Journalist Missing the Mission: Sally Armstrong and Afghan Women

The following has been cross posted at Muslim Lookout.

For a while now Sally Armstrong has been documenting the situation of women in Afghanistan through her books and documentary. She recently spoke at the University of Guelph fundraising breakfast and Guelph, Ontario’s Guelph Mercury covered the talk given by Armstrong  – a journalist, it seems, on a mission.

Sally Armstrong. Image via Guelph Mercury

Sally Armstrong. Image via Guelph Mercury

Now anytime the idea of a non-Afghan, Western/Northern person trying to save Afghan women is presented, I can’t help but wonder if  long lasting solutions are being sought, and usually they are not. The micro-level problems are highlighted at the expense of another culture and/or religion, while the macro-level causes of the problems are completely ignored and those who are at fault at the macro-level are rarely held accountable. Unfortunately, this is how this Guelph Mercury piece read. The Guelph Mercury reports that Armstrong is

swinging against the international political correctness that is keeping Afghan women under lock and key.

Together, Armstrong and the Guelph Mercury paint a bleak picture of the condition of women in Afghanistan.

Of the Taleban, Armstrong says

“They murder them [women] in public, in front of their children, by shooting them in the face”

Of the situation of women in Afghanistan the Guelph Mercury says:

And though there is a small but growing group of Afghan women who are working to improve conditions, there is still a lot of work to be done.

Eight years after the Taliban was brought down, women are still being kept behind walls, kept out of schools, kept in purdah and kept out of civil life, she said.

and:

Afghanistan is the only country in the world where the suicide rate is higher for women than it is for men.

About 85 per cent of the women are illiterate, a state they equate with blindness.

Though schools for girls have now opened, they receive no funding from the Afghan government

I do not doubt that situation for women in Afghanistan is dire. I do doubt, however, that the problem is as simplistic and black and white as is depicted by this oh-so-common narrative.

As much as I dislike the Taleban, and as much as I despise their view of women, I also recognize that even they are not the monolithic entity Western media depicts them as. To assume all Taleban members would do such horrendous things as shoot women in the face denies the possibility in our mindset and discourse that perhaps dialogue and educational  opportunities could arise with at least some of them. It also is only one step away from generalizing about all Afghan, and even all Muslim, men.

Additionally, the men who make up the Afghan Taleban are Afghan men. The men who make up the Taleban are their men. They are the brothers, fathers, sons, cousins, etc., of the same women so many here in the West want to “save.” How will painting these men as monsters actually help Afghan women? Simply criticizing the Taleban’s actions with one sweep of the criticism brush does not help Afghan women at all and further alienates the men in their lives. We are not recognizing the relationships, as well as possible dependencies, Afghan women have with Afghan men. We are refusing to recognize that Afghan women may have male allies in their midst, or that some Afghan women may support the Taleban.

A better way to address the issue would be a less patronizing and more nuanced way. Understanding not only their cultural and religious context, as well as how they ended up as they are – a.k.a. colonization – would be necessary. The British (who created Afghanistan’s borders) forced opposing ethnic groups to live in one country, resulting in years of civil war and the subsequent devastation of the economy and education of the country. Russia’s and the U.S.’s imperialist invasions, and now the U.S.’s “war on terror”, have all had devastating effects on Afghanistan and its people. They have created situations and realities that make resources that we take for granted very difficult to attain in Afghanistan. As a result of such devastation, the women have suffered most, as is what usually happens.

If women in the West do want to help Afghan women, they would be better off questioning the tactics and purpose of their governments’ current “war on terror”, one of the effects of which has been the further radicalization of many young Muslim men who have felt targeted and victimized by this war. A war in which we too, as Canadians, are involved. To deny the role this war has played in worsening the situation of women in Afghanistan would be the real injustice. Therefore, as mentioned earlier, understanding the effects of this war on the people of Afghanistan, including on the situations and motives of the men of Afghanistan, is necessary in changing the situation. Since you criticize international political correctness, I would say that challenging your own government’s role in the perpetuation of these dire situations for Afghan women may be the truly non-politically correct thing to do, Ms. Armstrong.

Culture and patriarchy do indeed play a role, and they should be challenged as well. However, they are being challenged and resisted by the women of Afghanistan. The Guelph Mercury says that

…though there is a small but growing group of Afghan women who are working to improve conditions, there is still a lot of work to be done.

