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Afghan women's tea

By Heidi Kingstone - posted Friday, 9 November 2012

In less than 18 months world attention will cease its already waning interest in Afghanistan as the 2014 deadline looms. Nato forces are in the process of handing the reins over to Afghan security forces in this period known as Transition. Once again the fate of women and their rights is on the agenda.

After more than a decade of apparent gains on paper Afghan women barely seem better off. One explanation stems from the naïve expectation that liberation from the Taliban would lead women to abandon their burqas. "Concentrating on burqas," says Mina Sharif, an Afghan Canadian who returned to Afghanistan to start an advertising company, "is like focusing on the fact that women can't go topless in North America."

Aping western ways however was never on Afghan women's schedule as much as it was on ours. [There was a lot of good intention, but as Sam Johnson said, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.]


In this instance, too many foreigners devised and implemented inappropriate projects, which didn't take into account the complex nature of culture and social structures. Gender-based aid programmes were designed through a western prism, often implemented by women, whose main qualification was simply to be female, and not steeped in a thorough understanding of what kind of milieu a conservative mindset created for women in the country. "You need experience in effecting change," says Sippi Azarbaijani-Moghaddam, a leading Afghan expert and consultant, "which most practitioners armed with money and good intentions didn't have."

Rather than learn from the colossal legacy of mistakes, the same mistakes continue to be replicated by donors who throw good tax-payer dollars at badly designed projects. While the west rightly demands accountability from the Afghans, who are the donors accountable to? Who can ask them why they repeat the same projects, which had little or no result the first time round?

Large amounts of money are spent on aspirational projects which focus on capacity building and gender awareness in ministries or in creating gender focal point positions or helping the Ministry of Women's Affaires create ambitious plans it cannot implement. "At this point," says gender specialist Azarbaijani-Moghaddam, who has spent nearly two decades working with women in Afghanistan, "what Afghan government official isn't aware of gender, women's rights and the 'correct' thing to say in a workshop on such issues? If the ministries are not serving women's interests, as they should after a decade of capacity building and having women's rights shoved down their throats, then the problem lies deeper. But which foreign entity is brave enough to descend into those depths, seek what lies beneath, name it and work to transform it. It is an epic quest not for the faint hearted. Most people prefer to stick a new coat of paint on old favourites – income generation, literacy, gender awareness, women's rights training, business management, leadership training and so on."

The real problem is that women have no political power and without that there can be no progress. Women will never be able to effect change because they have not taken lead positions in the political alliances that matter. Quotas to get numbers of women in this or that ministry or in parliament does not mean that those women then wield decision making power. One clear example of ticking boxes is the creation of the Ministry of Women's Affairs, MoWA, mandated by the Bonn Agreement as a nod towards the suffering of women in the decades of war. It was rapidly sidelined and in the informal agreement to divide cabinet posts between Afghanistan's ethnic groups the minister's post serves as a bargaining chip.

"Informal political and socio-economic networks are at the root of power in Afghanistan, men dominate them, women don't," says Azarbaijani-Moghaddam. Male networks exclude women by their very nature. "The alliances men have may be messy, but the wheeler-dealing that goes on behind closed doors is done by men. Forcing quotas of women on official institutions is like forcing Afghan men to give women seats at a table at mealtime. The men will continue to pass the food around under the table and women mostly sit with their hands on the table and starve."

Another misunderstanding by the international community was to think that women would be loyal to other women by dint of the fact that they share the same sex. Loyalty in Afghanistan is to family, extended family or ethnic group and not to one's sex. The idea that women are loyal to each other simply because they are women misses the point, but also underlines a fundamental misreading of the nature of Afghan society where the concept of sisterhood is often invoked but rarely seen in reality. "In a society where family is all important and women have a specific place in that construct," Azarbaijani-Moghaddam continues, "the idea that women who don't know each other would turn up in a knitting group and have the luxury of supporting each other in the face of vicissitude is quite frankly wrong, and is a western concept."


Women have failed to gain ground, according to Azarbaijani-Moghaddam, because of the unpalatable truth that women don't cooperate with each other on a strategic level and at times even undermine each other. In spite of the vast amounts of sympathy and affection lavished on women there is still a general feeling that there isn't enough to go around creating fierce rivalry and conflict.

In Afghanistan, the issue of women is extremely sensitive, and very political. Historically governments have shied away from trying to tamper with the institution of the family for valid reasons. Each time the government has attempted to make changes, there has been an enormous backlash, and governments have fallen. Change has occurred gradually when people have accepted it and accommodated it in their lives in their own fashion.

We in the west know what we want for Afghan women, and it seems from our perspective pretty difficult to understand why they don't want it too. It seems hard for many of us to fathom how women who live these kinds of lives can be anything other than utterly miserable?

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About the Author

Heidi Kingstone is a Canadian freelance journalist living in the United Kingdom.

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All articles by Heidi Kingstone

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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