Media, Democracy and Women Empowerment in Fragile States. The Example of Post-Taliban Afghanistan

Term Paper, 2020

29 Pages, Grade: 2,0



List of Abbreviations

1. Introduction
1.1. Objectives and research questions
1.2. Methodology and structure

2. Theoretical context
2.1. Afghanistan: the fragile situation of a state and women's rights
2.2. Concept of women empowerment and media

3. Analytical part: Afghan women empowerment and media
3.1. Social empowerment
3.2. Educational empowerment
3.3. Economic empowerment
3.4. Political empowerment
3.5. New developments: social media as advocacy platform

4. Conclusion

5. Sources

Vanessa Beyer is currently studying Global Communication: Politics and Society at the University of Erfurt with a theoretical focus on political communication. The following paper was written as part of the seminar Media, Democracy and Political Transformation in International Comparative Perspective.

She has recently become increasingly involved with the topics of gender, feminism and empowerment. For this reason, she decided to use the gender perspective, which is often neglected in the academic field of political science in connection with fragile states. Furthermore, a special personal interest has sharpened her attention for the country of Afghanistan in recent years.


Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

1. Introduction

While fragile states are considered as drivers of international insecurity and of increasing priority for the international community, gender issues and women's rights remain a blind spot within their efforts. In the history of Afghanistan "[...] women have suffered fora considerable time every privation known to humankind, losing all their fundamental human rights, particularly the right to life, education, health and work." (United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, 2002: 3). But as fragile states like Afghanistan often lack the most basic things like security, infrastructure, rule of law or functioning markets, especially gender- related issues are often neglected. Additionally, these issues received only barely attention from mainstream media and the international community (Stabile/Kumar, 2005); hereby, "[...] multilateral state interventions have been more concerned with stabilizing the state system [...] rather than to promote social transformation." (Kindervater/Meintjes.: 475). If half the population with its needs and knowledge remains excluded, it won't be possible to bring a society of a fragile state together, build profound political institutions or an active civil society and achieve sustainable development. These are tasks and processes that affect society as a whole and can only have a lasting effect ifall social groups are equally involved. However, stereotypical role models prevent women from having an active influence on peace restoration and reconstruction.

Although Afghan women are guaranteed constitutionally with equal rights since 2004 and their social space has expanded since then, many obstacles due to history and conservative traditions prevent women to fully participate in social and political life: In 2012 the national Ulema „[...] claimed that 'men are fundamental and women are secondary' and condoned the 'harassment and beating' of women as long as there is a 'Shariah-compliant reason'." (Kouvo/Levine, 2018: 485). Furtheryoung women are still forced into marriage ordenied basic education (Rahim, 2002: 628), and just generally face a lack of educational or economic opportunities and violence (The Asia Foundation, 2019: 49).

However, after the fall of the Taliban regime women started to take part in the social affairs as activists advocating for women's empowerment, especially through different media channels.

In encouraging equality and social inclusion as well as fostering transformation within a fragile state, media has a crucial role (Deane, 2013). It has complex effects in reducing the risk of 1 fragmentation within society, unleashing social as well as political change and increasing the opportunities for dialogue (ibid.: 4f.). However, media can also have a profound impact on further fragmentation and division within politics and society (ibid.).

Due to lasting traditional rigid gender roles promoted by the oppressive Islamist regime by the Taliban and the public perception that women are inferior to men (ICG, 2013: 28), Afghan women have had no opportunities to live a self-determined individual social, political and economic life after an era of war and conflict. But the new opportunities given through media, pave the ground to empower women by making them visible in Afghan society and enabling them to make use of their legal rights (Khalvatgar, 2020). The following paper examines how this empowerment unfolds in concrete terms.

1.1 Objectives and research questions

This paper aims to identify the role of media in fragile states like Afghanistan in relation to women's opportunities making use of their rights in a self-determined way and further how media is influencing the social perception on women's rights regarding different aspects of life. Therefore, this term paper examines how media empowers women in different aspects.