The work of these women should not be discounted. Organizations like RAWA have been working for Afghan women for decades. Additionally, if the country were not in a war with Western forces, then there would most likely be more such groups. However, years of civil war and foreign invaders and occupiers have made this difficult.

Although Armstrong, and people like her, may have good intentions, their approach comes across as insulting. Helping is not a bad thing. But it should not be done with the assumption that there is something wrong with the people one is helping. Both the assumption that the women one is helping just aren’t capable of helping themselves (instead of criticizing and trying to change the macro-level forces which may hinder them) and the assumption the men of that culture are all oppressive monsters taint any altruism with self-righteousness and condescention. And that doesn’t help anyone. To have real change macro-level factors, which hold back entire nations, need to be challenged, questioned, and changed. Otherwise, all other solutions will be temporary, as the people will still be facing macro-level oppressions.

  • phil

    Not sure if you know, but RAWA is held in a lot of contempt by a very significant % of Afghans. (and i don’t mean the ones that blow up girls’ schools)

  • http://www.stop-stoning.org Rochelle

    I understand your concerns. But in writing this critique and offering suggestions, you also don’t cite any Afghan women’s organization as your source for information. You say that “If women in the West do want to help Afghan women, they would be better off questioning the tactics and purpose of their governments’ current ‘war on terror’ “. I may agree with you, but the fact is YOU’RE the one offering this suggestion on how to help Afghan women, not the Afghan women themselves. You mention RAWA but you don’t actually offer a platform for them to speak for themselves. What makes you different exactly than Sally Armstrong in this case?

    I’m not saying you can’t offer your opinions on how to help Afghan women. But Armstrong can offer her opinions too. And without knowing anything about either of you, I can’t take one suggestion as more legitimate than the other without seeing your writing or knowing your experience and background. I don’t know much about this Sally Armstrong person, but quick internet search shows that she’s an Amnesty International Human Rights Award winner, and has been covering Afghanistan since 1996. So clearly she didn’t just step into this, but has been researching it for a long time.

    I always appreciate your comments, Sobia, but just because you’re Muslim doesn’t make you any more justified than Armstrong to editorialize on Afghanistan.

    The bottom line is this: Are non-Afghanis not allowed to talk about Afghan women? Or is it only white/Western/Northern/American/Christian women? Similarly, are Afghan women not allowed to talk about the situation of women in America?

  • Joe

    Question: If an Afghan woman *does* support the Taleban, well, why should their voice count?

    This isn’t ‘my culture’ versus ‘your culture’.

    Frankly, I don’t think human beings have any ‘right’ to choose a theologically-ordered society. I think they have the right to choose theology for *themselves*, sure, but those rights end when they attempt to impose their theology on others.

    Also, your reading of Afghan history is a tad simplistic. They had a parliament for a while – it was relatively secular and progressive. Hell, they gave women the right to vote before Switzerland did! There’s potential there.

    [This comment has been edited to fit within comment moderation guidelines.]

  • Sobia

    @ Rochelle:

    “What makes you different exactly than Sally Armstrong in this case?”

    I’m not trying to offer suggestions on how to help Afghan women. I’m trying to change the way in which the problem is viewed. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t help either but what I am saying is that the way that so many in the West view the problem is problematic and micro-level. If people want to make a difference, whether it be in Afghanistan or anywhere else, macro-level issues need to be recognized and then from there efforts can be made.

    Armstrong may be offering her opinions but her opinions don’t take into account the root of the problem. Saying that the root of the problem should be taken into account is not the same as saying “We need to help Afghani women my way.” Again, its not a suggestion of how to help Afghani women, but rather a suggestion on how to view the problem. My suggestion of challenging one’s government is just one example of how that can be done, in case people don’t know.

    Again, I don’t have a problem with Armstrong wanting to help but I’m worried that the root of the problem is being ignored and certain parties are being let off the hook at the expense of other parties.

    Anyone can talk about the issue but they have to take the whole picture into account, not just a small aspect of it.

    @ Phil:
    I realize that. They were just one example I provided simply to demonstrate that Afghani women are, and have been, working to help themselves.

