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Femaid report on Afghanistan, May 2008

6 juin 2008

par Carol Mann, chercheure en sociologie et directrice de l’association ‘Women in War’ à Paris

I have just returned from three weeks in Afghanistan, which turned out to be spent in Kabul only, because of security reasons. My Afghan family and friends were terrified by the prospect of me being kidnapped to the point that I was not allowed to take a taxi on my own. Naturally, from their point of view, my presence, however welcome, was a liability and a heavy responsibility. I nevertheless managed to work on the Library project in Farah, teach a course on ‘Women at War’ at the new Gender Studies Institute at Kabul university, research maternal mortality (still one of the worst in the world) and start work on a programme trying to limit this catastrophe. And I lived Kabuli style, as usual, with my family sharing meals, laughter, Indian video-clips on TV, homework, housework, outings as well as limited electricity and water, open sewers and the ensuing stench and the daily restrictions which befall this brave population.

Kabul in May 2008

I was expecting the worst, conditioned by what I- and everyone else- had been reading in the media. It was bad, I nearly have to add ‘of course’, but I have seen worse in this country. Far worse. Despite the noise, the filth, the pollution, the bustle, the intense misery, the obviously paracolonial aid installations, things are changing and moving. There are roses growing everywhere for a start, carefully tended. In a messy chaotic way, one step forward two back and a side-way shuffle here and there, but the movement is there and the people of Kabul- if not the rest of Afghanistan- are making it happen. In the West, it is fashionable to blame international humanitarian aid for all the ills in post-war and reconstruction zones. Yet, even if I am to be called a politically incorrect harridan, I have to say that some of this aid- if not all - has been producing positive, indeed invaluable results. There are hospitals and clinics in Kabul, schools and universities have been renewed, perhaps not to Western standards admittedly, and the principal beneficiaries have been the local population. Much of this aid is patchy and has been uncoordinated, but it is better than none at all. Girls in cities are returning to school, but certainly not enough and figures never take account of the alarming drop-out rate. Naturally, this does not mean that I automatically condone military intervention and operations, the real problems are well beyond military fireworks and out of reach of any Kalashnikov or Stinger missiles : these are the contradictory expression of cynical politics that are decided upon in plush distant boardrooms and padded armchairs. They are in the domain of power distribution and political alliances.

And I have to repeat that Kabul is not representative of the rest of Afghanistan, the standard of living of its population of two and a half million is completely unequal and founded on revenue.

Exile and return

Afghanistan has particularly suffered from the loss of its most educated and skilled population which left the country during successive waves of exile, during the Soviet intervention (December 1979 onwards) but also after the withdrawal of Soviet troops and the pro-communist government (February 1989) which heralded the breakdown of health and education and the departure of doctors and teachers, male and female. The ensuing factional fighting during the Civil War permanently scarred the city reducing it to rubble so that the Taliban were welcomed with relief when they came to Kabul in 1996. But many artisans and those who deemed they could make a living in nearby Iran and Pakistan scrambled out.

Few Kabulis stayed out of sheer patriotism, many remained out of despair and unwillingness or incapacity of being able to tackle the ardours and expenses of exile, especially as city-dwellers with no rural roots or homes to fall back on.

The state of the country reflects the hotchpotch of population which has returned, inter-acting sometimes painfully with those who remained, as after any war. Most regret the more comfortable and safe conditions in Pakistan or Iran, despite the obvious hardship of being unwelcome and shunned. The most skilled professional have established themselves abroad, unwilling to sacrifice their lives and their families for such a hazardous return. The new elite is composed of Anglophone exiles, those who benefited from an English-language education in Pakistan, especially those who have been in the US as well. Apart from the strong Afghan-American community, the US is giving out a number of scholarships to bright students, encouraging girls especially to apply, the same way the Soviets had done in the 1970s. Elites are created from the outside, to replace the tribal and family power structures which nevertheless still exist in parallel, functioning through influence (Ibn Khaldoun’s ‘Assabya’) and tactical alliance.

A middle-class is steadily growing, especially amongst the young (boys, but also girls) eager to study and gain well-paid jobs with NGOs. As in Sarajevo, the elite find themselves working for foreign aid and the Civil Service suffers badly as a consequence. Teaching attracts the least competent candidates and, as a nation-wide consequence, the level of education is abysmally low. Indeed, why teach school for $ 80 to $100 a month when you could be working in front of a computer in an air-conditioned office for eight to ten times that amount at age 23 ? The young often say they cannot financially and morally afford idealism in a society where everyone has to fend for himself, prices are soaring and health care, like everything else, needs to be paid for. Families in the city are increasingly subsidized by their young unmarried members. The twenty-something year-olds are the ones dutifully bringing in their pay and shouldering all the expenses, especially the astronomical rents in the city. As Farid, a returnee, said : “I came back from Pakistan hoping to build up this country my family had dreamt about all these years. Now, I don’t care anymore, all I want is to make money anyway I can, pay the hospital bills for my mother, the rent for my family ( 6 brothers and sisters) and when all that’s taken care of, think about something else, even get out of the country”. Yet having said that, I have occasionally observed the opposite with women. In Herat this has been the consistent stance of the incredibly courageous lone female attorney Maria Bashir (who, as I have been saying for two years, I really think should get the Nobel Prize in Afghanistan, save that she does not have PR machinery to get her name around). She has refused to work for NGOs in order to continue to defend women. Also my young friend Zala who speaks perfect English has accepted to be vice-principal of a school because she knows that will make a difference in the children’s lives, whereas she could have had a job anywhere in the city.

Kabuli women today

In the streets of Kabul, there are far fewer blue-shrouded women than I had observed a couple of years ago. The burqa has become more than anything a class marker, principally indicating poverty and unemployment. And there are many desperately poor women in Kabul, some begging with their children, huddling in the middle of thick traffic. Cars swerve at the last minute to avoid them, drivers shooing away beggar children clawing at the windows. But as a Kabuli friend observed, these people are not homeless, no-one sleeps openly in the streets as you find in Paris, London or New York. There is always somewhere to go, however miserable, at least for the night, a glass of tea, a crust of dry ‘nan’.

Yet all the different groups are united by their strict attitudes to women as vessels of family honour : at every level of society, women remain subservient to men, their marriages arranged, vital decisions taken by fathers, brothers, husbands and reinforced by the all-powerful mother-in-law. The right to study, to work, to go out, to seek medical aid are privileges that may or may not be meted out by the males of the family, be they vegetable vendors or ministers. Suicides by self-immolation or the slashing of wrists are the ultimate resource of girls of every background.

- Read full story on the Femaid Website or in word document.

On Sisyphe, June 6, 2008

Carol Mann, chercheure en sociologie et directrice de l’association ‘Women in War’ à Paris

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