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Challenging Stereotypes: Afghanistan’s Male Advocates for Gender Equality

Matiullah Wesa, a prominent advocate for girls’ education in Afghanistan, has been detained by the Taliban, raising concerns about the safety of activists in the country. Despite the stereotype of Afghan men as uniformly patriarchal, there are many male allies who work alongside women activists for gender equality in the country, often facing threats and danger. International support for these male allies is crucial in creating a more inclusive and just society for all Afghans.
Image credit: MivPiv
Farooq Yousaf and Dean Peacock
14 April 2023

Matiullah Wesa, a prominent advocate for girls’ access to education in Afghanistan, was detained recently by the Taliban. For years, Wesa has travelled across the country, advocating for equal educational opportunities for all and rallying village elders to support girls’ education in remote areas. While the Taliban’s spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid claimed that Wesa was detained for engaging in “suspicious activities”, comments from Taliban sympathisers and high-profile pro-Taliban Twitter accounts suggest that he is suspected of advancing a “western agenda.” His activism as an Afghan man advocating for girls’ education comes with its own set of challenges and dangers in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, as a man he is not alone in his mission for gender equality within the country.

Earlier this year, Professor Ismail Mashal, who runs a private university in Kabul attended by 450 women, was beaten and arrested by Taliban security forces. His crime: he was an outspoken advocate for girl’s and women’s right to education and in an interview with the BBC, had publicly called on “fathers to take the hands of their daughters and walk them to school, even if the gates are shut”. Mashal was released after being held for more than a month in detention.

Discussions about women’s rights in Afghanistan usually depict a clear gender binary: patriarchal men resisting aspirational women. However, men’s support for women’s access to education and rights in Afghanistan extends beyond now high profile individuals like Wesa and Mashal.

While often unremarked upon, many other men have also been working to support women’s rights advocates in their efforts to achieve gender equality. They do so despite facing reprisals, arrests and assassination attempts.

The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) in Afghanistan counted fully three thousand men amongst its 10,000 members prior to the Taliban takeover. These men included religious leaders and scholars, academics, members of political organisations and many university students. Dr Faramarz Jahanbeen served as the coordinator of WILPF’s male alliance, organising community dialogues, engaging with religious leaders. He received repeated death threats and narrowly escaped two assassins who opened fire on his car in an effort to silence him and then. Once the Taliban took power, having just four hours to collect his wife and one month old baby and leave the country as a result of further threats against his life.

Men like these challenge the stereotype of Afghan men as uniformly patriarchal. Regrettably, the international coverage of Afghanistan has generally given limited attention to these men, who work alongside women activists for gender equality in the country.

For years, the oppression of women in Afghanistan has been used as a “civilisational” bargaining chip by western colonial powers to claim cultural superiority and justify their interventions in Afghanistan. This narrative has been perpetuated in western media and discourse, often framing the war in Afghanistan as a battle between supposedly helpless Muslim women and ultra-conservative, patriarchal Muslim men. This orientalist perspective has been used to legitimise military occupation and intervention, positioning the West as liberators rescuing Afghan women from oppressive conditions. The liberation of Muslim women was thus used to further a highly masculinist foreign policy based on violence, imperialism, and military intervention.

The persistence of violence, abuse, incredible hardship, and a general sense of insecurity in Afghanistan has privileged certain masculine attributes associated with dominance and violence, as well as their role in the “protection” of women and homeland under the tradition of honour. With the Taliban back in power, active warfare is over for now in Afghanistan, at least in terms of having a “negative peace” in the country. However, highly patriarchal values and institutions shaped by decades of war and conflict will define the lives of Afghans for years to come.

Nevertheless, in the shadow of these values and institutions and broad generalisations about Afghan men, thousands of progressive Afghan men have worked with civil society organisations to engage in activism for women’s rights and gender equality in Afghanistan. We should be curious about these men and what motivates them to hold these beliefs. Telling their stories may inspire other men to also speak out for women’s rights.

Some men have spent years, and in some cases decades, advocating for girls’ education and gender equality in Afghanistan. Despite facing challenges and threats, they have remained committed to working to ensure equal opportunities for girls and women in their communities. As we’ve written about in a much longer research report on male allies for gender equality in Afghanistan, these men and others like them challenge stereotypical representations of Afghan men as inherently conservative and resistant to women’s rights Moreover, these men and many others like them represent a potential future for Afghanistan where gender equality is a shared goal for all Afghans regardless of their gender.

However, the recent arrest of Matiullah Wesa suggests that even activists who have refrained from criticising the Taliban, but who are working towards a universal mission of equal education, are being targeted by the Taliban regime. It is essential that international stakeholders recognise the important role of male allies and support men’s activism for women’s rights in Afghanistan. This support can play a crucial role in creating a more inclusive and just society for all Afghans.