  • http://www.stop-stoning.org Rochelle

    Phil is right, a lot of people in Afghanistan and in the diaspora have mixed feelings about RAWA. They’re a controvertial organization to say the least. I’ll try to find some sourses.

  • Sobia

    @ Joe:

    Answer: Because everyone’s voice counts. Not sure what you’re getting at with that question or why you’re asking.

    “Also, your reading of Afghan history is a tad simplistic.”

    In the amount of space there is on a blog, that is all it can be. To give justice to the entire history of the country would require books upon books. Additionally, having a secular and progressive parliament for a while does not negate the after effects of colonization. That reality does not get washed away. And from my understanding there were still foreign forces interfering during that time.

  • Joe

    Uh, Sobia, my message was heavily edited, though I don’t know why — there was absolutely no profanity or anything like that.

    I explained my position fully, but I guess if I write out the explanation again, suffice it to say that they’ll just delete it again?

    But, no, everyone’s voice doesn’t count in every respect. A voice that advocates abridging the individual liberty that others enjoy is committing violence by another name, and deserves to be opposed as such.

    (And, to the moderator, care to explain what’s wrong with suggesting that religion is part of the problem here? Not Islam specifically, but belief that there’s some ‘god’ out there that cares for some silly reason what happens on earth?)

    “” Additionally, having a secular and progressive parliament for a while does not negate the after effects of colonization. That reality does not get washed away.”"

    That’s not the point; the point is that there’s at least *some* base for a progressive society to build on there, with the current (hopefully successful) pseudo-colonial project.

    And that’s not just me thinking wishfully; there’s a good possibility I’ll be putting my life where my mouth is and going over there to try and help make it a success myself in a year or so.

  • Joe

    “”Phil is right, a lot of people in Afghanistan and in the diaspora have mixed feelings about RAWA. They’re a controvertial organization to say the least. I’ll try to find some sources.”"

    Please do.

    Though it’s worth noting that, even if RAWA were popular in Afghanistan, that wouldn’t make them any less wrong about some crucial issues.

  • Joe

    “”Armstrong may be offering her opinions but her opinions don’t take into account the root of the problem.”"

    What do you think the root of the problem is?

    [This comment has been moderated to fit within comment moderation guidelines.]

  • http://muslimahmediawatch.org/ Fatemeh

    @ Joe: Read our comment moderation policy carefully. Coming onto a Muslim women’s site and claiming that religion is evil is not only inappropriate, but unhelpful. Telling women who look to religion for strength or support when fighting for women’s rights (put on your surprised face, there are thousands. Even in Afghanistan.) to straight-up jettison their faith is unhelpful and unrealistic. If secular humanist values work for you, fantastic. But you can’t assume that they’ll work for everyone. While I agree with your point about imposing one’s faith on others, this is a site for Muslim women. All the writers are Muslim, many of the readers are Muslim, and it’s a Muslim audience we’re aiming for, so religion plays a stake in our worldview and must be taken into account when discussing problems that Muslim women face, in Afghanistan or anywhere else.

  • Joe

    “”Read our comment moderation policy carefully. Coming onto a Muslim women’s site and claiming that religion is evil is not only inappropriate, but unhelpful. “”

    Did I say ‘evil’? No. I’d call it ‘a root of the problem’, ‘useless’, and ‘counterproductive’, sure. Never called it evil.

    We’re not allowed to call religion ‘counterproductive’ here?

    “” Telling women who look to religion for strength or support when fighting for women’s rights (put on your surprised face, there are thousands. Even in Afghanistan.) to straight-up jettison their faith is unhelpful and unrealistic.”"

    Why is it unrealistic? I jettisoned mine, as a natural consequence of learning more about the world and engaging more with intellectual life, and it’s been quite a useful and productive shift. What on earth is unrealistic about it? Plenty of people are converted *to* religion… why couldn’t anyone be converted *from* religion?

    “” If secular humanist values work for you, fantastic. But you can’t assume that they’ll work for everyone. “”

    That’s precisely the problem with your worldview — they’re not ‘for me’ or ‘for you’. Secular humanist values are rationally and empirically derived and, in their fundamental form, they are indeed *universal*.

    “”so religion plays a stake in our worldview and must be taken into account when discussing problems that Muslim women face, in Afghanistan or California.”"