The following questions should thus be addressed:

1. To which extent Afghan media empowers Afghan women?
2. How can media empower Afghan women further?

1.2. Methodology and Structure

In order to understand the specific situation of women in a fragile state like Afghanistan it is important to define what makes a state fragile and give a short overview on the current status of women's rights in Afghanistan. In addition to that, the role of women and the importance to involve women in peace-making and -building to establish democratic structures will be outlined. Thereby, the relevance of this work is shown. The research questions posed, clearly imply the concept of women empowerment, which is explained in the following section and sets up the categories of analysis for the presented term paper. In the second part of the paper, the theoretical categories of female empowerment through media are analysed using the example of Afghanistan and further discussing current challenges of female empowerment. The paper 2 concludes with an outlook on further possible steps to be taken by media to promote and enforce women's rights and to overcome gender differences.

2. Theoretical context

2.1. Afghanistan: the fragile situation of a state and women's rights

Within the present context, the academic discourse is also referring to fragile states as states that are in a fragile situation (Mcloughlin, 2012: 9f.). When a state finds itself in a fragile situation, it is not defined in an internationally or academically uniform way, nor is there an internationally accepted catalogue of such states. In most cases, a definition is given in contrast to the ideal of OECD member states, which guarantee legitimate monopolies of power in accordance with the rule of law to ensure the safety of their citizens and provide other basic public services: "A fragile region or state has weak capacity to carry out basic governance functions, and lacks the ability, to develop mutually constructive relations with society. Fragile states are also more vulnerable to internal or external shocks such as economic crises or natural disasters." (OECD, 2012 cit. from Deane, 2013: 4). Another approach was chosen by the Fund for Peace, an US non-governmental organization dedicated to promoting sustainable security, that summarizes the most common attributes of a fragile state as the following: The loss of physical control of its territory or a monopoly on the legitimate use of force; the erosion of legitimate authority to make collective decisions; an inability to provide reasonable public services; the inability to interact with other states as a full member of the international community (The Fund for Peace, 2018). The fragile states index by the Fund for Peace ranks Afghanistan on the 9th place (The Fund for Peace, 2020). In general, several different indicators influence the fragile situation of a state regarding economics, politics and security with mutual interaction (Collmer, 2009: 9). Although these are the key indicators in state performance, it is important to pay attention to "[...] societal traditions, cultural traits, value systems and social norms [which] will impact on the country specific situation and constitute a whole range of independent variables [...]" (ibid.: 13).

Due to this context also women's rights are to be found in a fragile situation. Therefore, it is appropriate to take a look at the latest history of Afghanistan in regard to women's rights.

Before a communist coup by army officers in April 1978 (Stabile/Kumar, 2005: 766) the government under President Mohammad Daoud Khan implemented reforms in orderto improve women's access to health care, education, economic and political empowerment (ICG, 2013: 2). Furthermore, the Afghan Constitution "[...] ensured basic rights for women such as universal suffrage and equal pay." (Stabile/Kumar, 2003: 767.) in 1964; within the urban areas girls attended school since the 1950's and women even held important political positions (ibid.; ICG, 2013: 2). Moreover, just a minority of women wear the burqa and even devout Muslim women opted for headscarves and long dresses. (Smeal, 2011). In the aftermath of the coup in 1978 the pro-Soviet People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan1 formed a coalition government as main power (Stabile/ Kumar, 2005: 766). This government passed a reform program, which had no social base due to the lack of support outside the urban region of Kabul (ibid.). As reaction conservative Islamic groups formed a resistance movement organized called the mujahideen (holy warriors) (ibid.: 767).

This marked the beginning of attacks on women's rights through provisions as mujahideen leaders passed a religious decree {fatwa) that forced women to wear the hijab, and further used their power within the refugee camps of Pakistan "[...] to impose their idiosyncratic interpretation of the role of women [...]" (ICG, 2013: 3) denying them to attend school by 1992 (Kouvo/Levine, 2018: 487). They passed religious decrees "[...] that prevented women from holding government jobs or jobs in broadcasting, and required them to wear a veil." (Goodwin/Neuwirth, 2001: A19 cit. from Stabile/Kumar, 2005). NGOs employing Afghan women were attacked, the women threatened or murdered (ICG, 2013: 3).

