The Cultural Memory of Afghan Women During the Taliban Rule: Negotiating Identity Between Victims and Heroes

The Cultural Memory of Afghan Women During the Taliban Rule: Negotiating Identity Between Victims and Heroes. An essay by Mubarak.

Mubaraka Farahmand is studying at University in Germany. She an advocator women and girls’ education in Afghanistan. She is also a writer at Afghan Women Writers online community.

Author: Mubaraka Farahmand

Will you change your identity in order to survive?  How identity can be defined? According to Cambridge Dictionary (2013)  identity is “ who a person is, or the qualities of a person or group that make them different from others.” The appearance, characters, and personality that one person have is that person’s identity. And Ghorashi (2003) stated that identity is a progressive circle of becoming (p.27). Back to my question, can one change it is identity in order to stay alive, I believe that yes, this is the worldwide case that happens for different purposes. The one that I want to discuss is the violation of human rights and high level of violence against women in Afghanistan that forced Afghan women to change or hide their identity to stay alive and be breadwinners during the Taliban period in Afghanistan. How was the Taliban and how came to power?

According to the BBC (2016), “The Taliban emerged in the early 1990s in northern Pakistan following the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. A predominantly Pashtun movement.” Southern of Afghanistan are populated by Pashtun ethnics and Taliban emerged from Pashtun populated provinces. Roshan (2004) stated that Taliban group first appeared in Kandahar Province of Afghanistan by 1994 than they captured the capital (Kabul) of Afghanistan by 1996s. Civil war and Mujahedeen’s violence and harshness facilitated the emergence of the Taliban. Taliban soldiers committed violations of human rights in Afghanistan in general, but according to Firedman (2001) women encountered more violence in particular (p. 5). This paper will explore the cultural memories of Afghan women in the context of memory-identity link and will answer the question: how is the memory of mass violence against women framed in Afghanistan cultural sphere during Taliban rule? The argument I aim to make is that Afghani cultural production displays both instances of cultural memory of women liberation (when Afghani women perceive themselves as heroes and fighters against injustice) and examples of cultural production where women are perceiving themselves as victims. 

Vernacular Memories of Mass Violence Against Afghan Women

In my paper I will employ John Bodnar’s vernacular memory concept to demonstrate that culture of mass violence against Afghan women is part and parcel of a memory culture that commemorates the victims in Afghanistan. In addition to the commemoration of the victims of Taliban mass violence, the cultural memories originating from the Afghan women and disseminated by them can be also understood as acts of courage against all odds. In line with Bodnar’s concept of “vernacular memory” I argue that all the artistic memory works analyzed in this paper are created by the Afghan women to counteract the absence of women’s memory in national Afghan history and culture.  Bodnar (2011) distinguishes between official and vernacular memories. Official memories are explained as such: “Normally official culture promotes a nationalistic, patriotic culture of the whole that mediates an assortment of vernacular interests” and vernacular memories which created by people form the part of official memory (p. 266). Poveh (2009) argues that women are generally perceived as victims during the civil War and specifically in Taliban Rule’s vernacular memories of Afghanistan (p.267).  

How did the vernacular memories of Afghani people conclude that women are the dominant victims of the Taliban Regime?  

Afghan Women life in Taliban Rule

According to Telesetsky (1998), Taliban had a restrictive rule for leading the country. Taliban’s code of conduct for governing the country resulted in restriction of Afghan women’s social and personal life. Taliban’s Rule which was based on the Holy Quran created two different spheres, a public sphere and private spheres (p. 296). Moreover, public space is the place of involvement, contribution, leading and learning of community members that finally will be resulted in decision making in one community or country. But the private sphere is the place of involvement, contributing, leading and learning of family members and decision making process inside one family. 

Mwengenmeir (n.d) states that public sphere is a territory or area that individuals participate independently and make discussion without restrictions” n.d.”

 As public sphere encompasses of family members where family sphere can be reflected to public sphere and finally it is reflected in society.

Telesetsky (1998) claims when the Taliban was in power; women were restricted to only private zones but not allowed to participate in social activities. women could not walk out with men non relatives, if they were supposed to walk outside of private sphere, wearing burqa was compulsory. The burqa was the only acceptable clothing that would be regarded by the Taliban’s rule as an appropriate dressing code in line with the Sharia-Law. If women violated any of these laws they would be punished by lashed on their body. (p. 294-296). 

According to Roshan (2004) “By 2001, the Taliban controlled more than 97% of the country” (p. 272). This means that 97 percent of women lived under the Taliban regime and had no access to public spaces for social life. When women have no access to social life means that they are completely isolated from the community.  

According to Friedman (2001) “Since the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan, however, women have been sentenced to a “living death.”44 For example, the Taliban condones frequent acts of violence against women, including “beatings, rapes, forced marriages, disappearances, kidnappings, and killings” (p. 86). 

The cases like rapes and forced marriage mentioned above were the tools that Taliban kept the women inside the private sites. They converted the public sphere to a place of horror that no one could have the confidence to think and participate in this sphere including women. 

UN-Women (1978-2008) conducted interviews with Afghan women to recall cultural memory of Afghan women of Taliban Rule, to record the cases or untold stories of Afghan women.  UN Women reported that they have interviewed many girls and women who reported their own experience of being raped or stories of family members that were raped. The stories are as harsh as one can imagine that women were the only victims of conflict during the Taliban time. For example, UN Women recorded this harsh story of a woman that shares her own experience in Taliban time: “I was weak and sick and there were ten of them. They tied my hands and one by one they raped me until those wild people got full of doing wild actions with me then they left” (UN Women 1978-2008, p.31).  This is only one testimony of rape case that presented in this paper. The UN Women printed book has recorded several stories that shows how Taliban committed sexual violence against women in Afghanistan.   It is concluded that women’s image in cultural memory of Afghanistan is represented only as victims. Because most research or Afghan production displays women as victims rather as social activists. Afghan cultural memory displays did not deliberate on the situation that afghan women continued life after being raped or sex-workers and disabled in Taliban time. 

