a strong influence.
After the Taliban
Though the Taliban were gone from Kabul and other areas of Afghanistan, those leaders replacing them still held much the same attitudes about women and their place in society. Afghanistan society remained very conservative and male-dominated. Gender prejudice and discrimination persisted. Men remained resistant toward anything that resembled a women's activist movement. Parlika, like others, did manage to change from the full-length burka to a light-weight head scarf.
Immediately following the fall of the Taliban, Parlika planned a march of unveiled Afghan women to the United Nations compound in Kabul. The goal was to demand that women be included in the new Afghan government. However, the Kabul police warned that even with the Taliban gone, they could still not guarantee safety for her and her followers.
Parlika canceled the protest march realizing that the warning about security problems given by the government was just an excuse. The government really did not support women's activism and their improvement in society. Nonetheless, around two hundred women still gathered outside Parlika's apartment and lifted their veils in unison. Following the emotional moment, they left with burkas back in place covering their faces. It was a symbolic gesture toward greater social freedom for women. They also voiced demands for greater job opportunities as well. Two women were appointed to leadership roles in the new Afghan government.
By late November 2001, Parlika had become a public figure sought out by the international news media. However, the Northern Alliance was again seeking the names of participants in her civil rights group that totaled some four thousand women.
A new start
With the fall of the Taliban in late 2001, female teachers began preparing to return to work in the following spring when schools reopened for a new year. Afghan schools usually closed during the winter months because of the lack of heating. Girls were to take placement exams after missing five years of school. However, approximately ten thousand girls and women had kept up their schooling in the secret school networks and could return at higher class levels than when they left. They could earn certificates of skills learned during the Taliban years.
Parlika sought to maintain her network created during the Taliban rule to continue helping disadvantaged youth. She hoped to expand the courses offered. Parlika called her network the Afghan's Women's Cooperative Association. The network provided an after-school tutoring program. The program was to help students catch up from the years missed and provide help on homework for those who had lost fathers or older siblings who might have ordinarily helped. Another program provided skills training for boys who had lost fathers. Parlika had to look toward international aid to pay her teachers, since the Afghan government had trouble paying its regular school teachers on a regular basis.
As reported by Povey, despite continued gender prejudice in Afghan society, women became more visible in public. In February 2002, the Cultural Journal of Afghanistan Women was created. Also, a daily newspaper was started that focused on women's issues. However, major obstacles were left to overcome in Afghan society. By 2002, about 35,000 female-headed households existed in Afghanistan. Around three thousand female-headed households lived in just one of the refugee centers in Kabul.
The goal of Parlika and other Afghan women leaders after 2002 was to further break the cultural taboos against women and change society. She helped establish the National Union of Women of Afghanistan to help professional Afghan women. They looked at changes that had already occurred in other predominantly Muslim countries, including Iran where women could pursue college educations, vote in public elections, and hold public office. These examples gave hope to Parlika and others.
A major part of Parlika's effort after 2001 was lobbying, or petitioning, for the new Afghan government to be more representative of the ethnic and religious diversity of Afghanistan. Due to Parlika's activism, the United Nations (UN) encouraged the various Afghan political factions to include women in their delegations. However, the rise of the Afghan women's movement caused unease among Afghan's leaders. Karzai easily won reelection in 2004 as Afghan president. In the meantime, the Northern Alliance splintered into a number of political factions. The Afghan National Army took over military responsibilities from the Northern Alliance.
In September 2005, at the age of sixty, Parlika was one of many women running for the Afghan legislature. It was the first such election held in Afghanistan in over thirty years. Since women were still hard to reach while campaigning, Parlika had to focus on the vote of men. Approximately 2,800 candidates—including nearly 600 women—were competing for 249 seats in the lower house of parliament (assembly of people that make laws of a nation). The youngest candidate was a twenty-five-year-old female basketball player. However, the elections also attracted a resurgence in Taliban guerilla warfare in the southern and eastern portions of the country. The election results were announced on November 12, 2005, after many charges of corruption. Women won 28 percent of the lower house seats, more than the 25 percent guaranteed by the Afghanistan constitution. Ominously, the Taliban continued its resurgence into 2006 in the southern part of the country.
Through her dedication in fighting gender prejudice, Parlika became an inspiration for many other women who risked their lives and boosted the spirit of their communities during hard times. For example, Parlika had led the way in devising a means to cope with harsh realities under Taliban rule and empowered women in the process to develop and strengthen feelings of self-worth and self-confidence. Many men in Afghan society supported Parlika's efforts as well. She directly raised hopes of rebuilding an Afghan society with greater social justice for all.
For More Information
Bernard, Cheryl. Veiled Courage: Inside the Afghan Women's Resistance. New York: Broadway Books, 2002.
Logan, Harriet. Unveiled: Voices of Women in Afghanistan. New York: Regan Books, 2002.
Skaine, Rosemarie. The Women of Afghanistan Under the Taliban. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2002.
International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum. http://www.micr.ch/ (accessed on December 11, 2006).
"Kabul Women's March Thwarted." BBC News. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/1679337.stm (accessed on December 11, 2006).
Povey, Elaheh Rostami. "Women in Afghanistan: Passive Victims of the Borga or Active Social Participants." In Farzaneh. Vol. 6, No. 11, pp. 7-24. http://www.farzanehjournal.com/archive/Download/arti2n11.pdf (accessed on December 11, 2006).
Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). http://www.rawa.org/ (accessed on December 11, 2006).