As the pro-Soviet government began to weaken and to supersede by the mujahidin, Afghanistan descended into anarchy and the Taliban movement emerged from the Pakistan refugee camps (ibid.: 4). When the Taliban seized power in 1996, all remaining women's rights were abolished: The Taliban regime set up a new Islamic fundamentalism and a strong form of gender apartheid, from which especially women had to suffer (ICG, 2013: 4.). After the international intervention initiated by the US due to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the implementation of a transitional government a new Afghan Constitution was passed in 2004, providing women with equal rights, access to education and a quota for positions in the parliament (Kouvo/Levine, 2018: 488) on the basis of the ratified Convention on the Elimination ofAII Forms of Discrimination Against Women (ICG, 2013: 7). In general women experienced more rights and representation within society through legislation and policy2 due to internationally efforts and an enhanced legal protection3 - but women's rights remained a neglected issue by the Afghan government (ibid.). Although a legal framework provides necessary instruments for women to advocate for their rights, it is not the most powerful instrument for political and social change (ibid.; Kindervater/Meintjes, 2018: 474); and although the introduction of quota regulations gives women access and representation in public office, a process of institutionalising democratisation does not automatically include a democratisation of power relations in society. The process of adopting laws on women's rights by presidential decree "[...] neither reflected a consensus opinion of Afghan society nor was supported by a functioning system of rule of law and state institutions." (Kouvo/Levine, 2018: 488) and led to a growing backlash against women's rights failing to fundamentally change discriminatory attitudes and oppression against them.

Up until today, militant groups such as the Taliban spread the perception that the concept of women's empowerment is being used as an ideological weapon by the Western countries (ICG, 2013: 24). Attempts to improve the status of women have always been hampered by a social structure characterised by patriarchal gender relations, tribal feudalism and a weak nation state. Therefore, Afghan women still face multiple challenges today.

Violence against women, especially women who are professionals, continues to be particularly prevalent (ibid.: 21): "There has been a significant increase in intimidation, threats, attacks and assassinations on women who are active in public." (ibid.), especially "[t]hose in positions of authority are regularly threatened; many have been killed [...]; insults from male legislators [...] in session and/or privately are also common." (ICG, 2013: i; 14) - and specifically female representatives in politics have a purely symbolic role (Ebrahimkhil, 2018). In the political sphere, steps are being taken by the legislature that roll back the progress - one example is the reduction of reserved seats for women in provincial councils from 25 percent to 20 percent (ICG, 2013: 31).

Furthermore, religious scholars prevent the enforcement of laws that strengthen women's rights and at the same time guarantee them protection, whereby they simultaneously strengthen the Taliban in their convictions (ibid. 25): - thus a backlash can also be recorded in the legal protection ofwomen. In addition, the Supreme Court is staffed exclusively by men, who regard women as objects, especially when it comes to female sexuality (ibid.). Additionally, the appliance of legal safeguards and policies is often times not working: just a minority of cases on violence against women are reported, let alone investigated and recognized by the formal justice system4 (ICG, 2013: 15; Ebrahimkhil, 2018).

Other traditional institutions such as the jirgas and shuras, which are traditionally staffed by men, prevent the assertion of women's rights and thus their empowerment, as they still have great influence on political events and Afghan legal institutions. Even institutions now staffed with a small proportin of women, such as shuras (local councils intended institutional arrangements to empower women politically) are merely symbolic, because they are staffed by the male village leaders with their own women, which means that women are rarely in charge of the development funds received by rural communities without a real say (ibid.: 14). In addition, traditional notions of female role models remain in place, and patriarchal structures are still dominant.

„Similarly, the Ulema Council, an advisory board on Sharia, declared in March 2012 that women were inferior to men and should not to venture into the public sphere or interact with non-family members." (ibid.: 26). That such traditional institutions still have great influence is also shown by the following quote by Syed Muhammad Akbar Agha, a former Taliban commander: „it all depends on the ulema (religious scholars) opinion. If they say the constitution is all right, then we will keep it as it is. If they say it needs to be changed, we will change it." (ICG, 2013: 35). Additionally, in the political sphere, women are not taken seriously in their function as representatives. Thus it is not uncommon that „[...] women MPs have the backing of local powerbrokers, warlords, leaders of former armed factions or senior government officials [...] which enables them to tap patronage networks for votes in exchange for giving their patrons leverage in parliament." (ibid.: 14). But at the same time they in return consider their backers' interest. "[...] For years, women were kept in the dark by the Taliban. Now many of them have come into politics no thanks to their own strengths but as followers of men." (ibid.).

