Women’s Leadership Roles in Afghanistan

September 4, 2015
Aarya Nijat and Jennifer Murtazashvili

In the days after September 11, the international community’s desire to “rescue” Afghan women from their social, political, and economic fate was key to mobilizing global support to topple the Taliban regime. Since then, the Afghan government and the international community have invested vast resources seeking to improve the status of women in the country, primarily through programs to support women leaders in politics, business, and civil society. Drawn on interviews and focus group discussions with more than two hundred people, this report seeks to understand factors that contribute to the emergence of women leaders by identifying and assessing the past decade and a half’s efforts to promote women’s leadership.


  • Since 2001, the Afghan government, in partnership with the international community, has invested vast resources seeking to ensure the emergence of women as leaders in politics, business, and civil society.
  • The adaptive leadership framework used in this analysis stresses contextual awareness and a leader’s sense of purpose, and views leadership as mobilizing people to tackle collective challenges. Authority is only one of many tools leaders have at their disposal.
  • Many women have emerged in positions of national significance in politics, business, and civil society. However, women’s space for leadership remains limited, donor dependent, and primarily urban; interventions aimed at promoting women’s leadership primarily focus on raw counts of women in political positions.
  • Women are underrepresented in the private sector and have no active role in economic production. Insecurity, harassment, immobility, religious extremism, and corruption are common. Concepts such as gender equality remain largely misunderstood.
  • Women in positions of authority are perceived as symbolic, lack political support, have weak decision-making and enforcement power, and lack access to sources of financial and human capital.
  • Bottom-up efforts to engage women have led to pressure groups and a culture of democratic advocacy but have also created donor-dependent entities that behave like rentier organizations and offer few incentives for widespread social mobilization, which is critical in developing enduring leadership.
  • Men remain largely disengaged and often alienated from efforts to promote women’s leadership, which they associate with physical or sexual attributes rather than intellectual capacity. Engagement with religious groups has remained limited to quick fixes.
  • Supportive family, credible and relevant female role models, and quality education—including religious knowledge—help generate an enabling environment for women’s leadership.
  • Effective support of women’s leadership demands gender-inclusive approaches, creatively redefining leadership, facilitating women’s mobility, and strong political will.

About the Report

This report examines the state of women’s leadership in Afghanistan. It is based primarily on interviews and focus group discussions with more than two hundred academics, politicians, entrepreneurs, journalists, teachers, students, and civil society activists, as well as Afghan and international experts in Kabul between January and March 2015. The research is part of a partnership agreement between the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) and USAID aimed at supporting policy relevant research on Afghanistan, targeting national and international policymakers, in particular USAID strategies and programs such as PROMOTE.

About the Authors

Aarya Nijat, a Harvard graduate, co-runs Duran Research & Analysis, a consulting firm based in Kabul. Jennifer Murtazashvili is assistant professor of public management and international development at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.

September 4, 2015