Category Archives: community development

Afghani Women, Empowerment, and Microfinance


“A woman is not beaten by her husband because she has done something wrong. She is beaten just because he feels like it.” (Bangladeshi woman in Schuler and Hashemi 1998)

There were many different points of interest in the lecture Yaso gave, as it was the topic with which I connected most strongly, I have decided to engage with her discussion of the article “Afghan Values or Women’s Rights?” and her argument that when working in the field, we need to work within the systems of the society in which we are placed, even though they may clash with our personal values.

I found the introduction of microfinance into a post conflict society such as Afghanistan interesting. As a student of peace building, I have learnt that post conflict societies tend to experience a backlash against new rights that women may have acquired during conflict (Burnet 2012, Meintjes, Pillay and Turshen 2001, Pankhurst 2003, SAP 2002), eg. the phenomenon of women entering traditionally male roles to deal with the absence of men.

This backlash is usually cloaked in language referring to a “restoration”, or a “return”, to a romanticised idea of pre war society and “tradition” (Pankhurst 2003, Hoogensen and Vigeland Rottem 2004).

The post conflict environment in which men, and the patriarchy in general, are reasserting their dominance over women, lends itself to an increased risk of domestic violence (Pankhurst 2003).

As a result, I was very interested to read the articles about Afghani women, their rights, and how their situations changed with their involvement in microfinance.

As I argued last week, we, meaning those of us living in western society, tend to assume that engagement in economic activity will bring empowerment to poor women living in the “third world”.

However, those of us lucky enough to study microfinance, including myself, are more than aware of the complexities of women’s involvement in microfinance, we have learned of the pitfalls that come from poor loan usage, or predatory lending, leading to unmanageable debt, family breakdown, and social ostracisation.

It was this understanding that led me to look closely at not simply whether involvement in microfinance empowered the Afghani women in the Kabeer, Kahn and Aldparvar (2011) article, but how it affected their experience of domestic violence in a highly patriarchal, post conflict society.

In looking at Afghani women’s empowerment, I found an interesting tension between the arguments of Kabeer et al (2011) article, and that of Barakat and Wardell (2002). While neither desires to paint Afghani women as “victims” or remove their agency, their portrayals of life within a highly patriarchal society for an average Afghani woman were strikingly different. 

As a result of growing up in a Christian, western, neo liberal, democracy, I had not known a lot about Panchayat and Syariah law, if anything, the views I had held were negative.

Dr. Nadarajah’s lecture challenged my pre-existing views, when she explained that these laws were not inherently misogynistic.

Barakat and Warell (2002) contend that we need to look at Afghani women through Afghani eyes, and that western feminism can’t be applied. They argue that even though Afghani women are not active in the public sphere, that they have great influence and decision making power within the home and community.

However, this contention is at odds with the results of Kabeer et al’s (2011) fieldwork, which shows a society in which women consistently find themselves with less rights than men.

While Kabeer et al (2011) agree that the Qu’ran holds women in high esteem, they argue that there is a disconnect between how women are seen in the religious texts, and how they are treated in real life. Though the Qu’ran exalts mothers and wives, and Afghani patriarchy is based on a system of mutual rights and responsibilities, in reality they women bear more responsibilities and it is the men who enjoy most of the rights (Kabeer et al 2002). 

Kabeer et al (2011) confirmed my suspicions that in the post conflict period, the problems of patriarchal society; psychosocial trauma resulting from war; emasculation from loss of breadwinner status; and war time socialisation towards violent forms of conflict resolution, compounded, and led to increased domestic violence.

Despite women’s involvement in microfinance, they were not financially independent, and were unable and/or unwilling to leave their husbands. The patriarchal society creates a disincentive for women to divorce, through the elimination custodial rights for women, to their children (Kabeer et al 2011).

One woman said that her husband was “psychotic”, she divorced him, but at the cost of her three sons (Kabeer et al 2011).

While Kabeer et al (2002) do not claim to represent all Afghani women in their sample, they do provide several strong accounts of women who have experienced domestic violence. Through this we see that Barakat and Wardell’s (2002) theory doesn’t seem to be able to account for the concerns that are raised in Kabeer’s fieldwork.


