Afghani Women's Rights and Rebuilding in the Face of Politics and Western Presence, Part 1/3
Pt 1 of 3
Homemakers Magazine editor in chief Kathy Ullyott speaks with reporter Stephen Dohnberg about the struggle of women and what she witnessed during her visit to Kabul, Afghanistan The conversation reveals what a complex situation the Western presence in Afghanistan is by any measure.
Invited by C.A.R.E. Canada, in May Kathy Ullyott, made her way to the city of Kabul for a week-long look at the work and commitment of an NGO such as C.A.R.E., who have been an early presence since 1996, assisting widows with food aid. Even an issue of basic aid is fraught with concerns that span the range of issues from western presence to cultural mores. Although we initially planned to discuss the ascent of women’s rights in Afghanistan, the intersection of so many other disparate concerns clearly illustrates that no single issue will resolve itself independent of others.
Stephen Dohnberg: So you went to Afghanistan in May of 2008?
Kathy Ullyott: Yes, I was invited to go by a friend of mine at C.A.R.E. Canada and I got interested because C.A.R.E. International has been one of the long term relief organizations that is operating in Afghanistan, and a lot of aid organizations have scaled back their operations because they are less and less safe.
There was an optimistic surge around 2003-4 after the Taliban had been routed and it looked like things were getting better, but they have been really deteriorating in the intervening 4 years. But C.A.R.E. Canada has been operating there since, I think, 1996 where they started by giving food rations – so much olive oil, so many bushels of flour, that kind of thing, to Afghan widows, of which there were many, because they weren’t permitted to work and they weren’t permitted to go to school. So once the men were gone, they had nothing to do but beg in the streets – you know, if they were even safe doing that. So the Taliban did not mind if (C.A.R.E) was just giving them food. But the Canadians wanted to do more than that – they wanted to give them some basic literacy training and some means of supporting themselves so that they wouldn’t be reliant on food rations anymore.
They were just starting to roll that program out and a friend at C.A.R.E. asked me if I would like to go and have a look at it, which was a great opportunity because you can’t go there unless you have protection. I know there are ‘tour companies’ and so on that will take you there, but that’s just crazy – you really need to go where there’s somebody to keep you secure. So that was why I went. It was a great opportunity to see the C.A.R.E. projects, but it was also a chance to meet many of the women there. And I was not outside of Kabul, I was just inside the city of Kabul.
SD: You’re right, C.A.R.E. had been operating there since late 1996. Had C.A.R.E. cultivated or maintained a relationship with the Taliban prior to 1991?
KU: I don’t know that they had a relationship with the Taliban as much as they had permission to function.
SD: Even in a city that has had some, by varying standards, progress, and I’m reminded of the Malcolm X analogy to progress, “you can stick a knife into someone’s back nine inches, and pull it out six, and some call that progress” – what did you see, what was your experience, your gut feeling as you came away from Kabul?
KU: First of all, the city is completely destroyed. I had never seen anything quite like that. I had been to South America, where it’s not as safe as it is here and they’re very, very, poor people, but I had never seen a city that was essentially a war zone. There’s nothing marked, everything is surrounded by walls with razor wire along the top and we never went out and just walked around. We were picked up at a hotel by our car with an Afghani driver, who delivered us to where we were going. We never went from a street into a compound without being searched and having our car searched, and were never without an armed guard. I had completely resigned myself to ‘whatever happens, happens’. I wasn’t ever scared or worried, I just put myself into their hands. In terms of your analogy to “progress”, what I saw were women – and men too, who were really committed to making a difference. Especially in the area of human rights, and they really wanted to do this for their children. One of the women who I had met there was Horia Mossadeq, who is head of the Independent Human Rights Commission…
SD: I was going to ask you about her…
KU: She’s just amazing. She was one of the people who fled the country around the time of the civil war. And I just want to say, people think of the main warfare as being the time of the Taliban, and then the time of the Americans bombing to get rid of the Taliban, but actually the worst of the war just before that, and that was the civil war. I can’t name specific numbers but by far the highest number of casualties was that period of civil war between the time the Soviets left and the time the Taliban became the strongest of the rival groups.