    Well, yes, of course. Plenty of counterproductive things must be ‘taken into account’ when working to help people that need it. That doesn’t mean you have to pretend they’re not counterproductive.

  • http://muslimahmediawatch.org/ Fatemeh

    You’re just not getting it. It’s unrealistic in this specific instance because Afghanistan has been a Muslim nation for thousands of years. They can’t all just wake up one day and decide that they’re not down with Islam anymore. It’s built into the culture and national identity. Also, many Afghan women are using Islam to gain educational and civil rights; they’re working within a system that’s being twisted against them to get what they want.

    For many Muslim women, Islam is not counterproductive. It’s a support system, a refuge, something they can look to and say, “See, the Qur’an says I deserve an education [or insert whatever here], why are you trying to take it away from me?” While maybe not all of us or our readers at MMW are down with Shari’ah law or imposing it on others, MMW is not the place for you to start a ‘secular humanism’ campaign; you can get your own blog for that.

  • Melinda

    I thought the name Sally Armstrong sounded familiar, and it turns out she narrated the film Daughters of Afghanistan (post here).

  • Sahar

    Rochelle: a non-Afghan Muslim woman writing on Afghanistan would have a closer insight on the complexities of the Afghan experience than say a Westerner. Why? ’cause there are commonalities that even a non-Afghan Muslim woman can identify. Their worldviews are similar, of course not identical.

    As for RAWA, they do a lot of good work. That cannot be disputed. But i’m ideologically opposed to them on a number of issues: their reactionary ideological position for instance. They describe any religiously movitvated group or individual as a ‘fundamentalist’ and rejects working with fundamentalists of all sorts which isn’t very realistic nor helping Afghan women. They seem border-line hostile towards religion which is disturbing. Their main standpoint is secular which I don’t necessarily agree with and it seems to me that their discourse isn’t at times sensitive to Afghan cultural and religious customs. But when I go over to Afghanistan, which i’m planning at some stage, i’d like to see for myself what kind of work they actually do.

  • Muffy

    Sobia, while I always appreciate reading your posts, I’m afraid I must echo other people’s concerns about your commentary.

    First of all, you make an awful lot of accusation against Armstrong, suggesting that she is patronizing, insulting, etc. Despite all that, I could only find one quotation in your entire commentary that actually comes from Armstrong herself (“They murder them [women] in public, in front of their children, by shooting them in the face”). The brief Guelph Mercury article you linked to does not go into great depth about Armstrong or her opinions, so it’s not like we have a lot to work with. Don’t you think you might be a tad hasty in judging Ms. Armstrong?

    Also, in your response to Rochelle, you make a very bold statement: “Armstrong may be offering her opinions but her opinions don’t take into account the root of the problem.” Are you suggesting that you know “root of the problem” better than Armstrong? What is the “root of the problem,” anyway? By reading your article, I get the impression that you’re blaming imperialism for a lot of the ills facing Afghanistan. Is imperialism the root of the problem, in your opinion? Please clarify. I’m curious, and it’s an important topic.

  • Sobia

    @ Muffy:

    I’ve come across Armstrong’s work before. As I’ve said, I’m not saying she shouldn’t help, or that she is doing harm. I’m just saying that her analysis of the situation appears simplistic. Its that same discourse Sherene Razack speaks of – the bad/terrorist Muslim man and the oppressed Muslim woman who needs saving. Its the same old, same old. And Armstrong seems to be reiterating it. Frankly as a Muslim woman I’m getting tired of it, and as someone who has some Pashtun blood in her I’m starting to get a little “ethnically” offended now.

    When we speak of terrorism we speak of getting to the root of the problem. Terrorism is not about “those bad Muslims wanting to kill people.” Its so much more complex than that and without addressing the complexities as well as the root causes of the issue, the terrorism targeted by the war on terror will not go away – in fact it will get much worse as we have seen. Similarly, the mistreatment of women in Afghanistan (note I never denied that many are mistreated) is more than “those bad Taliban men like to kill women.” Its more complex than that and without addressing the complexity of the situation it will not go away. And the role of colonialism and American imperialism in it has to be recognized. Western forces are in Afghanistan trying to kill the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. How is this going to help women? Should we not question how this is impacting the women of Afghanistan? Because it is. Its a war. War impacts the people of the country it occurs in. Should we not recognize the essentially racist concept of colonization and the role it has played in setting in motion not only the political and social realities of Afghanistan, but also other colonized states?