Barakat and Wardel (2002) discuss Pashtun refugees in UNHCR camps in Pakistan. As their men were away fighting it was the women who learned to organise and made decisions that would previously have been done jointly.

However in presenting this opportunity for empowerment, Barakat and Wardell (2002) fail to acknowledge the very real phenomenon of the loss of women’s empowerment with post conflict refugee and IDP repatriation.

While women in refugee and IDP camps do tend to organise collectively and gain greater decision making power, when these communities are lost as a result of repatriation and the return of men, women do not tend to consolidate their civil rights gains, and gender relations revert back to pre-existing norms (Meintjes, Pillay and Turshen 2001).

Both Kabeer et al (2011) and Schuler and Hashemi (1998) found that women’s involvement in microfinance alone was not consistent with a reduction in the incidence of domestic violence. The Schuler and Hashemi (1998) study found that the highest level of domestic violence was in fact within communities in which transformation of gender roles were underway. While Kabeer et al (2011) found that domestic violence was more likely if the loan money had been misused, leading to financial problems.

Both (Kabeer et al 2011, Schuler and Hashemi 1998) suggested that in such highly patriarchal societies violence against women was commonplace, and legitimised by the authority which men held over women. In some households women contributing to household income reduces stress, and in others in creates a new arena for hostility (Schuler and Hashemi 1998).

Kabeer et al (2011) argue that it is not surprising that in such a highly patriarchal society microfinance has not had a huge effect on the empowerment of women, however as they argue “we should notice the subtle shifts in agency, and almost imperceptible widening of the sphere of women’s social interactions.”

As Dr Nadarajah and Barakat and Wardell (2002) argued, we need to work within the system of the society in which we are placed. Though I agree with this, I must acknowledge that it is easier to say than to actually do. The following example illustrates the complexities associated with this approach:

“Once a member’s husband beat his wife while a Grameen Bank meeting was in progress, in front of all those assembled. He wanted to money she had saved to pay the loan instalment for gambling. The Bank worked admonished him, saying, “have you no decency, beating your wife in front of us?” (Schuler and Hashemi 1998)

 One Grameen Bank member opined that as most Grameen Bank staff were men, they would be less likely to want to intervene, and that the use of the phrase “in front of us” was used so as not to challenge the man’s authority to beat his wife if he so desired (Schuler and Hashemi 1998).

In the same study, one Grameen Bank staff member said:

“We never directly tell the men in the village not to beat their wives, because they might get angry with us if we did that.”

In this way we can see how the staff members are also working within the system in which they are placed, however is this ok? To what extent should we bend our morals to fit within those of the new culture? A greater issue, which is too large for this blog post alone is, are there some rights which we should hold universal? Or should all rights be looked at on a culture by culture basis? And as Barakat and Wardell (2002) argued, there is no such thing as “Afghani Women”, they are not homogenous, and in choosing a cultural relativism or universal human rights approach, aren’t we always going to be clashing with someone’s views?



Barakat, S., and Wardell, G., (2002) “Exploited by Whom? An Alternative Perspective on Humanitarian Assistance to Afghan Women” Third World Quarterly, 23(5) pp. 909-930

Burnet, J. (2012) “Situating Sexual Violence in Rwanda (1990-2001): Sexual Agency, Sexual Consent, and the Political Economy of War”African Studies Review, 55(2) pp. 97-118

Pankhurst, D (2003) “The ‘Sex War’ and Other Wars: Towards a Feminist Approach to Peace Building” Development Practice, 13(2-3), pp. 154 – 177

South Asia Partnership, (2002) Women and Leadership: Voice for Security and Development – Forum Report, accessed 22/4/2013

Kabeer, N., Khan, A., and Adlparvar, N., (2011) “Afghan values or Women’s Rights? Gendered Narratives about Continuity and Change in Urban Afghanistan” IDS Working Paper, 387, Institute of Development Studies, London

Hoogensen, G., and Vigeland Rottem, S., (2004) “Gender Identity and the Subject of Security”, Security Dialouge, 35(2) pp. 155-171

Meintjes,S., Pillay, A., and Turshen, M., (eds.) (2001) “The Aftermath: Women in Post Conflict Transformation” Zed Books, London