The burqa is an image that burns in Western minds. Afghan women made anonymous by swaths of sky blue material covering them from head to foot—a face screen their only access to the world outside. The garment forced upon women by a ferocious and raging religious fundamentalism formulated by men—Taliban fanatics driving around in Toyota pickup trucks, stopping to whip these faceless blue ghosts on the street or hauling them off to be dug into holes in soccer fields to be readied for public stonings. These images brought the world’s eye to Afghanistan. They were part of the post-9/11 war cry that saw Laura Bush bring women’s rights activists from groups like the Feminist Majority and Equality Now! and Afghan women exiles to the White House in November, 2001, just weeks after the bombing had begun in Afghanistan. The rhetoric centered on liberation. With the Taliban routed, the burqa would be tossed aside, and women would emerge and breathe freedom. Freedom not experienced since forced modernization mandates put forth by successive Afghan rulers and later during the Soviet occupation gave them limited rights.
Eight years later, the US is contemplating whether to surge the Afghan war effort in order to rid the growing Taliban and al Qaeda presence, or begin a slow drawdown of forces. This time there is no talk of freedom for Afghan women, who, due to the complete and total lack of security in their country, have opted to re-don the burqa—a Western name given to the garment Afghans call a chaddari—for safety reasons. There is no talk of the conservative backlash against women or how they suffered in the wake of each of their forced “emancipations.” As gender and development expert Lina Abirafeh says in her book, Gender and International Aid in Afghanistan: The Politics and Effects of Intervention (MacFarland, 2009), “Reforms have repeatedly flooded Afghanistan faster than the country can absorb them, should it choose to do so.” Abirafeh lived in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2006, working on gender issues and researching the effects of gender-focused international aid in conflict and post-conflict contexts, focusing on gender-based violence. According to Abirafeh, in the 1920s Afghanistan was a secular country working to extend women’s rights, yet by the 1990s it was captive to religious fanaticism, tribal patriarchy, and underdevelopment. She cites the combination of colonialism, economic dependence, and rapid social change as “a recipe for Muslim fundamentalism to flourish—a phenomenon exacerbated by international pressure exerted at the intersection of Islam, the state, and gender politics.” The result leaves the place of women as the only controllable social factor left once economic and political arenas become dependent on external interventions.
Senior editor Lorna Tychostup interviewed Abirafeh (currently working in Papua New Guinea), via e-mail and discussed international aid to Afghanistan, how it affects the relationships between men and women today in Afghanistan, and the day-to-day realities for Afghan women.
Lorna Tychostup: What is it like to be a woman in Afghanistan today?
Lina Abirafeh: Afghan women continue to be among the worst off in the world. And yet they are largely forgotten. For all the hype that was generated in 2001 and 2002, our attention spans prove short once again. Many who gasped at the horrors Afghan women faced now show little interest, believing the issue to be resolved. Today, social indicators are depressing—and have hardly improved since 2001. Security is the greatest failing of the international community. As a result, Afghan women are faced with new challenges, the most serious of which is increased violence—particularly domestic and sexual violence. The threat or fear of violence is enough to keep women from public spaces.
Afghan women’s illiteracy is one of the highest in the world. There might be more schools for girls—but the buildings are being burned and families fear sending their daughters. Poverty, discrimination, and gender inequality keep girls and women from education. Afghan women’s life expectancy is still very low, coupled with a maternal mortality ratio that is one of the highest in the world. Population rates are high—and the economic and social infrastructure continues to weaken. Women are still a minority in public life—despite their place in the Parliament and other political bodies. Livelihoods are deteriorating due to continued conflict, deteriorating security, increased corruption, and ongoing displacement. Women are forced into more dangerous fields in order to support their families—such as opium production and sex work fueled both by Afghans and internationals. In short, things are not going well. If I were an Afghan woman, I would be disillusioned and angered by aid. What has it done for them? One Afghan woman told me, “A woman in Afghanistan is a very popular object today.” Her use of the word “object” was deliberate. She said she was upset because the international community made her the center of unwanted attention, and the focus of myriad projects and plans, none of which she had a role in creating. At the same time, she felt that her own ability to determine and direct the changes was denied to her—leaving her reduced to an object that needed “fixing.”
Is there an Afghan version of feminism?
Yes. There are always movements to advocate for women’s rights—defined differently in every culture and context. Women have always exercised their ability to better their circumstances—and to provide for themselves and their families. Afghan feminisms are not alien importations. Feminism—just like all other social movements—evolves in response to injustice and inequality. Throughout Afghan history, women have been key players in challenging circumstances and using their own methods to achieve gains—gains that they seek, on their own terms. Unfortunately, the term “feminism” comes loaded with the impression that it is Western. And even in the West the term has been hijacked by a certain image that does not do justice to its core purpose—and to the diverse ways women find to express feminisms. There are still people—women and men alike—who regurgitate old “bra burning” rhetoric as a rationale for dismissing feminism. Bras or not—feminism is not a fad or fashion. And it is very much alive today—in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Afghan feminists wouldn’t define themselves that way, largely because their movement seeks to distance itself from a Western model—even though the underlying principles are the same. Afghan feminists—just like feminists from many other developing countries—struggle against imperialism alongside patriarchy. Afghan history tells us of incredible Afghan women who fought alongside men to liberate Afghanistan.
