Afghan Women

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Elaheh Rostami-Povey, Zed Books, £15.99

There are few subjects more timely than this study of Afghan women and few people more qualified to examine them. Elaheh Rostami-Povey is a British academic of Iranian origin, a socialist and feminist who opposes imperialism in the region. She has talked to Afghan women in their own country, in exile in Iran and Pakistan, and in Britain and the US.

Afghan women in this book are the subjects of history, not passive objects waiting for the condescension of Western liberals. We hear in their own words what they feel about their lives, and how they struggle to achieve education and any sort of independence.

Elaheh sets their views in the context of a country destroyed by war and whose low level of economic and social development has a profound impact on women's lives. In a country where spending on the military runs at around ten times that spent on reconstruction, Afghans of both sexes wait in vain for improvements in their lives promised by George Bush and Tony Blair when they launched the war on Afghanistan.

Then we were told that this was a war fought for women's liberation. It hasn't quite happened like that: one in two girls still don't go to school, the incidence of prostitution and other sex work has mushroomed in recent years, and many women still face forced marriages and extremely repressive attitudes.

What is surprising is the number of women who resisted the Taliban despite physical and sexual harassment and who continue to resist today. Women show great courage in coming together to campaign for their rights and for freedom from social structures which make them the property of men.

Perhaps the most fascinating accounts in the book are those of exiled women, caught between the cultures of different societies, which open up different, non-traditional views for young women in particular. Few seem to totally embrace Western values.

The contrast between the life of Muslim women in Afghanistan and those same Afghan women in Iran is also instructive. They find Iran a much freer place to live, with women attending school and higher education, and challenging their fathers much more. When they return to Afghanistan they find the attitudes of their families become more restrictive with the more traditional society.

This book firmly solidarises with women in their oppression but refuses to draw the conclusion that the West is somehow superior or that male supremacy is simply a Muslim question. It argues that an end to war, colonial occupation and grinding poverty in Afghanistan would lead to social and economic changes which could really benefit all Afghans but women in particular.

Afghan Women looks at their real experience. It also points to how we can change the world for the better.