    From my understanding the root of the problem for those such as Armstrong and others is the “backward” culture of those Afghanis. Its the inherent misogyny of those Pashtun men. I’m sorry, but I just don’t buy that. Its much more complex than that. Its easy for us in the privileged West to assume and expect people all over the world to act like us, but we forget that many don’t have the privileges that we do and which allow and enable us to behave in certain ways as well as view the world through certain lenses. The root of the problem is much more complex than that, just as it is complex for the causes of terrorism.

    I’m not saying that members of the Taliban should not be blamed at all. Of course, those who hurt and harm women do after all make the final decision to do so. They have free will and decide to do the wrong thing. I’m not here to defend the Taliban but I also am weary of demonizing them all as if they are all an inherently evil bunch. Sure they follow a version of Islam I cannot understand and which disturbs me as a Muslim, but again, this does not make them evil. Very conservative yes, evil or bad no. And here one could talk about the spread of this interpretation of Islam and who is responsible for spreading it and how.

    Anyhow, basically what I’m saying is that this is a very complex issue and without taking into account the complexity of it and addressing all aspects of it, my fear is that things will not get better for the women who suffer.

  • Sahar

    As an ‘Afghan’ woman myself, I agree with Sobia’s critique. Analyses of the political, social and economic situtation of women in the country by ‘experts’ is often divorced from the complexity of Afghan society– its history, culture and politics. I wrote about this a few months ago and cited two scholars worth checking out.

    http://nuseiba.wordpress.com/2008/11/17/the-afghan-woman/

  • Sonia

    @ Sahar

    “a non-Afghan Muslim woman writing on Afghanistan would have a closer insight on the complexities of the Afghan experience than say a Westerner. Why? ’cause there are commonalities that even a non-Afghan Muslim woman can identify. Their worldviews are similar, of course not identical. ”

    What about a Western Muslim? A lot of south Asian women who are not Muslim could well share the experiences of Afghani women in a more meaningful way than Muslims the world over. I think splitting the world into Islam vs the West is unhelpful for these issues, and you find it frustrating from ‘the other side’ of the debate. I think we should avoid such simplifications here.

    As an Afghani exile myself, I’d like to point out that while you highlight the racism of the legacy of colonialism (completely fairly), the racism of the Taliban goes without mention. Their treatment of the Hazara and Tajik people is opnly racist, as the Mazar e Sharif massacre shows. This isn’t about ‘conservatism’ or ‘a strange version of Islam’.

    Also Armstrong’s writing is at least informed by experience. Many commentators have never even been to Afghanistan. She should be given some respect for that. The memories of us exiles are likely further removed from contemporary Afghanistan than hers, especially if we have never been there

  • Rchoudh

    @Sonia

    I understand what you’re saying about people not sharing the same experiences. As someone who grew up in America I can’t pretend to know how women’s lives are affected in other parts of the world. All I can do is listen to each person’s experience and try to find a solution together with that person(s). While Ms. Armstrong has done her journalistic duty in going to Afghanistan and covering this story, the solution she offers is not practical and it’s not something she came up with in consultation with the people she claims to be helping. And this solution isn’t only directed at Afghan Muslim women. It’s something that’s supposed to apply to Muslim men and women in general. However, categorizing and stereotyping people is not the way to claim you are helping them. Just examine the British experience in Egypt when they colonized it in the late 19th Century. The British went in there saying they were going to “liberate” the Muslim women from the home. After supposedly “liberating” them they left the women in the lurch. They didn’t bother setting up schools or providing decent jobs (at the time British women hadn’t even been given the right to vote yet) for the women. While upper class Egyptian women had economic safety, young lower class women resorted to becoming prostitutes and belly dancers for the occupying British forces. If America doesn’t seriously try to provide practical solutions to the problem (jobs and education) instead of trying to impose its cultural values and outlook onto Muslim women in Afghanistan and Iraq, it’ll pretty much be repeating the same mistakes the British did in Egypt (and facing a severe backlash like the British did which is why they were humiliatingly forced to abandon Egypt by Gamal Abdel Nasser). Now it can be said that because of the war it’s hard to apply these practical solutions now. However, another major reason why America is failing to apply these solutions has to do also with massive corruption both among the current Afghan leaders and among American military and civilian bureaucratic structure itself.

