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How Sexism Threatens Peace in Afghanistan

The U.S. and the Taliban are approaching a peace deal. But a new survey suggests a key component of national security is getting worse.

Allauddin Khan/AP Photos

What does it mean to be a man? In the United States, that’s a debate recently stoked by a Gillette ad about harmful masculine norms, as well as the American Psychological Association’s new guidelines to help therapists work with men and boys in a culture that tells them to hide their emotions and pain. But though it’s a question some dismiss as philosophical rather than practical, or a badge of “political correctness” culture, research in the past several years has suggested it’s also a question with profound implications for international relations: Put simply, how men define their roles—and whether they’re able to live up to them—can have real consequences for national security. And in some of the theaters in which the United States has tested its military prowess in the past two decades, goals may be foiled not by the mechanics of fourth-generation warfare, but what may seem a much more pedestrian issue: gender.

On January 29, the gender equality NGO Promundo released a new report showing that younger men in Afghanistan are less likely than their fathers to support gender equality, and that both women and men still define men’s roles in traditional terms—as the breadwinners and protectors of their families. The report came a day after the announcement that U.S. and Taliban representatives had tentatively agreed to a peace framework.

Two-thirds of the men Promundo surveyed agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “women in Afghanistan have too many rights.” Younger men “associate the dilution of their culture with the spread of women’s rights and gender equality ideals,” said Sayed Idrees Hashimi, a Promundo report co-author and project manager at the Opinion Research Center of Afghanistan. And these findings, in turn, have troubling implications for security.

In Afghanistan, “real men” can be narrowly defined by their ability to provide for and protect their families. For many men, living up to that socially sanctioned definition amidst inexorable physical and economic insecurity is impossible: They don’t have the money to pay a bride dowry, can’t find a job, or they cannot protect their family from extremist violence or insurgencies. “If you’re a 17, 18, or 20-year-old man in Afghanistan right now, it’s a crippling identity moment for you,” explained Brian Heilman, one of the study authors and a senior research officer at Promundo. “You feel entitled to certain elements of ‘manhood’ that you can’t actually achieve in your social environment.” Often insecure and humiliated, these men can seek power from another source—the subordination of women, and often, from extremist organizations. “Gender bias and violent extremism are two sides of the same coin,” one Afghan man who worked as a U.S. government advisor for its Promote project, designed to empower Afghan women through training and by connecting them with educational and economic opportunities, told me.

The Promundo research, which included a nationally representative household survey of 1,000 male and 1,000 female participants, focus group discussions with both men and women, as well as other interviews with men, complements other findings that Afghani gender norms, which many thought the fall of the Taliban would improve, have resisted change: A 2016 Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit ( AREU) study showed Afghan men across generations believed men to be superior to women when it came to leadership qualities and levels of education and thought that men held the primary responsibility for the security of their families. More than half of young and more mature men thought wife-beating was acceptable. “Our talks and discussions about women’s rights are all as slogans but nothing in action,” one AREU focus group participant told researchers. “Here, if a stranger bothers my wife or sister as he stares at them on their way home, I cannot tolerate that; I would have to kill him, or else I am not called a man in my community… .”

In recent years, political science research has increasingly suggested a correlation between gender equality and a number of indicators of stability and prosperity: GDP per capita, growth rates, and low corruption. Political scientist Mary Caprioli, to cite just one example, has found that increased political, economic, and social gender equality makes states less likely to resort to military options in international conflicts and crises, and less likely to experience civil conflict. There’s also more specific evidence that regressive gender norms and expectations around masculinity play into terrorist recruitment: Nearly all of the former jihadi fighters interviewed in a 2015 Mercy Corps study cited a common justification for their decision to travel to Jordan and Syria to fight—protecting Sunni women and children. “Those men who went to fight, those are real men,” one young man in Ma’an told researchers.

A vendor waits for customers at a livestock market. (Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty Images)

Some researchers have found that young men have more open and flexible attitudes about gender equality and masculinity until they reach puberty. In Afghanistan around that age, young men “begin to understand that they are never going to be accepted unless they marry and become head of a household,” Texas A&M University Professor Valerie Hudson told me. “That means they will have to come up with a bride price, which may be the equivalent of several years’ income, in addition to the cost of the wedding itself, which may involve up to 1000 guests.” Hudson’s research suggests that bride price “is a catalyst for conflict and instability”; rising prices make it harder for men who are un- or underemployed to come up with the money to pay for a bride, and more likely that they’ll turn to an extremist group that promises them either money or brides in exchange for service. Unraveling “the web of incentives and disincentives that men are given in Afghan culture,” she said, is key to understanding the patterns behind instability and extremist recruitment in the region.


