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The Golden Age of Afghanistan and Downfall of the Nation – A Journey of Afghanistan from 1919 to 2021

The year is 1964. Traders are bustling around the Kabul bazaar selling carpets and mats, spices, and refreshments of all kinds in a streamline of cloth-topped huts. The air smells like roasted chestnuts and sulaimani tea sharp against the scent of the first fresh snowfall, indicating the beginning of the winter break for the students of Kabul University. Students – Men and women are clad in attires of the latest fashion they read about in the popular weekly magazine. A new lavender salwar and scarf with tiny mirrors glued, the latest kind of denim skirts, and matching sweaters. Everyone has accessorized, with beads and embroidery complimenting their personalities. Groups of students are sitting and chatting on the grounds – probably about ambitions and future plans. This was Afghanistan almost 60 years ago. A tragic antithetic to today’s picture of this beautiful country. The Afghans had a brief era of westernization and steady internal development. Truly the golden age of Afghanistan, a sight to behold.

Afghan university students, 1967. Dr. Bill Podlich, Retronaut












While Afghanistan is known for its rich traditional Islamic heritage, it was also the country of dreams from the ’60s all through the ’70s. But the land has encountered a ceaseless series of foreign invasions that began with Darius I circa 500 BC, to Alexander the Great, to Mahmud of Ghazni (who is considered the greatest invader of Afghanistan) and this continues even today, well past the 21st century. This has created an irrevocable dent not only in the land but also in the lives of the inhabitants as well. But how did a nation that reached such heights at a time where all the oriental countries remained conservative lose their grip on their homeland? How did the golden age of Afghanistan turn into the dark age?

A Brief History of War, Arguable Peace, and the Golden Age of Afghanistan

Amir Amanullah Khan (1919-1928)

Afghanistan has always been the subject of foreign conquests because of its propitious location on the Asian Continent. The severity of these invasions worsened in the 19th century when the British tried to annex Afghanistan to protect the Indian Empire from Russia. This led to a streak of British-Afghan wars (1838-42, 1878-80, 1919-21).

Fortunately for Afghanistan, Britain was besieged after the First World War and, hence, ended the third and final British-Afghan war with Amir Amanullah Khan, the first king of Afghanistan of an independent country, by an armistice. He changed his title from Emir to Padshah, which meant that Afghanistan was officially a monarchy. Amir Amanullah Khan was concerned about the depleting condition of the state and introduced socio-economic reforms for development. He inaugurated concepts of liberty and equality, which were revolutionary for that decade. He implemented constitutional and administrative changes, allowed women to remove their veils, and established coeducational schools. However, this angered the traditionalists and tribal leaders.

Ghazi Amanullah Khan was the sovereign of Afghanistan from 1919 until his abdication in 1929, first as Emir and after 1926 as King.
Padshah Amir Amanullah Khan in 1920. Imago History Collection










Habibullah Ghazi (1928- 1929)

This sensational monarchical decade ended in 1928 with another invasion of Kabul by a Tajik folk hero called Bacheh Saqqaw, who proclaimed himself to be Habibullah Ghazi, emir of Afghanistan; and Amir Amanullah Khan abdicated and fled to Italy after failing to revive the throne. However, Amanullah’s legacy came back and drove Habibullah away from the throne. An execution of 17 people and bloody prosecution of the opposition later, Nadir Shah was elected king or Shah by the tribal leaders.

Nadir Shah (1929 – 1933)

Nadir Shah was a revolutionary for his age. He brought back the monarchy and curated a constitution and based it on Amanullah’s reign. As conservative as Nadir Shah was, he introduced the idea of capitalism to the common folk. Under his short rule in the 1930s, the national economy grew owing credit to the entrepreneurs who began small-scale industries pertinent to the culture of the people – like spices and embroidered clothes. With another misfortune, Nadir Shah was assassinated in 1933. This led to the crowning of their last and final king, Mohammad Zahir Shah, heir of Nadir Shah.

Zahir Shah (1933 – 1973)

Mohammad Zahir Shah, a portrait
Royal Presentation Portrait of Mohammad Zahir Shah, Last King of Afghanistan (1933-1973), Circa 1965


















Zahir Shah, heir of Nadir Shah, ruled as a monarch for 40 years. As king, he consolidated national policies, expanded foreign relations and internal development on Afghan funds alone, despite the losses debited by the Second World War. The monarchy established was thriving as Shah Mahmud, the Prime Minister, sanctioned free elections, allowed press autonomy, and created a Liberal Parliament. However, Shah Mahmud lost his power to Lieutenant General Mohammad Daud Khan, who then became the Prime Minister. Daud Khan turned to the Soviets for financial aid and trade and military assistance but introduced far-reaching social and educational reforms. He allowed women to wear veils voluntarily rather than as a compulsion and abolished purdah – secluding women from society’s eyes and allowing women to have a public presence. He increased the labour force by almost twice by allowing women to receive extensive education and get into the workforce. His rule instigated the golden age of Afghanistan.

