Riz Khan on Afghan Women

The recent cover of Time magazine featuring the photo of Aisha has sparked debate about the US presence in Afghanistan and what it means for women’s rights there. Here at MMW, the overwhelming sentiment seems to be that the image is yellow journalism at its finest, reinforcing the antiquated rhetoric of “saving women” and exploiting Afghan women by intimating that US occupation has kept Afghan women safe.

Riz Khan of Al Jazeera seems to be cognizant of the sensationalistic effects of the image. In a recent episode of his self-titled show, he addresses “Women’s Rights in Afghanistan.” Khan discusses the Time image as well as whether the foreign military presence in Afghanistan is helping or hurting Afghan women.

Viewers are introduced to Khan’s two guests: Wazhma Frogh and Gayle Lemmon. Wazhma Frogh is an Afghan activist who received the U.S. State Department’s 2009 International Woman of Courage Award for her work on human rights in Afghanistan.

Also there to weigh in was American author Gayle Lemmon, who has written a book on Afghanistan titled: The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, which tells the story of an Afghan girl whose business created jobs for more than 100 women in Kabul during the Taliban years.

The first half of the show discusses the Time cover image as Riz Khan poses the question of whether the picture hurts the image of Afghan women. Frogh believes that

“By showing images as such we actually detach the social realities that deteriorate the situation of Afghan women on the ground; we actually remove the situation of Afghan woman from a social perspective [and] from a governance perspective. The more accountability is fading from Afghanistan, the more we see that such acts are happening so I don’t know how much it can help. It might help one person to get her out of Afghanistan, but what happens to the hundreds of Afghan women who go through the same or worse situation on a daily basis.”

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More on the Time Magazine Conversation

Krista speaks with an AP reporters about Aisha’s Time magazine:

Krista Riley, a sociology graduate student and contributor to a Muslim women’s website, Muslimah Media Watch, finds the photo “invasive and deeply troubling.” To Riley, the image plays into racial divides and cultural distances.

Read more on the conversation here. Check it out!

Homeland Insecurities: Nel Hedayat and Afghanistan

The BBC documentary Women, Weddings, War and Me follows 21-year-old British Afghan Nel Hedayat (pictured below) as she returns to Afghanistan 15 years after she and her family left.

Nel Hedayat in Afghanistan. Image via the BBC website.

Nel Hedayat in Afghanistan. Image via the BBC website.

The accompanying article was my first exposure to Hedayat’s experience there, and it provides a different perspective than the documentary did. The article came across as another replay of the broken record of dual British Muslim identities and the experience of women in non-Western countries as unrelentingly tragic, while the women themselves are dismissed as possible agents in their own lives. My view of the documentary is a little more complicated than this, but I’m going to address the article first.

From the first sentence (“Growing up in north London, identity was never really a big issue.”), I was skeptical about the entire project. I may know little about Afghanistan, but I’ve lived in north London for almost twenty years. Identity is an issue and being different is not the norm.

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The Afghan Women Tug of War

This was written by Frau Sally Benz and originally published at Feministe.

Earlier this week, GRITtv posted an interview with a woman from RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. I wanted to post the video for you all to watch and just say a few things that came to mind as I was watching.

For those who can’t watch the video, here’s a quick summary: Zoya (that’s not her real name) talks about how RAWA predicted that the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan would fail. They believed there were “less bloody alternatives,” starting by not working with the Northern Alliance terrorist group. She stresses that what is touted as success in the U.S. (opening schools, banning the burka), does not have a significant impact in Afghanistan. She says that this all goes back to the 1980s when the U.S. first supported these groups and that the mistakes are being repeated. The situation for women in particular (rape, domestic violence, child marriage, etc.) has gotten worse under U.S. control. RAWA is in favor of U.S. withdrawal, but Zoya says that we can help their society by urging our officials to get out. She ends by saying, “if you cannot help us, leave us. But if you want to help us, [...] take all these fundamentalist viruses that United States government created for Afghanistan.”

(If anybody has a transcript for this video or would like to draft one up, please let me know and I’ll link to it.)

The first thing you’ll notice is that Zoya uses a pseudonym and has her face blurred out. We don’t need to get into why that’s necessary, right? Speaking out as a woman in Afghanistan, I think it’s great that she’s even on a speaking tour.

What struck me after seeing this video is how different her message is compared to something I read earlier this week about women’s groups in Afghanistan wanting long-term U.S. presence. That article compared to this video paint two very different pictures about what life is like for women in Afghanistan.

