Published: December 2010

Afghan Women

Afghan Women

Veiled Rebellion

Afghan women suffer under the constraints of tribalism, poverty, and war. Now they are starting to fight for a just life.

By Elizabeth Rubin
Photograph by Lynsey Addario

Twenty-five years ago an Afghan girl with green eyes haunted the cover of National Geographic. She became the iconic image of Afghanistan's plight, a young refugee fleeing the war between the Soviet-backed communists and the American-backed mujahideen. Today the iconic image of Afghanistan is again a young woman—Bibi Aisha, whose husband slashed off her nose and ears as punishment for running away from him and his family. Aisha fled to escape beatings and other abuse.

Why do husbands, fathers, brothers-in-law, even mothers-in-law brutalize the women in their families? Are these violent acts the consequence of a traditional society suddenly, after years of isolation and so much war, being hurled into the 21st century? And which Afghans in this society are committing the violence? There are significant differences between the Hazaras, Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Pashtuns, the most populous and conservative group and the one that has dominated political life since the 1880s.

In the Pashtun crescent, from Farah Province in the west to Kunar in the northeast, life was—and in many ways still is—organized around the code known as Pashtunwali, the "way of the Pashtun." The foundation of Pashtunwali is a man's honor, judged by three possessions—zar (gold), zamin (land), and zan (women). The principles on which the honorable life is built are melmastia (hospitality), nanawati (shelter or asylum), and badal (justice or revenge).

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