After Daud Khan’s resignation in 1963, Zahir Shah experimented with a constitutional monarchy where he advocated a new constitution, under which the House of the People was to have 216 elected members and the House of Elders was to have 84 members – all categorized into one-thirds elected by the King, the people and indirectly by new provincial assemblies. But this led to the rise of the conservative Islamists and the leftist communists and the purpose of a constitutional monarchy failed with the increased polarization of national politics. This situation became evident in the appointment by the king of five successive prime Ministers between September 1965 and December 1972. Zahir Shah also refused to promulgate key acts which contradicted the guarantees that were notarized in the constitution.

Mohammad Daud Khan  (1973-1978)

1973 witnessed the re-emergence of Mohammad Daud Khan who sensed the stagnation of the constitution and seized power. He abolished the Constitutional Monarchy and officialised the Republic of Afghanistan and declared himself as the Chairman of the central committee of the republic and, more importantly, as prime minister. He once again introduced a new constitution that moved away from socialist ideas and his regime espoused in the beginning. Daud Khan took it upon himself to intertwine and improve his relationship with other Muslim countries whilst simultaneously trying to break its dependency bonds with the Soviet Union and the United States.

Nur Mohammad Taraki (1978 – 1979) – the last year of the golden age of Afghanistan

In 1978, Hafizullah Amin, a U.S.-educated People’s Party leader, contacted party members in the armed forces and devised a makeshift but successful coup. Their success can be attributed to the military’s power. Daud Khan and most of his family were killed, and the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan was born as Nur Mohammad Taraki took control of the country as President. They declared independence from the Soviets and declared policies influenced by Islamic principles, socioeconomic justice, and Afghan Nationalism.

Taraki’s regime announced reasonable programs where usury was eliminated and equal rights for women were supported. However, Taraki signed a friendship treaty with the Soviet Union. At the same time, conservative Islamic and ethnic leaders who objected to social changes that were introduced began an armed revolt in the countryside. The guerrilla movement Mujahadeen was created to contend with the Soviet-endorsed government. Taraki’s short development lasted for one year before he was killed in a power struggle with the Deputy Prime Minister Hafizullah Amin by his followers. This was nearly the end of the Golden age of Afghanistan.

Hafizullah Amin (1979 – 1979) and Babrak Karmal (1979 – 1986)

The same year, the USSR invaded Afghanistan to uphold the faltering communist regime and reiterate their power over the country. Amin was executed that year. By early 1980, the Mujahadeen rebels united against Soviet invaders and the USSR-backed Afghan Army. This was a crucial moment when the lives of the Afghans became uncertain as warfare witnessed about 2.8 million Afghans who fled to Pakistan and another 1.5 million fled to Iran. Afghan guerrillas gained control of rural areas, and Soviet troops held urban areas. The remaining citizens of Afghanistan lost the little security and stability they had so far.

Mohammad Najibullah (1987 – 1992) and The Mujahideen (1992-2002)

Mohammad Najibullah
Mohammad Najibullah Backed by the Soviet Union, before the Mujahideen took over [Reuters]













To make matters worse for the remaining residents, Osama bin Laden made his first documented trip to Afghanistan to aid anti-Soviet fighters in 1984, just as The United Nations investigated human rights violations in Afghanistan. Their reports professed that Mujahideen was being funded with military and financial aid by Pakistan, the United States, China, and several other European and Arab states.

In 1988, Osama bin Laden and 15 other Islamists formed the group al-Qaeda, or “the base”, to continue their jihad, or holy war, against the Soviets and others who opposed their goal of a pure nation governed by Islam. The next year, 1989, The United States, Pakistan, the Soviet Union, and Afghanistan signed peace records guaranteeing another Afghan independence and the withdrawal of a hundred thousand Soviet troops. The Mujahideen now had space to fight the regime established by the Soviets and the communist puppet president, Dr. Mohammad Najibullah. With rising power, Mujahideen and other Islamist rebel groups stormed Kabul and removed Najibullah from power. That year, in 1992, Afghanistan witnessed a convulsing turnabout in an already fractured Afghanistan as the Mujahideen created a predominantly Islamic state and called it the Islamic State of Afghanistan.

Peace and stability became unrecognizable in Afghanistan. These rebel militias vied for influence, power, and control of the people, which resulted in inter-ethnic conflict, an inflated economy, and despairing citizens who suffered continuous war, drought and famine, and broken law and order.