To learn more about the making and unmaking of militarised masculinities in Afghanistan, watch WILPF’s documentary, “Power on Patrol”. To discover more about WILPF’s project to mobilise men for feminist peace, visit our project webpage.

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Farooq Yousaf and Dean Peacock

Dr Farooq Yousaf grew up in Peshawar, Pakistan, and is currently based in Basel (Switzerland) working in the Statehood and Conflict Program at swisspeace. He focuses on Postcolonialism and Gender, Peace and Security in South Asia.

Dean Peacock directs WILPF’s multi-country initiative to mobilise men for feminist peace. He is co-founder and former co-chair of the MenEngage Alliance now active in nearly 100 countries around the world to increase men’s support for gender equality and promote social justice for all.


Melissa Torres


Prior to being elected Vice-President, Melissa Torres was the WILPF US International Board Member from 2015 to 2018. Melissa joined WILPF in 2011 when she was selected as a Delegate to the Commission on the Status of Women as part of the WILPF US’ Practicum in Advocacy Programme at the United Nations, which she later led. She holds a PhD in Social Work and is a professor and Global Health Scholar at Baylor College of Medicine and research lead at BCM Anti-Human Trafficking Program. Of Mexican descent and a native of the US/Mexico border, Melissa is mostly concerned with the protection of displaced Latinxs in the Americas. Her work includes training, research, and service provision with the American Red Cross, the National Human Trafficking Training and Technical Assistance Centre, and refugee resettlement programs in the U.S. Some of her goals as Vice-President are to highlight intersectionality and increase diversity by fostering inclusive spaces for mentorship and leadership. She also contributes to WILPF’s emerging work on the topic of displacement and migration.

Jamila Afghani


Jamila Afghani is the President of WILPF Afghanistan which she started in 2015. She is also an active member and founder of several organisations including the Noor Educational and Capacity Development Organisation (NECDO). Elected in 2018 as South Asia Regional Representative to WILPF’s International Board, WILPF benefits from Jamila’s work experience in education, migration, gender, including gender-based violence and democratic governance in post-conflict and transitional countries.

Sylvie Jacqueline Ndongmo


Sylvie Jacqueline NDONGMO is a human rights and peace leader with over 27 years experience including ten within WILPF. She has a multi-disciplinary background with a track record of multiple socio-economic development projects implemented to improve policies, practices and peace-oriented actions. Sylvie is the founder of WILPF Cameroon and was the Section’s president until 2022. She co-coordinated the African Working Group before her election as Africa Representative to WILPF’s International Board in 2018. A teacher by profession and an African Union Trainer in peace support operations, Sylvie has extensive experience advocating for the political and social rights of women in Africa and worldwide.

WILPF Afghanistan

In response to the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban and its targeted attacks on civil society members, WILPF Afghanistan issued several statements calling on the international community to stand in solidarity with Afghan people and ensure that their rights be upheld, including access to aid. The Section also published 100 Untold Stories of War and Peace, a compilation of true stories that highlight the effects of war and militarisation on the region. 

IPB Congress Barcelona

WILPF Germany (+Young WILPF network), WILPF Spain and MENA Regional Representative

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WILPF uses feminist analysis to argue that militarisation is a counter-productive and ill-conceived response to establishing security in the world. The more society becomes militarised, the more violence and injustice are likely to grow locally and worldwide.

Sixteen states are believed to have supplied weapons to Afghanistan from 2001 to 2020 with the US supplying 74 % of weapons, followed by Russia. Much of this equipment was left behind by the US military and is being used to inflate Taliban’s arsenal. WILPF is calling for better oversight on arms movement, for compensating affected Afghan people and for an end to all militarised systems.

Militarised masculinity

Mobilising men and boys around feminist peace has been one way of deconstructing and redefining masculinities. WILPF shares a feminist analysis on the links between militarism, masculinities, peace and security. We explore opportunities for strengthening activists’ action to build equal partnerships among women and men for gender equality.

WILPF has been working on challenging the prevailing notion of masculinity based on men’s physical and social superiority to, and dominance of, women in Afghanistan. It recognizes that these notions are not representative of all Afghan men, contrary to the publicly prevailing notion.

Feminist peace​

In WILPF’s view, any process towards establishing peace that has not been partly designed by women remains deficient. Beyond bringing perspectives that encapsulate the views of half of the society and unlike the men only designed processes, women’s true and meaningful participation allows the situation to improve.

In Afghanistan, WILPF has been demanding that women occupy the front seats at the negotiating tables. The experience of the past 20 has shown that women’s presence produces more sustainable solutions when they are empowered and enabled to play a role.

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