December 4th, 2013
September 8th, 2013
An article on peacewomen.org listed numerous ways that Karzai has failed as a leader and especially in his mandate to improve the lives of his countrywomen. But the article only highlights Karzai’s more recent failures to support women. A complete accounting would require volumes.
It is common these days to lambast Karzai for his back-peddling on women’s issues. Afghan women have sadly come to realize that they can’t rely on him nor his government to stand up for them. Fortunately, many Afghan women are standing up for themselves.
Naheed Farid, the 29 year-old MP who won the most votes of all female candidates says, “I could not believe that I was able to overcome the conservative ideology of my society and receive the religious votes. I was welcomed by my generation and many youth voted for me.” ()
There are many progressive Afghans (men and women) working for women’s rights. They form a counterbalance to the increasing fundamentalism in the government. One organization is Afghanistan 1400, a mixed-gender group dedicated to “mobilizing and creating a political platform for the new generation of Afghanistan. It will empower the new generation to partake in Afghanistan’s political, social, and economic development.” Young Women for Change is another of many such groups, as is the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers.
We rank and file outsiders can have little influence over Karzai. From everything I’ve read and the Afghans I’ve talked with, he is a weak man with little power who sides with whichever way he senses that the wind is blowing. Rather than wringing our hands over his failures to protect women, we need to support the Afghans who are working to turn the tide of fundamentalism. We can connect with and encourage them online, but it is also vital that we support their efforts monetarily. In addition to the organizations mentioned above, education with a human rights component has the best long term chance to transform the society. With 42% of the country’s population under the age of 14, there is great potential for the future reform of misogynistic traditions. The Afghan Institute of learning is one organization making a lot of difference in rural areas and Ayni is educating thousands in the Mazar-e Sharif area of Northern Afghanistan. RAWA works throughout the country.
August 26th, 2013
The kidnapping of Fariba Ahmadi Kakar adds to the growing number of attacks against prominent women in Afghanistan and reinforces the idea that Afghanistan and the rights of its women will go down the tubes once US and NATO troops leave. First let me express my sympathy to this courageous member of Afghanistan’s lower house of Parliament and her family. The increasing frequency of these attacks is frightening and is indeed setting back gains that women have made. However, there are some misconceptions that many media sources are reinforcing.
Numerous articles accuse the Taliban of this crime. Although the BBC reports “police said Fariba Ahmadi Kakar was abducted by armed men” the picture caption said her captors were Taliban. The Tribune said “Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said he did not know who staged the attack” as the article continued on to blame the Taliban.
It is tempting to accuse the Taliban of this crime. Maybe they did it, but usually they are quick to claim responsibility for their cruel, heartless violence. The truth is that there are a variety of other possible actors, including warlords, who, in addition to general criminality, also terrorize in order to stifle women’s participation in society. These guys, Hekmatyr and Dostom among them, are already preparing to fight the Taliban should they try to re-take Afghanistan. Given a choice, rule by Taliban may be preferable to rule by warlords because the Taliban have a code of ethics, no matter how perverse it may be. In the past, warlords fighting among themselves created chaos and lawlessness throughout the country. Their attacks were random; they only cared about increasing their power and wealth and their attitudes towards women resembled the Taliban’s.
Another possible perpetrator of this kidnapping could be common criminals, or people personally angry at Fariba for things she has said or done. For example, the husband of Najia, one of the women in Gathering Strength, was kidnapped by criminals to get back at her for working to bring transparency to the Ministry of Finance. They had texted her with warnings but she hadn’t taken them seriously. They set her beaten husband free once she raised the money for his ransom.
It is erroneous to think that the erosion of hard-won women’s rights as international forces prepare to leave is a one-way street. Ever since 2002, the strides women have made have seen mixed progress. Attacks on women, especially prominent women, have occurred during the whole period, in spite of the full contingent of Allied troops. Still, brave women have continued to rise to the challenge. Even if the troops were not leaving, there would still be no guarantee that foreign forces would be able to “keep the wolves at bay”. In reality, the international troops are in part fighting the proxies of Pakistan as well as other extremists supported by elements in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. Iran also has its fingers in the pie. Should those countries and non-state actors step up their insurgency support, the West would become less and less effective in maintaining any space for Afghan women to pursue their rights, whether troops are withdrawn or not.
