What are the Limits of the Sayable in Afghan Discourses?

A Comparative Analysis of Gender Constructs in Textbooks and Novels (2001–2021)

This project studies gender representation in Afghanistan’s school textbooks and novels between 2001 and 2021. The case of women in Afghanistan is, not surprisingly, uncomfortable, yet nevertheless interesting when it comes to studying women’s emancipation, gender equality, and social and political inclusion. In the last two centuries Afghanistan has seen at least six regime changes, each of which has had a radical impact on the country’s socio-economic development. To a large extent, the political identities of these regimes crystallized around their attitudes towards gender issues. All of them pursued radically different policies in that field, justifying their approaches in terms of different concepts of Islam, and of tradition or modernity. All of them regularly reversed the measures taken by their respective predecessors. However, all of them were eventually overthrown by political rivals. Thus, the definition of socially acceptable, politically enforceable and internationally recognised gender policies in Afghanistan remains in a constant state of flux. Some of those regimes supported gender equality, enabling women to make progress, but any developments were subsequently reversed by the next regime. Thus, women’s advancement in Afghanistan has seen a circular rather than linear progression.

  • Aims

    A close analysis of gender discourses can further our understanding of the rise and fall of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (2001-2021). The political elites of that regime pursued a moderate policy based on compromise and on finding a balance between competing political camps as well as between local and international constituencies. This project will attempt to understand to what extent gender equality was embedded within the republican system, and how males and females were represented in school textbooks. As textbook production must adhere to certain rules and is bound by certain limits, the project also studies novels published in Afghanistan in order to examine the views of writers, ordinary people, and society in general towards women.

  • Methodology

    This project examines gender construction and gender discourse in two types of media:


    The project examines textbooks designed for grades one to twelve for civics education and for grades four to six for social studies, both of which are subjects that would be expected to address gender constructions and gender politics on an explicit level. The project also examines textbooks for Dari, English and mathematics, which contribute on an implicit level to the normalisation of gender constructions.


    In order to include as many different voices as possible we focus on authors with different backgrounds in terms of gender, ethnic identity and age. We select books published in different periods to reflect the fluctuation in hope for a genuinely democratic future, and finally we consider both bestsellers and books that appeal to a more limited intellectual audience.

    Analytical approach

    In an attempt to overcome the shortcomings that characterise many studies on gender in textbooks, the project will systematically combine quantitative and qualitative approaches and will include a multi-modal analysis examining texts as well as images.

    On a quantitative level, we will conduct frequency analysis counting (i) how often men and women are mentioned, (ii) how often they are described as active agents or as passive objects, and (iii) which kinds of activities are ascribed to them (iv) in which spheres of life.

    On a qualitative level and in line with post-foundational discourse analysis, we will look into (i) the policies of discursive positioning enacted by the inclusion or exclusion as well as by the framing of certain topics, (ii) the degree to which different positions articulated in Afghan society are reflected, and (iii) the subject positions ascribed to readers.

    In line with narrative approaches, we will furthermore examine, (i) whose experiences are included or excluded, (ii) and from whose perspective stories are told.

  • Results

    We aim to publish two to three peer-reviewed articles as part of this project.

    • The first article titled ‘World-local culture clash and compromise: the nominal gender equality discourse in Afghanistan school textbooks (2001–2021)’ has been submitted to the Journal of Educational Media and Memory Studies (JEMMS) for publication.
    • The second article with the working title ‘Gender in Afghanistan school textbooks: a nation without women’ is currently being drafted.

Project Team