  • Sobia

    @Sonia:

    “I’d like to point out that while you highlight the racism of the legacy of colonialism (completely fairly), the racism of the Taliban goes without mention. Their treatment of the Hazara and Tajik people is opnly racist, as the Mazar e Sharif massacre shows. This isn’t about ‘conservatism’ or ‘a strange version of Islam’.”

    True. But don’t forget the racism Pashtuns experienced at the hands of other ethnic groups. In fact, the reason the Taliban actually came into being was as a make-shift defense force for the Pashtuns against the horrific attacks of the Northern Alliance people. Pashtun women were being raped, the men were being killed. It goes both ways Sonia. I’m afraid that nowadays the Taliban are an all too convenient scapegoat and they’re painted as the root of all evil, but we cannot forget the horrific experiences of hate the Pashtun’s experienced at the hands of the other ethnic groups in Afghanistan. It goes all ways.

  • Sobia

    Sorry..just to clarify…

    “the reason the Taliban actually” should have “one of” before it. Although I realize its more complex than that, the ethnic animosity between groups created some fuel. There had/have been ethnic divisions in the country and a lot of hateful things from all sides.

  • Sonia

    I see what you are saying, but I’d contend that the northern alliance were a relatively insignificant factor in the rise of the Taliban. From my understanding the Taliban were originally drawn from men in the Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Abdul Sayyaf militias, which existed at the same time as the Northern alliance, and were at times allied with them. They were never really a makeshift defense force for Pashtun. Later the civil war caused attacks from one group on another, which would have contributed to the membership of both sides, but I don’t think its as easy as saying the northern alliance threw the first stone. Its probably somewhat beside the point in this conversation though.

    I mainly wanted to point out the division between West and Islam is somewhat contrived, and dismissing Armstrong’s opinions because she is a westerner is wrong. If they are bad ideas then thats ok, attack that. She may hold powerful insights though, I’m not really sure, and I share her anger at the situation of women in Afghanistan, so there is some common ground to build on.

    Basically my concern is that through focussing on colonial racism, we risk becoming apologists for contemporary racism, and suggest the people involved didn’t have a role in choosing to act that way

  • Sobia

    @ Sonia:

    I agree with you. I guess my point was more that the ethnic animosities existed long before the rise of the Taliban, so when they came into power they just abused their power. Had another ethnically based group come into power instead you would have seen the same hateful acts and racism.

    I have never defended the Taliban nor the treatment of women. I think most would agree that the treatment of women by many in the Taliban is horrible. My worry is that by simply assuming that its because they’re just bad, bad men we won’t be able to really deal with the problem. There has to be a way to educate the men who do believe these things. There has to be a way to teach alternate interpretations of Islam. Wars and fighting don’t allow for such opportunities. Since its the men who are mistreating the women their realities also have to be recognized and worked with. If they are feeling that their main and urgent priority is to defend their country from foreign invaders and occupiers then taking the time to explore alternate interpretations of Islam and really questioning their views on women is probably not going to be a priority for them. They have UN forces dropping bombs on them. Combine a reality of being attacked by foreign invaders with a, what I feel, disturbing interpretation of Islam, and this is what you get.

    That is why I personally feel that one of the ways to help Afghani women, and yes here it is a suggestion, is to challenge the role of our governments in creating this situation for Afghani women. Because ultimately that is about creating change *here*, where we live, to hopefully affect change elsewhere.

    Its just all so complex.

  • http://www.stop-stoning.org Rochelle

    “Rochelle: a non-Afghan Muslim woman writing on Afghanistan would have a closer insight on the complexities of the Afghan experience than say a Westerner. Why? ’cause there are commonalities that even a non-Afghan Muslim woman can identify. Their worldviews are similar, of course not identical.”

    False. I’m sorry, but saying that the worldviews of all Muslims are similar is essentializing, and it itself is ignoring the realities of race, nationalism, colonialism, gender, sexual orientation, and all other identities that form who we are and how we derive meaning. And that statement also implies that non-Muslims cannot discuss Jewish or Christian women’s realities because they do not share the same “worldview”. I respect your opinion, but just because somebody had Aghani “blood” running through his/her veins does not mean s/he is the expert on Afghani women or even gives a shit. And there are a lot of Muslims who don’t care, and they shouldn’t have to, just as there are a lot of Americans who don’t care about marginalized Americans.

