Daily we hear about the millions of dollars that are poured into different development programs to support the women of Afghanistan and yet little improvement in the lives of women can be seen. The country has the second highest mortality rate in the world; 80% of women and girls are subject to severe domestic violence; more than 85% of all marriages are forced and many of these “brides” are in their early childhood, this is true in the urban areas as well; regardless of the government’s stated commitment towards equality in the Constitution, the Afghanistan Compact and the Afghanistan National Development Strategy, there is only one female minister among 27 ministries, only 12% of all civil servants are women and those few are in the secretariat, support positions and daily wage earners and the percentage of female staff in other government agencies is also minimal. Afghanistan ratified CEDAW but a mere 1% of domestic violence cases were reported in 2006. Thirty nine thousand (39,000) foreign troops are present in the country but they have not managed to secure schools for girls in most rural areas. In spite of millions of dollars for women’s rights advocacy projects, girls are still given in exchange for a fighting dog or to settle disputes between families. But to add insult to injury, the government does not appear to be concerned about these and many more issues, which, if I continue writing about them, will go beyond my reader’s patience. So, what is wrong? Or perhaps it would be more appropriate to say what happened to the “right track for women”? I do not mean to imply that there have been no effective efforts whatsoever to improve the situation of women, but the few successes have been sporadic and many more are superficial at best. To understand the dilemma more clearly, I would like to sketch the road map of Afghan women from 2001 to the present.
In 2001, when the US “liberated” Afghanistan from the Taliban, the world rejoiced that Afghan women would be liberated. But I am wondering what it really meant for the women of my country. Surely, we don’t mean that by unveiling them we liberated them, or do we? That is an overly simplistic position to take on a very complex situation. The conditions under which women existed in September 2001 were not created solely by the Taliban government, although they may have worsened under their regime, to understand the current gender disparities it is necessary to look at the entire history of the area that is now called Afghanistan.
The concept of “GENDER” officially entered into the Afghan educated elite circle very soon after the “fall” of the Taliban from the central government along with the influx of international assistance. The western developed concept of gender equality and equity, which has been exported to underdeveloped countries like Afghanistan, failed to take into consideration the brute reality of the conditions in this country. The issues and challenges that the women of Afghanistan face on a daily basis, and have faced for centuries, are not only the “religious and cultural restrictions” that are so graphically detailed in donor reports at end of each project that fails to attain its goal. It is not to say that the concept was flawed, rather that its implementation was flawed. To simply cut and paste the western concept and methodology on Afghanistan did, in my humble opinion, more harm than good. Little to no thought was given to the level of understanding or comprehension of the recipients of the “assistance”, and a lack of understanding of the conditions in which women existed set the bar too high to ever be able to succeed. Without understanding the concepts, how they work, how they work in other similar countries and contexts the overwhelming majority of women in Afghanistan could not grasp the idea, much less move towards improving their conditions. And, in a patriarchal society such as Afghanistan, to exclude men from the efforts is courting disaster.
It was also important to understand, although this understanding has not happened as of yet, that no judicial reform can succeed if we ignore the importance of customary laws and community decision makers. Throughout the history of Afghanistan these local decision making entities, which were curtailed under the Taliban, have been the main court for every man and woman seeking help and justice. For ages, these so called tribal leaders have protected villagers and community members through contextual decision making and the people of Afghanistan, most of whom belong to the rural setting, have full trust and confidence in them and their decisions are taken as law. How, then, can an artificial and instant government, created and backed by western concepts and international conventions, “win the hearts and minds of the people”?
It was important to understand, before any gender programming began, that health projects cannot improve the health of women and children if we don’t first understand the traditional methods of treatment. The coping strategies of common villagers that were effective during the years when the central government was non existent have not even been explored. A woman that used hashish to stop bleeding for 50 years will not eagerly change that practice on the advice of a clinic that was only recently established by an international NGO and that closes its doors to the sick when there is a suicide attack. It is obvious that people will trust the Mullah and the Hakim who are always available to them and answer their questions in ways that they understand – ways that are now called “traditional and backward” by the international community.
I do not believe that any other leaders in the world have lost popularity, or life, because of their “women related policies”, but in Afghanistan many have. Women’s rights have been used as a justification to gain power and women’s rights have been used as a justification to eliminate that power. Looking at the contemporary history of Afghanistan since 1919, we see that the first king of Afghanistan, Amanullah, was sent into exile because of his radical efforts to unveil his wife and emancipate women over night. This is a perfect example of importing new development concepts from the west and attempting to implement them without thoughtful consideration of how to go about importing and implementing those ideas. But this lesson apparently remains unlearned as misguided attempts to emancipate Afghan women continue in the same vein and continue to fail miserably. The point in this historical recounting is not only the failure of rapid emancipation, but also, and perhaps more importantly given that the majority of Afghans live in the rural areas, the absence of the voice of rural Afghanistan in such programs.
“I would be a happy woman if I were accepted as a human being, even under my blue burkha. Unveiling does not give me my human rights, nor does it give my husband any justification for not beating me”. A 35 year old woman in Kabul.