How does Afghan feminism differ from its Western counterpart?
The principles are the same, but the issues are different. Most Afghan women prefer to view their rights within the context of Islam. The perspectives are different—and the views are different. Of course, the opportunities are also different. As I mentioned, Afghan women are facing some pretty insurmountable struggles—many of which Western feminists do not experience. I do not think many American women can relate to the restrictions, fears, and constraints that Afghan women experience. We need to recognize that—despite our own issues—our position is one of privilege. It is impossible to separate feminist movements from the context in which they exist. After all, they are born out of the issues that arise within that specific context.
You write that tribal practices overshadow Islam. Yet throughout Gender and International Aid, Islam seems to be at the center.
In practice, tribal practices do overshadow what is written in Islam. Codes such as the Pashtunwali (the unwritten legal code of the Pashtun population) trump Islamic practices. Women’s honor is its cornerstone. As a result, women’s movements are very limited. These limitations are manifested in purdah, the separation of male and female spaces. It is not accurate to connect these conservative practices and women’s oppression to Islam. Afghans prefer to live within the parameters that Islam, in its pure form, provides—especially regarding gender roles and relations. Afghanistan is a Muslim country—this can’t be ignored. We need to engage with the religion as a core part of the context in which we are working. When listening to the voices of Afghan women and men, their desire to view their rights within an Islamic context comes across very clearly.
Of the aid Afghanistan receives from the US, how much goes toward women’s issues?
Funding for women’s issues isn’t clearly reported, and there are discrepancies in how much actually goes to “women’s issues.” There are complaints—justly—of misallocated funding, commitments not disbursed, and money not reaching Afghanistan. It is difficult to trace funds—but funding received was in no way compatible with the level of rhetoric. Particularly for women’s issues. I’m concerned that what we think is aid to women is actually supporting our “war on terror.” It has been made very clear that the military objective in Afghanistan is taking precedence over other so-called “softer issues.” Hilary Clinton recently made it clear that funding to Afghanistan is going towards combating al Qaeda and protecting the US. It is no longer about gender equality and democracy. Even in the early days, money wasn’t going toward improving the lives of Afghan people—and most Afghans are rightly angry as a result. They say, “Promises haven’t been implemented. They trick both men and women into believing that the world will come save them and change everything.”
What is “Gender Apartheid”?
“Gender Apartheid” was coined by the Feminist Majority Foundation to advocate for and attract interest in Afghan women’s human rights—and the abuses they faced under the Taliban. Waged by American feminists, this high-profile campaign used the image of the burqa, or chaddari, as its galvanizing point to generate world interest. The oppressed downtrodden creature beneath a blue sheet. Gasp! How can we allow this to happen?!? Many Afghan feminists felt that such campaigns—while well intended—were waged without them. The burqa became the symbol of abuse—and therefore removal of the garment would indicate “liberation” and an end to abuse. The chaddari was and is not the barometer by which to measure social change. In fact, its presence or absence does little to indicate liberation. We’d be better off judging liberation by what Afghan women say—and how they feel about their rights and roles. And their voices are quite clear—things are getting worse for them. Yet such campaigns were deemed successful by the West with the so-called liberation of Afghanistan in 2001. Unfortunately this liberation has yet to materialize.
What is the relationship between Gender Apartheid and what you call “Chaddari Politics”?
The chaddari is not a new object of Western obsession. It became a symbol of Taliban abuses, but it should be viewed in its sociopolitical and historical context. It was not a Taliban invention—and in fact was used at times as a symbol of resistance and not just a one-dimensional vehicle of oppression. The bottom line is that any act of veiling is not a denial of women’s ability to act on their own behalf, no matter how perverse our curiosities and fetishes on veiling might be. I think of Edward Said’s Orientalism in this case—because the Western world still has not managed to contain its curiosity for what lies beneath a veil. I use the term “Chaddari Politics” because the chaddari has political implications. The “Gender Apartheid” campaign used it as a political tool. Afghans use the term burqa when they are discussing the garment with us—but amongst themselves they use the Dari/Persian term chaddari. Despite this, American feminists made burqa the prevalent term.
