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Banning the Burqa

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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.

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