Women’s rights in Afghanistan have been supported and championed by Afghan and international advocates and organizations since 2002. Substantial progress has been made, but the women’s rights movement faces an uncertain future in the wake of the 2014 international troop withdrawals.

In addition to the potential for decreased financial and public support from international actors, women’s rights advocates face the challenge of collaborating with a national government that has been mistrusted by the Afghan people while trying to promote norms and laws that often contradict deeply held community traditions. This report draws on numerous in-country interviews, discussions and debates to explore a way forward for women’s rights in Afghanistan: promoting women’s rights through an Islamic framework. Women’s rights groups have increasingly been using sharia-based arguments and working with religious leaders to give arguments for stronger women’s rights protections more legitimacy. Greater understanding of how Islamic legal literacy, scholarship and dialogue might help protect women’s rights in the coming difficult period is crucial.




  • A major priority for international donors since 2002 has been to promote and protect women’s rights in Afghanistan. Substantial progress has been made, including much stronger formal protections for women in law. However, in practice, these legal protections are uncertain to survive the coming transition as these laws are neither universally accepted within Afghanistan nor evenly applied.
  • Many Afghan women’s rights advocates are worried that the decrease in international funding and influence following international troop withdrawals in 2014 risks reversing some of the progress on women’s rights. Resistance to Western-driven and Western-influenced rights programming, particularly with regard to women’s rights, is increasing within the Afghan polity.
  • The Afghan government is deeply mistrusted, viewed as lacking legitimacy and as a puppet of Western actors. Laws and programs associated with it are often reflexively opposed. That women have certain rights under Afghan law is therefore no longer considered a persuasive argument. It is unclear whether the 2014 presidential elections and the new administration that follows will reverse this mistrust.
  • Absent a tolerance for these “Western” notions of rights, or state willingness to enforce Afghan law, women’s rights advocates fear that communities will revert to customary norms and practices that frequently result in serious discrimination against women and girls. This has already begun to happen in many communities.
  • In response, Afghan legal aid and women’s rights organizations have increasingly looked to an Islamic legal framework to promote women’s rights. Islamic law is viewed as more credible at the community level and as more progressive with regards to women’s rights than most customary norms and practices.
  • Greater assessment of how Islamic legal literacy, scholarship, and dialogue might help protect women’s rights in the coming difficult period is crucial to increasing the acceptance of these rights and therefore their sustainability.

About the Report

This report discusses recent efforts and future opportunities for using an Islamic perspective to promote women’s rights in Afghanistan, based on interviews conducted between June and October 2013 with legal aid and women’s rights organizations, activists, and donors. This research is part of USIP’s women’s access to justice portfolio in Afghanistan, which has focused on community-based means for women to seek justice.

About the Author

Anastasiya Hozyainova, a researcher specializing in political and civil rights in fragile states, lived and worked in Afghanistan from 2007 to 2013. Her recent work includes research in Afghanistan on security sector reform, access to justice, and mainstreaming gender-sensitive policies.

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