In 2002, when I moved to Afghanistan, I wrote reports to the organizations, donors, sponsors, etc. to help them understand the situation. Stating my impressions in my first report I wrote: “My sense is that Afghan women long for choice—the choice to wear a veil, or a burqa, or nothing at all. The issue extends well beyond the actual fabric of the burqa. It is more important to address the psychological burqa, and its progeny—the fear burqa and the poverty burqa. Social evolution is a slow process, and our task in this is to offer women the tools with which they can achieve self-sufficiency, a choice, and a voice.” Today, it is worthwhile questioning the extent to which we’ve done that—and what all these changes that are taking place actually mean to Afghans.
Yet the chaddari/burqa imagery helps to bring in donor money to NGOs that supply aid. NGO media campaigns depict the Taliban as the “problem” and NGOs as the “solution.” Men, in general, are viewed as “bad” and women as “good.”
Any image of veiling tends to generate attention as it takes place in a post-9/11 context where the Western world is filled with a fear and fascination with political Islam, particularly the role of women in Islam. And of course the veil—or any form of covering—is the public manifestation of this fear and fascination. As a result, it becomes easy to imagine how a veiled woman might be in need of aid. Despite our curiosities, we don’t often see that a strong, intelligent, and capable Afghan woman could be beneath the blue! The aid community likes to boil things down to black and white in order to simplify our work—or perhaps to justify the need for it. Interventions are either successes or failures. We miss out on the nuances.
You talk about how the word “gender” is the new buzzword of the international community, and how Afghans have no translation or definition for it. Yet Afghans have learned to use it as a marketing tool because they know it will get them aid money.
Gender is about the attributes and opportunities associated with being male and female in a given society at a given time. It isn’t just another word for women. It has economic, social, cultural, and political implications. It is socially constructed and changes over time—and based on specific events. In Dari or Pashto, they still don’t have a definition for gender that everyone agrees upon or understands. We in the West still use gender as another word for women or sex—which is wrong on both counts. Gender is more complex. When we use the term gender to mean women, we are conveniently cutting the political implications out—leaving us with a buzzword, a new way to say women. Instead we should say “women” when we mean women, and reserve “gender” for more robust usage, which means including men and looking at politics as the distribution of power—meaning resources and influence, and an understanding of who gets what, when, how—and why. Aid is always political. Social change is political. Gender is political—especially in Afghanistan. So we owe it to Afghans to take on the term in its full form. As one Afghan man I interviewed said, “It’s important to know and to find out for ourselves what gender means in Afghanistan.” He explained that Afghans weren’t given the space to determine what kind of changes they sought—and how to go about them. In effect, Afghans felt that we were imposing our own views of what gender roles and relations should be like on Afghanistan.
Yet, at the same time, the use of the word gender segregates Afghan men from Afghan women and causes problems in their relations. Afghan men feel their needs are being ignored.
We don’t often engage men in gender interventions. We usually see them as perpetrators (and women as victims) or as obstacles to women’s development. If we engage them at all, it is to advance women’s interests. Rarely do we take note of men who are supporters, advocates, champions—I met many such men in Afghanistan. Yet we hardly ever engage men in their own right. It is possible to empower women without undermining men. Many Afghan men say women are given priority and men are forgotten. They claim aid organizations do not follow through with their promises to men. Men’s honor is insulted given that their traditional role is as breadwinner—yet they are not given the opportunity to work. This is at the core of what it means to be a man, and not just in Afghanistan. We saw increases in violence against women post-Katrina. There is a strong link between the breadwinner aspect of male identity and violence against women. Men in Afghanistan and elsewhere express this largely through increased violence against women—specifically domestic violence. It is important to understand that this is not an “Afghan thing” or a “Muslim thing.” It’s a global problem. Afghan women express concern too, saying such things as: “I don’t know what opportunities men have. Many are without opportunities.” “Men need to have opportunities like women so they can work and feel proud.” “Men are suffering more than women.” “Men are becoming more aggressive and angry to women because organizations do not give them any attention.”
You write: “It is assumed that the corruption and degradation of Afghan women is a fundamental part of the Western imperialism agenda.” How does the underbelly antics of the international aid community add to this assumption?
Development work is more than a full-time job—it is a lifestyle choice. How we behave “after hours” cannot be separated from the work we are doing during the day. And we also need to exercise a healthy dose of humility—yet I see precisely the opposite. Firstly, we are guests in the country, so we need to abide by their rules. Recreating lives similar to those we lived “back home” is not a wise strategy, as it doesn’t reflect respect for the communities in which we work. We create an economy around our presence, which drives certain industries—black market alcohol, prostitution, pornography, etc.—how does this look to Afghans? A poor Afghan woman knows that prostitution is a more lucrative industry than potatoes. Afghans assume that we interfere in Afghanistan and end up corrupting Afghan women.