I think some of it might be as simple as which women they are talking about. Zoya says in the video that we can’t just talk about one or two areas, but all of the provinces as a whole. If the situation improves drastically in a few areas but worsens just as drastically, if not more so, in several others, then can it really be viewed as a success?

But what I really want to focus on is how either way, it all comes back to women. One group says the U.S. must stay in order to help women. Another group says the U.S. must leave in order to help women and the country as a whole. No matter what, Afghan women are being used as a political bargaining chip.

I don’t know about you, but the loudest voice I often hear is the one saying that the U.S. has to stay in order to help these women. So what message is that sending? Think of the ammunition that is giving those who are against the war. Now they get to be against the war and resentful towards Afghan women since these women are being portrayed as a primary reason for the troops to stay.

We all know how this ends, though: Women lose either way.

One Afghan Woman’s Words: Malalai Joya’s Book Tour

Malalai Joya, an Afghan activist for women’s rights (and many other things), was in Toronto tonight on a cross-Canada tour to promote her new book, A Woman Among Warlords: The Extraordinary Story of an Afghan Who Dared to Raise Her Voice.  For those unfamiliar with her story, the book description is as follows:

Malalai Joya has been called “the bravest woman in Afghanistan.” At a constitutional assembly in Kabul in 2003, she stood up and denounced her country’s powerful NATO-backed warlords. She was twenty-five years old. Two years later, she became the youngest person elected to Afghanistan’s new Parliament. In 2007, she was suspended from Parliament for her persistent criticism of the warlords and drug barons and their cronies. She has survived four assassination attempts to date, is accompanied at all times by armed guards, and sleeps only in safe houses.

Often compared to democratic leaders such as Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi, this extraordinary young woman was raised in the refugee camps of Iran and Pakistan. Inspired in part by her father’s activism, Malalai became a teacher in secret girls’ schools, holding classes in a series of basements. She hid her books under her burqa so the Taliban couldn’t find them. She also helped establish a free medical clinic and orphanage in her impoverished home province of Farah. The endless wars of Afghanistan have created a generation of children without parents. Like so many others who have lost people they care about, Malalai lost one of her orphans when the girl’s family members sold her into marriage.

While many have talked about the serious plight of women in Afghanistan, Malalai Joya takes us inside the country and shows us the desperate dayto-day situations these remarkable people face at every turn. She recounts some of the many acts of rebellion that are helping to change the country — the women who bravely take to the streets in peaceful protest against their oppression; the men who step forward and claim “I am her mahram,” so the fundamentalists won’t punish a woman for walking alone; and the families that give their basements as classrooms for female students.

The cover of Joya's book. Image via Amazon.

Considering how often Afghan women are spoken about in the media, it was refreshing to get a chance to hear a woman talk about her own experiences.  Joya started her talk by saying that she didn’t want to write a book about herself, and that although she had become famous for comments she made to Afghanistan’s Loya Jirga in 2003, there are many other activists, especially underground activists, whose stories she felt were more important to tell.  She ended up writing her book because other people kept encouraging her to write, and told her that she could tell the stories of others through writing her own story.

Much of her talk focused on the post-9/11 situation in Afghanistan, and the foreign invasion that, although claiming to support Afghan women, has created a context in which widespread rapes, kidnappings, acid attacks, killings, and other abuses have occurred, even by those who claim to promote democracy.  Although the Taliban are no longer in power, women continue to wear burqas outside in order to protect themselves; as she put it, “today, this disgusting burqa gives us life.”  She was also critical of the lack of international attention given to the Afghan civilians who have been killed by the ongoing war, arguing that “the blood of my people is not water.  It’s worth as much as the blood of westerners.”  From her perspective, international support to Afghanistan should come in the form of a helping hand, and not of an occupation.

Joya was particularly harsh on the current Afghan government, repeatedly referring to it as a “mafia system,” full of corruption and warlords.  She spoke briefly about the bad name that is given to Islam when oppression and violence are committed in its name, although she was clear that “the problem of the people is not with Islam; the problem of people is with the Islam of bin Laden” (and of several others whose names I didn’t have time to write down.)  She also dismissed the latest elections, arguing that both of the main candidates, Hamid Karzai (the current president) and Abdullah Abdullah are linked to warlords; she described both as puppets who had betrayed the people of Afghanistan.

