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LOOKING BACK: Amanullah Khan, Afghanistan

When challenging the notion that the oppression of girls is embedded in their culture, Afghans need but say three words: King Amanullah Khan.

Khan, who won Afghanistan independence from the British in 1919, pushed for reforms to benefit girls and women throughout the 1920s. He raised the minimum age for marriage to 18, resisted polygamy and took aim at forced marriage. During his decade-long rule, education became compulsory for every Afghan citizen — including girls.

In leading Afghanistan, Khan treated his wife, Queen Soraya, as a true partner. Together they established the country's first school for girls in 1924. "Do you think … that our nation … needs only men to serve it?" the queen asked at the 7th anniversary of Afghanistan independence. "Women should also take their part as women did in the early years of our nation and Islam. From their examples we must learn that we must all contribute toward the development of our nation and that this cannot be done without being equipped with knowledge."

In that spirit, Khan started sending Afghan girls to Turkey for higher learning, without requiring them to wear a hijab or have a male relative serve as chaperone. Soon hundreds of Afghan girls were pursuing education in Germany, France and other parts of Europe.

But Khan's push to end forced marriage enraged many fathers, who saw the end of bride prices as a loss of financial security and social standing. By 1928, Khan faced revolt from rural tribal leaders. They fanned their agenda by distributing international photos of Queen Soraya unveiled and dining with foreign men. This led to charges that Khan was violating Islamic law.

Khan was forced to abdicate in 1929 and, later, died in exile in Switzerland. Afghanistan returned to tribal law and largely shut down education for girls.

Today, even in the face of stubborn forces trying to deny girls an education, many Afghan communities are building and expanding classrooms for them. They gain inspiration not just from their mothers and daughters but their founding father, too.


Tribal custom must not impose itself on the free will of the individual.

- Amanullah Khan

SOURCES: 1 Joya, Malalai, “A Woman Among Warlords,” Simon and Schuster, 2009. 2 European University Center for Peace Studies (EPU), “Women in Afghanistan: Lack of Educational Opportunities,” 2008. 3 Afghanistan online. 4 “How to End Child Marriage,” International Center for Research on Women, 2007. Photo Credit: © 1928 The Associated Press.

© 1928 The Associated Press