Despite the relevance of gender inequality for U.S. security policy and strategy in Afghanistan, prioritizing gender norms in the military’s strategy to stabilize the area isn’t as simple as it might seem. Masculinity, anywhere, is a difficult subject. “We’ve floated talking about masculinity in the military,” one female naval commander told me. “It doesn’t go over very well. People get defensive pretty much immediately, and make it personal and visceral. It’s part of their identity.” That makes it difficult, she said, to address strategic blindspots and approach problems like violent extremism or conflict reconstruction holistically: “If we aren’t having those conversations, especially when you’re talking about dealing with male-dominated organizations, like militaries, police sectors and government, we open ourselves up to missing things,” she said. “In the countering violent extremism fight, what it means to be a man is a lot of times directly related to women. When terrorists use women and rape as a weapon of war, there is a reverberation and impact on men in society—the men who weren’t able to protect those women, and who have to resort to violence to feel like real men. That needs to be explored to really understand the problem and begin to address solutions to the instability.”

Some women, too, hesitate to integrate discussions of masculinity into U.S. foreign policy and programming, fearing it could overshadow or detract from the conversation about the needs and experiences of women and girls. “There’s a philosophical tension there,” said Jamille Bigio, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who previously worked on the White House National Security Council staff. Even in countries that are progressive when it comes to feminist foreign policy, like Canada and Sweden, the idea has been to talk more about women and girls’ needs, rather than “feminist principles, which are different. Integrating feminist principles would start a different conversation about gender norms and gender roles,” one that would systematically include men, she told me.

And in the end, challenging gender norms, and getting the buy-in necessary to shift them a bit, is not easy. Gender equality and security at the national level starts in the household—with egalitarian partnerships. But men benefit from household inequality—at least in the short-term. Spending less time on household labor frees them up to access more economic, social, and political opportunities, begetting more power and privilege outside of the home. (At the same time, they lose out in the long term on the benefits of sharing equal parenting responsibilities, for instance, and in living in a society that’s more stable, secure and productive.) And women participate in gender-policing, too. Belquis Ahmadi, a pioneer of masculinity research in Afghanistan who works at the United States Institute of Peace, told me that some Afghan women viciously ridicule men in their household who attempt to help with domestic work or who act more sensitively towards their wives. “In some parts of Afghanistan, a man who helps with the chores is called Zancho—which means a man with female characteristics,” Ahmadi said. “That’s considered the worst thing you can call a man.”


So how to fix the problem? Shifting deep-seated gender norms as part of a national security strategy first requires acknowledging that they’re linked—that gender inequality isn’t something that can be tackled after security concerns are dealt with. The two need to be approached in tandem.

As a first step, Hudson recommends working with and through religious leaders, who are traditionally the ones that enforce and encourage certain gender norms. “Westerners have a tendency to characterize religious individuals as being somehow stupid,” closing off options, she said. “If you approach them in the right way, you can make some progress.”

Policymakers must also learn from past missteps, Ahmadi suggested. After the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in late 2001, the international community, including the U.S., poured money into women’s rights programs. Their focus was to train women on what their rights were. Not long afterwards, the number of women attempting and committing self-immolation began rising in Herat.

“That’s because women knew what their rights were, but when they were demanding those rights from family members as well as in society, men did not understand those things,” Ahmadi explained. “There was backlash, domestic violence, and an increase of physical abuse. Women were desperate and there was no mechanism to protect them.”

There are some encouraging signs, Promundo study author Heilman noted: the “courageous” voices of men in the study “who speak out against restrictive masculinities and family violence,” or the women who, despite tremendous obstacles, are still taking on more leadership roles in government and the community. On December 31, 2018, 33-year-old Adela Raz, for example, was appointed Afghanistan’s first female permanent representative to the United Nations.

“Change should come from within,” Ahmadi told me. “Afghans have been challenging this way of life for many years now. It takes time. It has to be organic.” The task for the United States and other allies is to do everything they can to support and encourage that internal transformation.