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"About the New Woman": Women's Subjectivity and Schooling in 1920s Afghanistan

A talk by Dr Marya Hannun

Paralleling the first decades of the twenty-first century and the years of US-led intervention and withdrawal, in the 1920s Afghan women and their education were a subject of intense debate as top-down state policy around girls’ schooling drew oppositional scrutiny.

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 As such, the conflicts surrounding girls’ schooling, its role as a source of contention between male elites, and in particular, its potential violation of purdah (women’s seclusion), have served as the dominant frames with which women’s education in the 1920s has been studied. Rather than deny the force of patriarchal contestations and tensions in shaping access to education or their importance as objects of study, in this talk I draw on a range of sources—including oral histories, curricula, newspapers accounts and textbooks—to look beyond debates around education and examine the alternative meanings and substance of women’s schooling in its first formal era in Afghanistan. What were the gendered and classed dimensions of this education and how did these relate to the question of seclusion and schooling? While incomplete, how might a history of women’s education in Afghanistan that looks beyond the controversy it provoked help to de-exceptionalize Afghanistan, illustrating Kabul's affinities with a wider history of Muslim women’s schooling and class formation in late imperial and early national histories?  


Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies