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Banning the Burqa

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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.
  • 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.
  • Day laborers on the street in Kabul, hoping for work.

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