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.