Survey research plays an important role in providing Muslim women with a public voice where custom and culture do not permit them their own.  As you’ll discover in this article, survey research can be used to inform and shape empowerment policies from the perspective of each population.  

The Women In Muslim Countries (WIMC) study  measures women’s empowerment in actual daily practice, providing a deep look into the oft-perceived gap between current public policy and empowerment initiatives and actual practice on the personal and local level.  The answers yield a metric for promoting excellence in public policy by informing policymakers on women’s attitudes about the affects of policy initiatives, as well as a measure of the degree of effectiveness of those policies.  

Afghanistan is perhaps one of the most extreme cases of a country where custom and culture do not permit women a public voice, beginning with interviewing for the survey itself.  Interviewing women in Afghanistan is limited to other women accompanied by a male escort.  In some places it is restricted to daylight hours in proper attire.  Though burdensome, the advantage to this approach is that it eliminates hesitation on the part of the interviewee to share her thoughts.

The WIMC survey covers many women’s issues in Afghanistan. One of the topics is women’s voting behavior in the last elections. The data indicates that slightly more than half of women exercise their right to vote. This suggests that helping women understand their status through survey data might inform an active political involvement in creating change.  Majorities voted in most provinces, with the exceptions of the South Western and Western regions. The data also indicates the women with lower incomes participate more in voting than do women with higher incomes.

Women who voted were also more likely to be older and more educated, use the radio as their primary source for news and were more likely to make purchasing decisions for their household needs over their spouse, compared to women who did not vote.
Figure 1 on MRA’s Web site (see page 14 for URL).

Women in Afghanistan also seek news.  Overall, 56%  of women in Afghanistan listen to the radio for news, suggesting that a majority are interested in learning more about events outside the home. In some regions, however, such as the Eastern and South Western regions, more than 70% of women listen to the radio for news. Women who rely primarily on radio for news are more likely to be younger, homemakers, have lower income and live in rural areas compared to women who rely on other sources for news.  

Women in Afghanistan have limited options to become informed of national and international events. As most do not work and have little education, they are not well informed about the issues outside their homes. The lack of electricity in the country conspires to limit access to television news.  The best option for an Afghan woman to get news about the outside world while at home is radio.  It is also the best avenue for reaching them with survey results.

CEDAW Rights
Although Afghanistan has signed the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the exercise of women’s rights guaranteed under the CEDAW has been an issue in the country.  Today there are differences in opinion among women with different incomes and education about the role of shari’a in women’s rights and the status of healthcare, media usage, work status and purchase decisions.  These factors also differ across the various regions and ethnicities.

Women have long been faced with healthcare challenges in Afghanistan. According to the survey, one in three women believe they have been denied healthcare due to their gender at some time in their lives. The proportion differs slightly by region of the country. Women in the Western, South Western and Central/Hazarjat regions report this problem more often than women in other provinces. Figure 3 on MRA’s Web site (see page 14 for URL).

Seventy-eight percent of Afghan women are homemakers and another 10% are unemployed. One of the reasons for unemployment is a lack of education.  The other is family restrictions.  Many families in rural areas do not let their daughters go to school or work outside of the home. Although 40% of Afghan women are interested in working, 27% of Afghan women report wanting to work if provided the opportunity, but being prevented by other circumstances in their lives.

Approximately 36% of women who are not working are interested in starting a business. Afghan women who were interested were more likely to be younger and to make the purchase decisions for their household needs (over their spouse), compared to women who were not interested in a startup business. These women were also more likely to vote and less likely to feel they were denied healthcare.

Afghan women in the Eastern and South Central regions of the country are also more interested and able to take part in a startup business than those in other regions. Figure 4 on MRA’s Web site (see page 14 for URL).

Eleven percent of women in Afghanistan unilaterally make purchase decisions for daily household needs in their lives. Almost half of Afghan women reported that their spouse makes the purchase decisions and over a quarter reported joint-decision making. Women who reported their spouse makes the purchase decisions were more likely to be from rural areas, homemakers and were less educated than women who reported they were the purchase decision-makers.

In some regions – for example, in the Eastern, South Central, and South Western regions – decision-making by the male spouse is dominant.

Despite these challenges, the majority of women in Afghanistan do not see shari’a law as inconsistent with protecting or advancing their CEDAW rights. To the contrary, with the exception of Central/Hazarjat, majorities believe shari’a law can to some degree protect their rights. This suggests that to be effective, the advancement of CEDAW-protected rights inside Afghanistan must address consistencies with shari’a law, rather than opposing it outright. Figure 6 on MRA’s Web site (see page 14 for URL).

CEDAW-protected rights are realized variably by women throughout Afghanistan.  However, the survey results suggest that the basic conditions for advancing them may exist within the society.  A significant percentage of Afghan women are news-seeking voters interested in income opportunities who believe their rights can be protected under shari’a.  Efforts to advance their condition can build on these survey findings.