Taliban Rule (1995 – 2001)

Taliban rule
FILE — An Afghan soldier fires a machine gun at Taliban positions in Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan on May 10, 2021. The Taliban have captured the capital of one of Afghanistan’s western provinces, Afghan officials said on Friday, Aug. 6, 2021, a symbolic milestone in the insurgents’ relentless march to retake power in the country. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)
















In the next two to three years, a former Mujahadeen fighter, Mullah Mohammad Omar, drew recruits, that is, students from Pakistan Madrasas, and sought to take control of Afghanistan. The Islamic State of Afghanistan became The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan with the ingress of the Taliban. Their eventual success is traced to the people who were inevitably wearied by wars and promises made by the Taliban to terminate internal violence and promote peace, amicability, and tradition, which contrasted with the decades of unstable Afghan rulers that seemed like viable hope. In 1995, the Taliban captured the heart of the country, Kabul, and eventually extended their power to over nine-tenths of the country.

The Taliban failed to keep their promise of peace and, in the name of upholding traditional values, they inflicted a scheme of brutality. This decade was the darkest period for the Afghans, as they helplessly witnessed horrific crimes, feared for their lives at every step, and saw their loved ones being publicly executed and amputated. The retribution of welcoming the Taliban befell on the womenfolk. They lost all the fundamental freedom and liberty they had reveled in so far.

In the Pre-Taliban days, women had access to professional careers, university-level education, freedom to wear non-traditional clothes, public appearance without a male escort, and also the right to vote. The country had to fall back from already slow progress to becoming a democracy. Under Taliban rule, in the circumstance of these laws being flouted, women were subjected to public humiliation by getting whiplashes from the Taliban or being publicly executed. At this point, more than a million Afghans covertly fled to the neighboring countries to escape persecution.

Intolerance towards cultures other than Islam was promoted and practiced. Buddhist statues in Bamiyan were destroyed as they were an affront to Islam. International aid workers were put on trial under the claims of spreading Christianity. The golden age of Afghanistan was long dead by the early 2000’s.

According to a State Department report from the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor from 2001:

Prior to the rise of the Taliban, women in Afghanistan were protected under law and increasingly afforded rights in Afghan society. Women received the right to vote in the 1920s, and as early as the 1960s, the Afghan constitution provided for equality for women. There was a mood of tolerance and openness as the country began moving toward democracy. Women made important contributions to national development. In 1977, women comprised over 15% of Afghanistan’s highest legislative body. It is estimated that by the early 1990s, 70% of schoolteachers, 50% of government workers and university students, and 40% of doctors in Kabul were women. Afghan women had been active in humanitarian relief organizations until the Taliban imposed severe restrictions on their ability to work. These professional women provide a pool of talent and expertise that will be needed in the reconstruction of post-Taliban Afghanistan.

Women working in one of the labs at the Vaccine Research Center pre-Taliban time
A laboratory at Vaccine Research Center adjacent to Kabul Hospital, picture taken in 1960. Courtesy: Mohammad Ra


taliban rule for women
Afghan families flee a village near Kabul in 1996 after Taliban fighters retook two nearby hills. Patrick de Noirmont/Reuters




















Post-Taliban Rule (2001 – 2021)

Jumping to after the 9/11 attacks and airstrikes in Afghanistan, the Taliban proclaimed that they were ready for Jihad, which instigated a war with the Northern Alliance. After weeks of intense warfare, the Taliban surrendered the final Afghan territory, the province of Zabul and the Islamic Press officially declared the end of Taliban rule in 2001, and Hamid Karzai, a royalist and ethnic Pashtun, was sworn in as the leader of the interim government in Afghanistan and a new constitution was adopted.

This constitution brought back a structured political system, equality, and parliamentary elections. With U.S. sanctioning operations and support, Afghanistan held their first elections in 30 years. The Afghans enjoyed a little over 20 years of relative freedom until August 2021, when Joe Biden, President of the United States, completely withdrew the U.S. troops from Afghanistan and the government collapsed, once again, into the hands of the Taliban.

To Conclude

Afghanistan has been on a rough journey since before it was declared an independent country. The moments of peace and normalcy, especially for the women, were brief and fluctuant. The golden age of Afghanistan is long gone and the people no longer feel safe and secure in their home country. The 70s picture and today’s picture are polar opposites. There was a time kite flying was festively celebrated and a time where children would run on the streets dauntlessly. Now guns and nooses are a common sight, starvation and destitution are prevalent, and fear and helplessness are raging feelings. Afghanistan, in the hands of the Taliban today, has no spark of hope or ambition. With people trying to flee every day, no one can forecast the upcoming weather in Afghanistan.

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