But informal structures such as warlords and militias also reinforce the insecure situation for women. Police abusing authority Afghan Local Police, which was constituted from militias in 2010 (ibid.: 27) and indistinguishable from other non-state militias it remains as a source of fear. Further, it is influencing proceedings of and participating in shuras and jirgas, while slowly becoming informal decision-makers (ibid.: 28). Moreover, it is more violentthan the regular police threatening people and keeping women from attending school (ibid.: 28). In addition to that the Taliban continue their misogynistic policies and brutal practices against women, including attacks on girls' schools, students and staff (Stabile/ Kumar, 2005; ICG, 2013). This unstable situation prevents girls from attending school and restores the low literacy rate ofwomen at 29.8 percent (UNESCO, 2020).

In summary, it can be seen that as international interest and presence in Afghanistan decreases, attention and support for gender issues also declines. Female empowerment has been found in the conflict between development and reform at the central level and tribal authority or traditional institutions and patriarchal relations at the periphery (Riphenburg, 2003). The fragile situation of the state facilitates the exercise of power by informal, traditional, religious and militant structures that contribute to the failure to enforce women's rights and ensure the protection of women. Furthermore, the patriarchal structures and the illusory presence and representation of women in the public sphere as well as in office favour misogynist structures. Conventional institutionalised patterns of behaviour and prevailing patriarchal structures can only be dissolved if these institutions and their environment are included in a transformation process that takes up questions of gender equality as an essential component of a democratisation process (Müller, 2007) - such an environment can be created by media for example.

In orderto be truly sustainable, peace must be inclusive, broad-based, and reflective of the needs and aspirations of all people within society. That women's contribution to peace processes are valuable, is already proved in cases where women have had a substantive voice in a peace process for example as active observers or in actively engaging in mass actions (O'Reilly et al., 2015: 15, 18). Further, there is a strong relationship between gender and peace: Gender equality has been found to be associated with less violent international conflict, a lower risk of armed conflict within states and civil war, and lower levels of human rights abuses by the state (Caprioli, 2000; 2005; Melander, 2005; 2005a). While conflict conserves gender roles in many respects, articulating women as victims and "[...] as perpetually vulnerable to violence, violation, and exploitation [...]" (Shepherd, 2017: 7), the end of conflict presents a new opportunity for increased participation of women and the transformation of gender relations on all levels. This construction of woman as victim is reinforced by a logic of gender that associates vulnerability with femininity reproducing the idea that women suffer disproportionately in conflict. In order to overcome this stereotype, women need to be empowered and viewed as Agents forChange. (United Nations, 2020).

Peacebuilding and democratic decision-making institutions are not sustainable if half of the population cannot actively participate or access economic, social or political activities; while necessary opinions, needs and perspectives get neglected. Because peacekeeping missions and peacebuilding efforts often take place in male-dominated environments and institutions, women find themselves in unequal situations influencing decision making (Bjarnegârd/ Melander, 2013): "Men tend to dominate the formal roles in a peacebuilding process; [...] [as] male peacekeepers, male peace negotiators, male politicians, and male formal leaders." (IAHPCR, 2008). Therefore, it is profound to include women at all stages of the process and involving them within key positions (Shepherd, 2017: 11). An equal participation of women is a necessary condition for the establishment of a stable post-conflict society and peace operations are more likely to be successful in societies where women have relatively high status (Gizelis, 2009; 2011) and the operations work to broaden egalitarianism. By giving women the possibility to actively advocate for inclusiveness and their needs, they can overcome the narrative of a victim and become their own advocate. This perception of women as advocates leads directly to the concept of women empowerment.

2.2. Concept of women empowerment and media

The issue of women empowerment has become a crucial point in the programs and activities of the United Nations, Non-Government Organizations and governments themselves. The term empowerment is a multidimensional social process with different meanings in different socio­cultural, economic and political contexts. Within this process women get "[...] access to control 8 over the strategic life choices that affect them and access to the opportunities that allow them fully to realize their capacities." (Chen/Tanaka, 2014) in orderto challenge and "[...] transform the structures and institutions which reinforce and perpetuate gender discrimination and inequality." (Zheng, 2015). This is realized through the development of necessary skills and capacities, equal capabilities, access to and control over necessary resources as well as equal opportunities of women and man (ibid.; EIGE, 2020). All in all, this process should result in the general improvement of life quality (Chen/Tanaka, 2014).