    If you want to talk about complexity, about causation, about stand-point analysis and relationships of power, saying that “I’m Muslims so I have more of a right to talk about Afghani women than you ‘white’ person” is extremely hypocritical. You are essentializing yourself as a person as well as every other Muslim out there and I find it a little offensive.

  • Sobia

    @ Rochelle:

    I can understand what Sahar is talking about. Remember that Sahar said that we don’t have an identical worldview, just similar. And I don’t read that as meaning that we all have a similar way of thinking. To me it means that there is a certain reality we share, even if its just as minimal as the fact that we call ourselves Muslim and that is something that those who are not Muslim cannot be a part of. After all, a non-Muslim cannot/will not call themself a Muslim if he or she does not identify as one (unless they are pretending to be Muslim). So at the very least we share that. And just by that act alone, by calling ourselves Muslims, we create a certain reality that those who are not a part of the “group” can’t relate to. I think of it as similar to being Canadian. Just by calling myself a Canadian I create a certain reality that I can share with other Canadians. This does not mean we are the same at all. All this means that this creates a bit of an “insider” reality, if you want to call it, that those who are not Canadian don’t necessarily have. And again, it may be that the only thing Canadians have in common is that we live or are from within the borders of the same country.

  • Sonia

    @ Sobia

    I agree with you as well, interesting discussion. Thanks for your blog, its fantastic, I’m a long time reader first time poster : )

  • Sahar

    Sonia, my analysis was targeting Western discourse on Afghan women.
    It was also recognising the role of the West in the wars of the past 30 years and their impact. That would include playing groups against one another and thereby exacerbating tribal and ethnic tensions and prejudices. The role of the nation-state here also has contributing to these tensions, of course. However, I wouldn’t use the term ‘racism’ so loosely within this context.

    Rochelle: who said anything about essentialising Muslim women? Or that non-Muslim women can’t write on them? Don’t jump the gun. I pointed out that a Muslim woman, especially from the region, would have more things in common with an Afghan woman than a white non-Muslim woman. Or are you going to say otherwise? That line of argument does not necessarily mean a non-Muslim white woman can’t write on Muslim women with any insight.

  • Charlotte Prong

    I am the Guelph Mercury journalist who wrote the article. Unfortunately, yes, sometimes these complex issues are simplified. It would do all readers a service to think about the purpose of the article in a local paper. The purpose of this article was to tell local readers that Sally Armstrong was in town, here is some of what she said, and local people attended this breakfast to raise some money for a non-profit that, hopefully, will help some Afghan women in some small measure. The purpose of the article was not to provide a grand overview of all the complex historical reasons why women in Afghanistan are in the situation they are in, nor to provide answers to the problems. I led the story with Sally Armstrong’s point about ignoring Afghan women on the grounds of cultural and religious differences because that was the main point of her talk – not because I agree or disagree with her. However, I think her point is important, because it allows people who are not Muslim, or not from Afghanistan, to feel that they don’t need permission to question what is going on there and why; or as Canadians, to question our role.

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  • bill kelsey

    I am privileged as an American man to have received Dari/Farsi lessons including study of jalaluddin Rumi al Balkhi’s Mithnawi in the original from a Hazara lady over a year ago in Kabul. She has since become one of the organizers of the recent march in Kabul against the family law. I’ve been sending her links and articles on reactions to the event in the west and will be forwarding her this blog. I have already sent her info on Sally Armstrong, among others, and my reaction to her and why I think her type of thinking is counterproductive. In a recent spiel on CBC she referred to all the help Canada has given Afghanistan, and then made the point that since Canada has given this help it has a right to make some demands of the Kabul government. Did all Afghans ask for this help? Do all Afghans agree that it is really help? And even if all Afghans asked for and agree that it is useful help does this give the helper the right to make such profound demands on the recipient? This is the mindset that leads people to destroy other people in order to save them. May Afghan women and their struggle be spared help from western women like this.

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  • http://muslimahmediawatch.org/ Fatemeh

    @phil: Can you cite sources? I’m curious to know more about Afghans’ opinion of RAWA.


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