In terms of “underbelly antics” (I do love this term!), it’s the usual parties and alcohol—sometimes excessive. More dangerous than these activities is the obsessive drive for them—as if it is something to which we are entitled, by virtue of the “sacrifices” we make to do this work. There is an underlying arrogance here – a “detail” most Afghans do not overlook. In my days in Afghanistan, the biggest concern was the “no Afghan” door policy in Kabul restaurants that serve alcohol or the myriad brothels masquerading as restaurants—catering to foreigners. Afghans, view this as a form of “cultural imperialism”—an attack against their sense of Afghan identity, their Afghaniyat. Combine “cultural imperialism” with the Afghan view that few positive changes have taken place in their lives—surely a volatile combination. I’m sure most Afghans would argue that they would be better off without that sort of “aid.” And when we behave in these ways after hours, it becomes difficult for Afghan women to align themselves with us. They don’t like it—and Afghan men won’t permit it. We end up undermining our own efforts.
Our experiences in places such as Afghanistan should not be about adventure, ethnic trinkets, and heroic near-misses that we love to boast about at the end of the day. The danger in such places is they attract “emergency junkies” who thrive on such thrills—but who add little value for Afghans. For those who aren’t really committed to bettering the lives of Afghans, Disneyworld might be a better alternative. This isn’t about being a saint or a martyr—but it’s about Afghans first.
Does aid intervention do more harm than good?
Badly planned aid interventions surely do more harm than good. In principle, we are out to achieve “good.” We owe it to Afghans to make good on that—especially after years of neglect, a history of abandonment, and an array of clumsy approaches that do little more than build resistance and leave Afghans—particularly Afghan women—worse off than they were before.
One of the biggest concerns I heard was the idea that aid interventions imported their own ideas of what was wrong with Afghan women—and how to fix it. That kind of approach is patronizing. It was doomed from the start. As one Afghan woman who runs an NGO told me, “In Afghan history, we have imported policies from other places. This is why it doesn’t work. If we want democracy, we have to go step by step, starting from the beginning, and not running. If we run, we will fall down. We should walk slowly and look around us in order to be successful. Again today, just like before, Afghans are running, running after democracy, running after gender. And when we fall down no one will be able to rescue us. Not even the international community.”
How is honor linked to Afghan sovereignty?
Honor for Afghans is about freedom from outside interference. A historically divisive Afghanistan has been united many times by the need to drive out occupiers—physical or ideological. There is historical precedent for this. The problem emerges when Afghans make a parallel between the previous occupiers and the current “regime”—international organizations. Today it is both a military and an ideological occupation. Is it any wonder that forces like the Taliban are gaining power—and appeal? Aid has been a means by which outsiders have gained influence in Afghanistan—and Afghans see history dangerously repeating itself. We need to understand the link between Afghanistan’s legacy of occupation and Afghan honor—and how these forces combine to create a strong resistance to outside interference today.
An Afghan man told me “the world thought they could bring freedom to Afghan women, but freedom is only won from the inside.” Indeed, that is the point. Freedom—our fight for it, and our perception of it—comes from within. And Afghans have fought time and again for freedom on their terms—today is no different. So if we’re not helping them to achieve the freedom they seek—we should just get out.
You talk about how some Afghan men complain that aid organizations “interfere with family issues.” Rana Husseini, who broke tradition and began to cover honor killings in Jordan, said men in her country complained that shelters for battered women interfered with “family issues.” It took years for the Jordanian government to agree upon what to call shelters for abused women and those threatened with violence. Women who had been attacked or threatened with death by family members, afraid that male relatives would kill them to satisfy their perception of honor, were put into prison for their own protection. Some women spent 10 to 15 years in prison being kept “safe” from male family members who would kill them. I understand the cultural differences and the need to go slow with change. But how can one reconcile abusive tactics or behaviors with such claims of interference?
A very tricky area. I think the only way we can reconcile any of these contradictions is to refrain from passing judgment and to take our cue from Afghan women and men. We can provide them with the tools and resources to make the changes that they see fit—that work for them. The perceptions of Afghan men that aid organizations “interfere with family issues” refer to the pervasive image that Afghan women are oppressed—and therefore Afghan men are the oppressors. This is a simplistic juxtaposition that doesn’t reflect Afghan realities. Afghans who I spoke with shared the belief that changes were imposed on them—and they were not given a voice to determine the direction—and pace—of the changes. One Afghan woman put it best. She said, “If the men and women together decide on the changes, they will be good. If someone else from the outside makes the changes, no one will be happy with it.” Men felt that international organizations deliberately “took their rights” by neglecting them and focusing on women. So, in addition to the perception that changes were imposed on them by the West, men also felt that aid organizations were stripping them of their dignity and denying them a place in the family. So much for doing “gender” work.
- A woman outside an NGO office in Paghman, Afganistan, waiting in a long line to register for aid.
- Day laborers on the street in Kabul, hoping for work.