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Families on the Move: The Changing Role of Afghan Refugee Women in Iran

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In their attempts to "modernize" and bring about socio-economic change, Afghan governments have been preoccupied with restructuring the institutions of marriage and family, and women's role within them, since the 1880s. Serious commitment to introduce legal reform and democratize the family and gender roles cost King Amanullah his throne (1919–1929). From 1930 to 1976 the government attempted a gradual approach introducing reforms piecemeal which had little impact beyond the capital and major cities. After the coup d'état in 1973 and the installation of socialism, the regime introduced a new family decree (known as Number 7) in October 1978 and aggressively pursued women's education and the reform of family laws. This policy incensed the conservative communities and tribal societies, who rebelled against the government; the ensuing Russian occupation brought about the resistance movements and subsequent civil war that has wreaked havoc on Afghanistan for more than two decades.

Many conservatives who had tried to resist the intended changes regarding family law and education for girls and "protect" their women, who represented the males honor, decided to leave the country with their families. More than six million Afghans moved to neighboring countries, mostly to Iran and Pakistan. Examining data collected among Afghan refugees in Iran from 1999 to 2002, this paper argues that, ironically, living in exile has brought about the very changes resistance to which had forced them into the refugee situation. Forced to cope with a crisis situation, they developed economic and social survival strategies that altered women's role. Moreover, that exposure to an Islamic society very different from their own brought about structural and ideological changes in the family and in gender roles which legal reforms in Afghanistan had failed to induce. Given the considerable size of the refugee population in Iran (but also in Pakistan and elsewhere) and the destruction of the old fabric(s) of Afghan society, this paper argues that these changes may be irreversible.

Affiliations: 1: Concordia University, Montreal, Canada.


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