How Sexism Threatens Peace in Afghanistan

Allauddin Khan/AP Photos

This article was originally published in The New Republic.

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 Tuesday 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.

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