Joya described education as the key to emancipation for Afghanistan, and especially for Afghan women.  She quoted Meena, the founder of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, who was killed in 1987, and who had said that the women of Afghanistan are like sleeping lions (according to this, the full quote is “Afghan women are like sleeping lions, when they awaken, can play a wonderful role in any social revolution.”)  Education, according to Joya, is what is needed in order for these lions to awake.

For those wanting to do further reading on the situation in Afghanistan, as well as American foreign policy, Joya recommended reading Bleeding Afghanistan, Ghost War, The Political Economy of U.S. Militarism, and I is for Infidel.  (For the record, I’m linking to Amazon to keep the book citations consistent, and because you can often access other information such as book reviews; however, I personally think that the best places to buy books are local, independent bookstores.)

Malalai Joya is, of course, only one woman, and it would be unrealistic to expect her to reflect all Afghan women’s experiences, but I think she brings a perspective that is important to hear, one that criticizes the Taliban as well as the current government, and draws attention to the problems of the current foreign occupation in Afghanistan.  I also think she has some credibility because of how strongly she criticizes all of the major stakeholders in Afghanistan right now, which means that her voice cannot be easily co-opted for any one group.

I’m hoping to get my hands on a copy of her book soon, insha’Allah.  Have any of you readers had a chance to read it yet?

Behind the Globe and Mail’s Coverage of Women in Kandahar: Part 2

This is my second post covering the Globe and Mail‘s series on women in Kandahar, Afghanistan.  My first post examined the title and introductions to the project; this post will look at the online footage of the ten interviews that were conducted for the series.  There is more to the project than what is covered in my two posts, so explore it yourselves, and let me know if you think I missed anything important.

I totally missed the pun in the title of my first post covering this series: surprisingly, it actually wasn’t intentional to use the word “coverage” to refer to the series on veils. But perhaps the double entendre is apt. The obsession with veils in the title and introduction to the Globe‘s series suggests that the Canadian journalists involved in the project are projecting a lot more “coverage”–or at least a much greater significance to the physical act of covering–than may be experienced by the women themselves.

The raw footage of the interviews, which range from about seven to twenty minutes long and were conducted by a local Afghan female interviewer without a Globe reporter present, is available on the series website. As Emily said in her comment on my last post, the use of an interviewer who was herself from the area has a lot of potential to send some really interesting and empowering messages, both as an affirmation that Afghan women can act as researchers (and not only as research subjects), and as an acknowledgement of the limitations that foreign reporters may have in gaining the confidence of the interview participants.  I was dismayed, then, to read in the reflections on the series by Sarah Hampson and Sally Armstrong (two journalists involved with The Globe project), that Armstrong believed–and Hampson agreed–that “if The Globe reporters were conducting the interviews, we’d have had a lot more insight.”  Her explanation for this is that the interviewer was inexperienced, “bossy,” moved on to the next question without always following up, and caused the participants to be suspicious of her.  Both Armstrong and Hampson also felt that the interviewer did not get as much information out of each of the women as they would have liked.

Having watched all of the interviews, I can see, to some degree, what Armstrong means, although the language barrier (all interviews were conducted in Pashto or Dari and have English subtitles) makes it hard for me to gauge the interviewer’s style with much certainty.  I remain skeptical that a Globe and Mail reporter would have automatically been a more appropriate choice, even if language and logistical issues had permitted this.  As I’ll discuss in more detail later, some of the participants’ suspicion of the interviewer had to do with some of the questions that she was asking.  Moreover, having seen enough “bossy” Western reporters, I don’t think the bossiness or an “uppity and superior” attitude is limited to this interviewer, and I doubt that the women interviewed would have been any less intimidated if a Western reporter had interviewed them. I don’t mean to argue that the Afghan woman who conducted the interviews was definitively better or worse than a Western journalist, but I was concerned at the assumption that a Globe journalist would obviously have done a better job, and also at the suggestion that the interviews should have been significantly more invasive than they were.

The interview questions, developed by Globe and Mail journalists, followed a pretty set pattern, with the same core questions being asked to each woman (not necessarily in these exact words each time):

What is your name?

How old are you?

What is your religion?

Where were you born?  Where do you live now?

Are you married?  How many times have you been married?

Do you have children?  How many?  How old are they?

How many people are in your household?

