Then and Now: The Past 50 Years for Women in Afghanistan

by Lisa Kirchner


A friend recently sent a link to a Foreign Policy magazine article showing a not-so-distant past in Afghanistan. The author, Mohammad Qayoumi, recalls a past quite different to portrayals in today’s media, and has the book of photographs to prove it. In the essay accompanying the pictures he writes, “A half-century ago, Afghan women pursued careers in medicine; men and women mingled casually at movie theaters and university campuses in Kabul; factories in the suburbs churned out textiles and other goods. There was a tradition of law and order, and a government capable of undertaking large national infrastructure projects, like building hydropower stations and roads, albeit with outside help. Ordinary people had a sense of hope, a belief that education could open opportunities for all, a conviction that a bright future lay ahead. All that has been destroyed by three decades of war, but it was real.”

Mohammad Qayoumi’s memory of Afghanistan as reproduced in Foreign Policy magazine.

Despite knowing how even as recently as the 1990s that headscarves were not mandatory gear for Arab women, I could not help but be shocked by the stark contrast between these pictures and the ones I’d seen earlier this year of women in Afghanistan at the Whitney Biennial. In her photographs, Stephanie Sinclair portrays contemporary women in Afghanistan coping with current conditions the best way they know how–they set themselves on fire.

If you doubt their method, get to Netflix and check out Osama, a film that depicts the struggle of one woman, a doctor, who can no longer leave her house since every last man who’d been around to accompany her has been killed by the war. In her desperation she cuts her daughter’s hair and presents her as a visiting cousin, Osama. It’s not long before Osama is picked up as a Taliban recruit, where she cannot hide her secret long. 

So what’s the point of all this? Just to note that things can change, and quickly. Pay attention to what war mongers say (and don’t say) they want. 

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