Since 2001, the question of gender relations and women's rights in Afghanistan has been a topic of extensive debate within Afghanistan as well as abroad. Much of the focus, however, has been on women's experiences, with less attention to how ideals of manhood affect both men and women. Older literature, written before the war, emphasized the senior patriarch presiding over the extended family, as an important role model for many men. However, during the last 40 years of conflict important socio-economic changes seem to have brought new ideals of manhood, and of what it means to be a good husband and father. Displacement, urbanization, access to new job opportunities and sources of income, social media and Turkish TV series have all played a part in changing aspirations and practices. At the same time, the war-and-aid economy have inflated the costs of marriage and wedding celebrations. Some men spend years labouring in neighbouring countries to raise the necessary funds. Others might find themselves eloping with a local girl. For many women, but also an- until now- unknown number of men, such elopements end not with married life, but instead with lengthy prison sentences.
The research has examined changing notions of masculinity and marriage in contemporary Afghanistan. We explored how men by eloping, entering or aspiring to modern love marriages, migrating in order to raise dowry, or divorcing their wives, in various ways either challenge or ignore traditional male ideals, or cling onto them at great personal costs. Furthermore, we asked whether these experiences point to new ways of organizing family and relationships, and to new and more inclusive ideals of Afghan manhood, and finally whether they support more equal gender relations.
The project was a collaboration between the Peace Training and Research Organisation (PTRO) in Kabul and Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI) in Bergen.
The findings point to the central role of Islam in the fashioning of a type of new and modern marriage where women have a much more public position than before and where men take great pride in their wives religious training and ability to show off this training in public. This is a break with ideals where the wives' education and public role would be regarded as a liability for husband's manhood and standing. However even within this new ideal there are clear expectations of female modesty and deference, with the man still featuring as the leader of the family. Findings also point to a clear preference for the nuclear family rather than the traditional joint family.
The project has also collected systematic data on how the Afghan justice system regulates men's lives when it comes to marriage and relationships. We have demonstrated that the Afghan government routinely prosecutes men for moral crimes, and not only for adultery but also for elopement, even if elopement is not a crime under Afghan law. This shows the importance of including men in future research and advocacy about moral crimes prosecution in Afghanistan, instead of focusing only on women as has been the case so far.
Our research shows considerable geographical differences, however. In one rural province, marriage through elopement is an established practice, and the authorities pay little notice. Also, in some urban centres, marriage by choice without parental consent has become more common, although courts are often reluctant to wed such couples, despite their obligation under law to do so.
We have also collected data in the family court on divorce. Until recently a taboo, statistics we obtained show a stark rise in divorce, and that more women than men file for divorce in Afghanistan. We argue that this reflects changes in women's awareness of their rights and in their expectations to marriage. In other words, women, rather than men, are the main driving force behind transformations in gender relations, which increasing divorce rates are a symptom of. Observation of family court sessions also suggest that on balance, men's claims, and agendas were less successful than women's. Men typically sought to avoid divorce or to pay less in dowry upon divorce. In most cases, divorce was eventually granted to any woman seeking it, against men's wishes and arguably, against conservative understandings of sharia. On the other hand, judges were not willing to compromise on men's obligations to pay alimony and dowry. As a result, many men found courts to be a place where their obligations and duties as men are strictly reinforced, whereas their traditional power over women are diminished.
Updated information about publications based on the results of the research is available at the project website:
- Documentation of how the prosecution of consensual moral crimes' in Afghanistan affect men as well as women
- First systematic knowledge of divorce adjudication in Afghanistan
- Knowledge about how changes to marriage affect Afghan gender relations
Potential Project Impact
-Changes to government prosecution of moral crimes
-Better informed advocacy to improve women's access to divorce
-Increased societal awareness of alternatives to expensive weddings
This project will approach the question of changing notions of masculinity in contemporary Afghanistan by examining the experiences of Afghan men who have entered into or exited marriage through non-traditional or non-prestigious ways. We explore how men by eloping, entering or cultivating modern love marriages, migrating in order to raise dowry or divorcing their wives, in various ways either defy, transcend or exit out of hegemonic or traditional (married) masculinities, or cling onto them at great personal costs.
Furthermore, we ask whether these experiences point to novel ways of organizing family and intimacy, and to new and more inclusive ideals of Afghan manhood. The main research questions are: What do the experiences of these men say about conventional and emergent masculinities and how they are sustained, challenged, and negotiated? What are the consequences of changing or alternative notions of masculinity for Afghan men and women? Do emergent ideals of masculinity and marriage alter vulnerabilities for men and women, and do they support more egalitarian gender relations?
The project will be a collaboration between the Peace Training and Research Organisation (PTRO) in Kabul and Chr. Michelsen Institute in Bergen. Our research will be qualitative and ethnographic, cast around mens marital life stories. The findings of the project will be of policy and public relevance to both international and Afghan audiences. Given the strong international commitment to promote equality and participation of women, better and updated knowledge about what changing male roles and concepts of masculinity mean for both men and women in post-2001 Afghanistan is clearly important.At the same time, making visible the marital stories of non-traditional or marginalized men, and documenting the multiple ways in which marriage is currently entered into and experienced is also important for Afghan public debate and policy.