SD: Yes, exactly, the period of jihad against the Soviet Union, which we know was covertly backed by the U.S., the civil war, the emergence of the Taliban who were essentially let loose by Pakistan to make their way north…
KU: It’s very complicated, and that’s something else I discovered, and I still don’t think I’ve answered your question – as you say, it’s a big thing and impossible to get a handle on, some I realized there while talking to people. Here we think of the Taliban as some opposing force, but there the Taliban is really just the most organized of the many insurgent groups with different interests. Some of them are the Taliban, but others are warlords in a certain area, in a very ancient and tribal culture going back hundreds of years. Some of these are very vicious rivalries spanning loyalties. The Taliban tend to claim responsibility for any attacks, but that’s just PR. A lot of attacks have nothing to do with the Taliban. It’s really a very amorphous thing and very difficult to fight. And I’m not a military expert by any stretch of the imagination. But it makes the whole question very complex…
SD: People don’t realize the extent of the power of the warlords or how far it extends into rural areas…
KU: Totally – into the rural areas and into the government as well. The women I spoke to, the MP, and Horia…one of the greatest frustrations of the people there is that the government itself is so corrupt. And we’ve seen reports of that. That’s one of the things making progress so difficult. And of the things that created so much pessimism in the intervening years is that people within the country expected that (the ousting of the Taliban) was going to be a big change and that life was going to get better. And they are continuing to see that these warlords exercise great control over the government. The opium trade is one such situation. They (citizens) know that there are ‘bad guys’ still in power, the police force is still horribly corrupt, yet they had hoped-with the involvement of NATO – that the more developed world was going to help them get rid of this stuff. But it’s much harder than they expected.
SD: I remember speaking with some political refugees and more outspoken envoys to the media, and often if you ask them to list the biggest impediments to progress they say “corruption, corruption, and corruption.” They were really frustrated knowing Karzai’s background, hoping that some things would move forward, whether the implementation of the Constitution, and with Parliament…we’re going to jump around a little here and that’s my fault. Frankly, I don’t mind that because it illustrates just how easy it is for people paying close attention to get their wires crossed. Can you imagine the media’s job and the already poor job they do, in trying to simplify this for the public to digest?
Did you get an impression from people who had moved into Kabul from rural areas, that maybe life was better for them in the city because they at least had intermittent access to scarce resources like water and electricity?
KU: Definitely, in fact these are statistics you can Google, but compared to 2000, the city itself is approximately 10 times the size now as it was then. And although the utilities are hugely strained, water and electricity and what there is of it, at least there is somewhat more consistent access to goods. Kabul is where the international community is stationed, so there is a greater presence of Western diplomats and military so it’s marginally safer. There are many girls’ schools operating there and that’s one thing in terms of progress, at least a lot of the kids are in school, especially the girls, who as you know, were not permitted to seek education under the Taliban. All children go to school now for at least a few hours a day. It’s not what it is here, it’s just a few hours a day. You see the female students in their uniforms – black cut clothing with white chador ( note: a chador is almost like a semicircle of clothing worn almost like a hijab, draped over the head but held together in the front with the hand). Seeing this is certainly an optimistic thing to see.
There are a mandated number of women in the Parliament (aka National Assembly, aka Jirga), about one-third of the women are mandated to contribute to the country’s laws. That is not as good as it seems because many of the women are implemented as puppets. But it still gives the opportunity for women to speak and be heard, more than they had six, or 10, or 15 years ago.
SD: Of the two women MP’s you spoke with; some of the reports whether through media or state department that I have read about some of the women MP’s that aren’t puppets, or are rather simply put in to appease coalition statisticians or UN mandates to secure funds, the independently acting ones face threats, and even murder...
KU: Of the two I had a chance to speak with, Shinkai Zahine Karokhail and Shukria Barakzai, were both very incredible people. Actually, both came from very contrasting backgrounds. Karokhail had come from the rural area and had been raised in a very traditional family but had always kicked against it, had always hated it – even though multiple marriages and child marriages were part of her culture and would fight her family on things.
But she eventually got married and had children. When she ran for Parliament her family was very opposed to it. I think I mentioned in my story in Homemakers that her husband had taken another wife and had taken the kids so she had not spoken with her daughter for a couple of years, which was very difficult for her. But she was carrying on and still fighting for Afghan and all women’s rights.
However Shukria Barakzai had come from a very supportive family – a supportive husband and three daughters so she was as equally outspoken but what impressed me - and both were extremely impressive women – but Shinkai seemed to be born with a belief that things could be different for women. And with both
of them, we talked at some length about the Western presence in Afghanistan. And that’s very controversial.
Should Westerners be there? If they are, in what capacity?
It was Shinkai’s view that women in Afghanistan needed to see women from other countries so they could see that things could be different. I think that was a element of progress as well. And everyone said that (progress) is not going to happen overnight. It will take years. Shinkai noted how long it took women, in North America for example, or the Western World, to get the right to vote – and then look how long it has taken them since getting the right to vote, to get to a position where women were Members of Parliament…or Congress…
SD: …or even represented properly in Parliament…
KU: Exactly. Exactly! We don’t even have proper representation here…
SD: We don’t even have pay equity here…
KU: Exactly! Exactly! So to think that Afghanistan is going to go from a feudal Medieval culture in five years is hard.
Part 2 of 3 coming Nov 12
Kathy Ullyott’s Photo essay can be viewed at homemakers.com
Kathy UllyottInside Kabul 1.
For more information on C.A.R.E. Canada’s work in Afghanistan visit care.ca