What is the difference between men and women in Afghanistan?  Has this difference become the law? [This question was awkwardly worded - or at least awkwardly translated - but I assume the intention was to ask "Has the difference between men and women become so entrenched, it is as if it is a law?"]  What can be done to change this?

What is your daily routine?

Do you work?  Have you ever worked?  Would you want to work?  Would you do any kind of job?

Have you ever driven a car in Kandahar?  Would you want to drive a car?

Do you go to school?  Have you ever gone to school?

What do you think about politics in Afghanistan?  Will you be taking part in the election?  How will you decide who to vote for?

What do you think about ISAF [the International Security Assistance Force, NATO's mission in Afghanistan] and NATO?  Are you scared of ISAF and NATO in the city?

What hopes do you have for your own personal future?

Do you think Afghanistan’s situation will improve or worsen in the next ten years?  What do you think about the lives of women in Afghanistan in the next ten years?

[If the woman is married] How did you meet your husband?  How old were you when you got married?  What were you thinking when you got married?  What were your hopes for your marriage?  How has your life been since you got married?  If you could go back to the early days of your marriage, what would you do differently?

[If the woman is not married] How do you think you’ll get married?  What are your hopes?

There was a law recently passed affecting the Shia community that stated that a woman is not allowed to refuse to do anything that her husband asks.  What do you think of this law? [This question was phrased very euphemistically, and slightly differently in each interview, but most of the responses demonstrated that each of the women understood that the interview was asking about the requirement that, under this law, women are not allowed to refuse to have sex with their husbands.]

The law also states that women are not allowed to leave the house without their husband’s permission.  What do you think about that?

A lot of the questions were interesting, but the one about driving a car really made me cringe.  Considering the economic situations that many of these women were in, the idea of driving a car seemed not only absurd and frivolous, but also deeply insensitive.  Sakina, a woman who had been displaced from her home in a village in Kandahar province, responded to the interviewer’s question with, “Oh, sister, are you making fun of us? … We don’t even have control over ourselves and you’re talking about cars.”  Bibi Gul, a woman who makes a living by begging on the streets near her home, also responded to the question with, “Please don’t make fun of me.”

These responses reflected just how out-of-place a question like that is; the women interviewed spoke about their concerns regarding security and education, and it was obvious that even for the two who had actually driven cars before (neither one drove in Kandahar), or for the others who expressed interest in driving, this was clearly nowhere near the top of their priority list.  Why did this even made it onto the list of questions (or into the journalist’s comments in the series introduction)? My only guess is that when whoever developed the question thinks of “oppressed Muslim women,” she thinks also about laws against women driving in Saudi Arabia, and figured this must be a major concern for Afghan women. Either way, I found it really inappropriate.  On the other hand, I guess I’m glad that none of the questions specifically addressed the burqa.

Having said all of that, the interviews were pretty interesting to watch, and I’m glad that the raw footage was posted online, so that we could see un-edited clips of these women speaking for themselves.  Even with the questions guiding them, each woman managed to bring up some of the issues that were most important to her.

The ten women ranged in ages from 14 to 50, and varied widely in life situations, from the mother of five whose husband has died, to the government worker. Although the ten women do not represent a statistically representative sample in any way, it was interesting to see the major themes that arose, despite not being specifically mentioned in any of the questions.  Nearly everyone spoke about security as their main concern; several of them even raised this as a primary obstacle to achieving any kind of gender justice in the country.  Although there were diverging opinions as to the source of the current insecurity, I think it is a powerful message: these women are not asking the world to save them from their veils, but are rather identifying the country’s instability and violence as the main problem in their lives.

The other issue that arose in most of the interviews was the importance of education, and in particular of literacy.  Many women identified that as the determining factor for a woman’s success in obtaining a job, financial stability, or a sense of independence.  Barriers to education were identified as poverty, disapproval from family members, and violence and insecurity, among others.

Not surprisingly (to me, at least), the topic of the veil only came up once.  It seems that, “behind the veil,” people have things other than veils on their minds.  Shocking, I know.

The interviews are worth watching: in spite of all the problems I had with the way the project was framed, I’m glad to see that they left these interviews untouched.  Many of the stories are difficult to hear, and the responsibilities of the journalists who ran the project, and of all of us who have now taken part as audience members, to the women who shared so much about their lives, are issues that we should all be thinking about. All in all, the interviews present portraits of women with complex lives and opinions, who deserve a whole lot more than the one-dimensional veil title that was slapped onto this project.