More than 85% of Afghans lives in the rural areas, and yet this huge majority is generally ignored in favor of the educated urban elite when planning macro and national level empowerment programs. However, the rural communities are the ones that don’t take a back seat when it comes to the destruction of those programs and efforts. When we talk about rural Afghanistan, the principle component is the family and its dynamics; not to say that this isn’t true in the urban setting, however, in the rural areas family comes before one’s own life. By family dynamics, I mean the relationships of power that influence the social, cultural and economic perspectives of the family and these, in turn, influence communities and finally the nation as a whole. Social perspectives are the societal structures and classes that are based on wealth, political influence and clan hierarchy. Cultural perspectives deal with the norms and beliefs of individuals in a family (and in Afghanistan this means the extended family) and usually those beliefs and norms are rooted in a social/class hierarchy, power relations and economic interdependency of individuals that is then transferred to the family, the community and the nation. Economic perspectives are the income earning opportunities or potential and other family and/or community resources at the individual and community levels. Mostly, power relations at the family level are influenced by the social, cultural and economic conditions of individuals or groups of people in a community.
In every report about Afghanistan, we read that due to rigid cultural norms the women of Afghanistan have been deprived of their human rights; however, most of these reports fail to adequately explore these rigid cultural norms, and to understand that these are often not restricted only to women. On the other hand, they have failed to highlight the impact of war, instability and occupation on these so called Afghan cultural practices. As an Afghan, I can strongly argue that there is no single Afghan culture that is common across the country. These social/cultural practices vary not only in each region, but also in different villages due to the geography, the effects of the wars and the political and economic conditions. If the western region of the country is influenced by Iranian culture, the east isn’t far from the influence of the Pakistani frontier social practices. For the sake of clarity, I define cultural practices as certain activities and values that Afghan society has been practicing within its own specific territory for many years. A considerable amount of baggage is attached to these practices which have become norms and culturally acceptable practices. Family hierarchy, which deals more with the various levels of power sharing at the family level, like grandfathers’ influence on sons and sons’ influence on grandsons, are usually formed by the power relations within the family with the clan and tribe. These power relations are based on the economic status or access that one has in a family or clan and this comes from land ownership or other types of income generation. Sometimes, having social influence at the community level also earns an individual a great deal of power and this puts him in the position of making most of the community decisions. Their decisions are respected because of the power they have gained through their position in the family/community. Belonging to a very rich, religious and educated family and/or clan also brings individuals a great deal of power that they wield within the family and the community.
The failure of women’s empowerment initiatives doesn’t rest solely with the complex sociopolitical setting of Afghanistan. From the outset, the entire process has lacked consistency, commitment and accountability. The establishment of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs provided optimism for women’s participation, and yet we cannot ignore the fact that it is isolated and lacks authority. It is obvious that one woman in a cabinet of 27 ministries will not be heard and especially if the mindset of the people around her are not on board with her agenda for women’s empowerment. The presence of too many international and national NGOs and contractors with their “gender policies” more often than not work in isolation and fail to cooperate and communicate among themselves, much less with the government. Many women’s organizations believe that tailor/seamstress projects that teach women skills they already know as part of their traditional gender roles and give them a sewing machine at the end of the project empower the women of Afghanistan. Or that bag making or carpet weaving projects empower the women whereas they actually make them slave laborers. Indeed, the concept of empowerment has been lost in the complexity of Afghanistan’s reconstruction. Another part of this interesting story is the lack of commitment to and belief in women’s rights and empowerment. Those NGO directors and workers who pay “lip service” to the women’s empowerment agenda do not actually believe in it and their daily lives are in complete contrast to their proclamations during working hours, which are aimed at obtaining more international financial assistance. With the 85% illiteracy in the country, advocacy campaigns have sweet and sour messages spiced with fashionable “in” words that condemn the increased violence against women – how many people will be able to read these messages? And of those few that can read them, how many will be able to understand, to conceptualize, the information provided therein? Furthermore, how will these fancy words change the lives of women that give birth in barnes along with the animals in Daikundi and other remote villages? To take the issue further, how will these advocacy campaigns ever succeed when there is no effective government to advocate to?
“ if women were beaten once in a week in early years, now by the presence of women’s rights organizations and human rights activists they are beaten twice a week in this village” a man in Faryab Province.
In conclusion, I would like to recommend that, if the international community is indeed serious about women’s empowerment in the development of Afghanistan, then they must put their words into strategic actions with strong accountability mechanisms. It is imperative that they first understand the complex dynamics of this country and that they do this by going beyond the urban areas and getting the input of all Afghans and not just the educated urban elite. Aid isn’t just the provision of financial assistance, it is building capacity in a manner that is on par with the level of understanding and comprehension of the beneficiaries; it is careful and thorough monitoring of the implementation of the projects to ensure accountability; it is transparency in implementing projects and grant making; it is setting an example of a better more honest and effective way of doing things, rather than the opposite. To improve the current situation of women in this country, every effort should be made to strengthen education and health services for women and girls and to build their awareness of human rights as once a woman is educated and healthy, the whole community is educated, healthy and understands the rights of every human being. A balanced approach towards development brings equity and social justice, and that should be the core of the development concept in any country in the world, as no state would ever want its citizens to be isolated and insensitive towards each other.
If you want to empower the women of Afghanistan, empower the communities because the women of Afghanistan don’t live in a vacuum, their lives and decisions are intertwined with the beliefs and attitudes of their male counterparts in the family and society. If you condemn violence against women, then also highlight the curses and beatings that a son receives for not earning enough for bread as he begs barefoot on a cold winter day with shoes on his feet.
A history of women in Afghanistan: Lessons learned for the future or yesterday and tomorrow: by Huma Ahmad Ghosh. May 2003
Family Dynamics and State Politics in Afghanistan; a paper by Political Science Students at the American University of Afghanistan. Summer 2007
UNIFEM’s 2007 Report on Violence Against Women in Afghanistan