Deriving from the definitions of empowerment, the concept can be categorized into four main parts on which the present term paper concentrates on - social, educational, economic and political. Social empowerment refers to women's social relations and their positions in social structures empowering them through equal rights, equal status and freedom of self-development in order to break male domination (Manohar, 2001). Educational empowerment recognizes access to higher education as an instrument of personal development and "[...] is one of the most important means of empowering women with the knowledge, skills and self-confidence necessary to participate fully [...]" (UNFPA, 1994) in all spheres of life. The control over one's own resources implies economic empowerment, which enables women to earn money contributing to the household, and providing them with a strong sense of their own economic independence. This form of empowerment is realized through equal work opportunities, equal organizational benefits, equal treatments and equal working environment.

Political empowerment is the extent to which a group has achieved significant representation and influence in political decision making (Bobo/ Gilliam, 1996). Accordingly, women's political participation and representation in decision-making bodies at all levels of governance structures, provide opportunities to change and influence public decisions and to bring them in their favour. They can further protect their own interests and legitimate rights or promote justice. Hereby they are becoming an active and equal member ofthe public sphere.

That media can be an empowering instrument changing the image of women and increasing the self-confidence among them, showed the study on three Arab countries conducted by Leila Nicolas Rahbani to examine the increased presence of women in Arab media in relation to their social position (Rahbani, 2010). She aimed at examining whether Arab women social position changed as they increased their presence in Arab media and stated that "[...] nowadays, Arab 9 women are turning to media as a means for their empowerment, as a medium for education that overcomes barriers of distance and time, and as a tool to advance their progress and development in their communities" (Rahbani, 2010: 21).

Using media in terms of advocacy and education it can be expected to positively change society's perception ofwomen challenging public discourses, cultural values and social identities, because media offers the opportunity to speak out, get involved and influence the discourses on women issues. It is clear that feminist issues and the representation of women in the media have enormous relevance to achieve certain effects influencing social perceptions, but that at the same time female actors are needed who take an active role in media practice. Therefore, it is necessary to have a closer look at all the levels where emancipation of Afghan women can possibly take place.


1 In the following PDPA.

2 Further legal steps taken arethe adoption of the National Action Plan forthe Women of Afghanistan (NAPWA), the identification of gender as cross-cutting component in the Afghanistan National Development Strategy for reconstruction and development, and in 2015 the adoption of the UN Security Council resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security (Kouvo/Levine, 2018: 488). The first-ever female provincial governor was appointed in 2005 and the first- ever female district governor in 2013;further the number of women in rule-of-law institutions increased significantly (ICG, 2013: 9f.).

3 They can now "[...] seek refuge in shelters or safe houses run by the women's affairs ministry of by Afghan NGOs" (ICG, 2013: 10) on basis of the presidential decree the Elimination of Violence Against Women Law in 2009.

4 In 2017, over 87 percent ofwomen have experienced physical, sexual or psychological violence or forced marriage (Human Rights Council, 2015: 5). Between October 2011 and September 2012, only 100 cases out of 470 were condemned (ICG, 2013:16). Further the idiosyncratic interpretation of Sharia does not consider the right in the case of rape to be on the side of the woman, but protects the family'shonour by making it necessary forthe familyto marry the perpetrator (ibid.: 17).

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Media, Democracy and Women Empowerment in Fragile States. The Example of Post-Taliban Afghanistan
University of Erfurt
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media, democracy, women empowerment, communication, politische kommunikation, political communication, Frauen und Politik, Politik, Frauenermächtigung, Rolle von Medien, fragile Staaten, Medien in fragilen Staaten, fragile states, post-Taliban Afghanistan, Afghan women, Afghanistan
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Vanessa Beyer (Author), 2020, Media, Democracy and Women Empowerment in Fragile States. The Example of Post-Taliban Afghanistan, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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