There is another famous Afghan movie Osama (2003) that shows women were only victims in Taliban rule. Osama movie is about a story of a girl who changes her identity to a boy to save her family by doing work outside. Family had no choice but to change the identity of the pre-adolescent child and send her to unsecure society to seek income. The movies exposed how her identity was discovered in religious school and led to her death-like life. A Mullah saves the girl’s life by getting married to her, which is a child marriage case. Child marriage is another type of violence against women.    

The movie exhibited only women as passive individuals, starving at home, being jailed or shot to death for violation of laws and forced marriage and living in home like prisoners. Actually, each scene of the movie insinuates women as victims to the audience.  However, the movie could emphasize the girl’s bravery regarding being the breadwinner and how she tackled her death-like life afterward.  

Cultural memory of Afghan society will be affected by movies which emphasize the weakness of dark situations such as Taliban’s governing period. Movies are the strongest tool for displaying or demonstrating cultural memory of a nation, and will be transferred to next generations and form their social life. Women perceive themselves as victims, resulting in them accepting them as powerless individuals who are not able to be heroes of time.  

Amiri (2012) .  Artistic work shows that a woman has been harshly punished by Taliban. 

   In order to demonstrate that women victims of mass violence in Afghanistan are both perceived and perceive themselves as victims, I will analyze a famous painting which symbolizes the darkest time of mass violence against women. The artwork exhibits a woman who is naked and stood alone. The women placed in center of the painting which attracts audience attention. The artist used gray colors which generally symbolize sadness and unhappy existence. Color totally matches the retribution scenes in this artwork. Another significant point is that stones that have different sizes are being thrown at women, the amount of stones and their size refers to many throwers number which is not shown in this work.  This works facilitates a deeper understanding of women as being a victim in Taliban time. Cases of violence against women affected the cultural memory of Afghan people to perceived woman as victims. However, there are cases that disprove that women were only victims of Taliban time; they performed, rather, as heroes in community. Women played a key role in community level and in their own families.

Afghan Women as Social Actors or Heroes

Based on above statements Taliban ruled Afghanistan by implementing a punitive rule that exposed Afghan women to different kinds of violence but not limited to sexual, mental and physical violence.  

When women are excluded from society means that they have no access to education, health centers, jobs and social activities. The consequences of being exculpated are varied form beggars to disabilities.  On the other hand, Afghan women never gave up and did not surrender to the Taliban regime. 

According to Povey (2009) there are activities that made the Afghan women heroes of time. He shares Shafiqa Moaber’s story who was the director of the non-governmental Women’s Vocational Training Centre that its vocational training center closed by Taliban. Shafiqa never gave up her career and launched her activities at home. After receiving many warnings from the Taliban regime, she never allowed the Taliban’s horror to stop her from being a hero of that time (p. 269).  I can imagine that this was a high risky job to empower women for engaging them in the market. Because the Taliban totally banned women from society and made them dependent on men. 

 Ghamar is another social activist that played a key role in life of Afghan women and girls, she launched a classroom for community children to teach them. One of the mothers reported that “Without her [ Ghamar] our daughters would have been illiterate” (Povey, 2009, p. 270). This is the report of a mother that acknowledged another woman who was the hero of her daughter’s life. reflection of these stories from private sphere to public site will form the cultural memories that women were not only the victims but heroes too. 

Children who taught underground school during the Taliban’s destructive rule, are the Heroes of Afghanistan’s current society because they have learned from their teachers how to tackle issues and keep going to dreamed life goals. 

  Ross-Sheriff (2006) points out that the Afghan women’s performance as being heroes of Taliban time, can be addressed from different perspectives. He points out that women’s patience regarding losing family members; being head of family, sharing foods, encouraging individuals to not give up on war situations or carrying children during fleeing from country can be another aspect of women’s performance that make them heroes of that time (p.212).  

 To show the acknowledgement of women as social and political actors, I will analyze an artwork that displays women’s movement for women’s right and social justice. Women are represented as protesting in the streets for their rights, rule of law, freedom and to share their ideas and demands in public spheres. The colors used in this artwork symbolize peace and happiness. Burqa is not shown in image, instead women’s faces and hair are clearly revealed.  The woman who is placed in the center of the image concentrates on the eyes of the audience, leading the group and conveying the message that women are not victims but are leaders who are leading a movement against injustice and violence. This artistic work shows that women were brave enough to uncover their face and challenge the Taliban for violation of their rights.  It can be interpreted that Afghan women are not passive victims of war, instead they are heroes that were able to advocate for their rights and send a message for the world that Taliban could not bury the sense of freedom by condemning them to “living death.” 


The Civil War in Afghanistan specifically Taliban rule in Afghanistan had a devastating impact on the whole life of Afghan society from 1996 to September 2001, women suffered more due to the violation of their rights and faced various types of violence as a result of this war. Generally, in the official cultural memory of Afghanistan women are represented as victims. Documentaries, books and researches are showing only one phase of women in the Taliban period that Taliban successfully implemented their Sharia Law over Afghan women. However, Afghan women – heroes that protected themselves by only changing their career location from society to their homes and showed bravery and their key roles in society. They played an effective role in educating Afghan’s new generations by launching underground schools. They acted as heroes by encouraging others for achieving their goals and managing their household in absences of their men.  

I conclude my paper by insisting that the Taliban regime were not able to victimize Afghan women by implementing their law. Therefore, Afghan women were not only victims as the cultural memory of Afghan recalls them, but at the same time heroes too.