It’s important to look at Afghanistan with a long-term view. What can effectively undermine the anti-women sentiments that are found especially in the rural areas? One is human rights education, usually part and parcel of education and literacy courses. Great strides have been made to educate urban young people, but much more work needs to be done in the rural areas, a seat of misogynistic traditions. We can support organizations that are leading the way, especially those effectively run by Afghans, such as The Afghan Institute of Learning among others. It’s not too late and it will make a huge difference to future generations to enable more courageous women to step into leadership roles in their society.
¹ BBC Afghanistan: MP Fariba Ahmadi Karkar abducted in Ghazni 13 Aug. 2013
² Female parliamentarian kidnapped by Taliban supporters in Afghanistan 13 Aug. 2013
December 10th, 2012
Ann Daly is an amazing career coach for business women looking to “redo” themselves and their careers. Here is her most recent blog post:
When photographer Peggy Kelsey left Austin for Afghanistan, she feared that she wouldn’t find any women willing to talk with her, and be photographed. “The opposite turned out to be true,” she recalls in the resulting book, Gathering Strength: Conversations with Afghan Women.
Here’s an excerpt from Peggy’s remarkable new book:
Peggy Kelsey: What prompted you to start your own business?
Muzhgan: It was my dream to be a business owner. Since childhood, I was always trying to be the leader of the other children and later became the leader in my office. I never wanted to work under someone else. I prefer to work by myself and for myself. That’s why business was the only thing I could do.
Peggy: Did your family encourage you and your dream?
Muzhgan: Yes, of course. My family always told me, “If you want to do business, then you must not wait. You can start now, anytime you want.” So I started my first business in 2003 when I was 18.
Najia: I wanted to be a businesswoman and had an idea for a business, but little knowledge about how to start. I studied business administration at Kabul University, then got another chance with the 10,000 Women program at American University, so I went there to learn. That program helped me a lot. Now I know how to make a business plan and market my product.
Kubra Z: I became a member of AWBC (Afghan Women’s Business Council) in 2003 and then decided to start a business association of Herati women. I had my first business experience in an AWBC workshop with UN Habitat and there I learned how to start my own business. After some time, I got the idea to start a small association to encourage Herati women who already have their own businesses to expand.
Habbiba: I had a position in the government and a really nice life here in Afghanistan. But when the mujahidin took over, it became very dangerous for anyone who had worked for the communists, so we had to leave. We left Afghanistan suddenly and could take hardly anything with us. In Pakistan, our only alternative was to move into a tent in a refugee camp. I had always been interested in business, but it became a matter of survival there. I had to do something to make our life better so we could get out of our tent. I asked the people in the camp what they needed. They wanted things like candles, soap, and sugar, so I went to the bazaar and brought those things back to the tents to sell. There were some Afghans who had brought their cows and chickens and would make butter and cheese that they sold in the market. When I first started this business I made 100 Pakistani rupees and later 1000. Within six months, I was able to move my family out of our tent to live in a house in Peshawar. Through this experience I slowly, slowly got to know more about business and what makes it successful.
Najia (in 2010): My husband respects me, especially after I told him that I am not a woman who will blindly follow what he or my family says. I will listen to them and then I will decide. I know and understand my rights under Islam and Afghan law. My husband’s family knows that I am working at a high level with the government. If I were undereducated, nobody would listen to me. Unfortunately, there are many uneducated women here that have to put up with nobody listening to them, and they’re not strong enough to talk about their problems.
Peggy: You are so resolute. What gave you your courage, what made you so strong?
Najia: I think I learned a lot from my situation and from society. I grew up without men. My father died when I was four. Because I have no brothers, my mother made me go to the bazaar to buy what we needed. I was the youngest child, and if my teenage sisters went out of the house, people would think they were not good. I always had to stand up for myself, so I learned to be very strong.
Peggy: Do you have any advice for your (future) daughters?
Rahela: One of my daughters and my son are in school and I’m trying to provide them with equal opportunities. My daughter is very strong even though she’s only in the third grade. Sometimes I ask her to do something at home and she tells me, “I will, but my brother should do it, too.” And her brother agrees.
Muzhgan: If my daughter wanted to become a businesswoman, I would advise her to fully understand business, the Afghan market, and computers. It would also be important for her to get financial as well as human support. Then she could be successful.
Habbiba: I tell all children, including my daughter, to get a good education so they can work and help the family.
September 30th, 2012
Gathering Strength, my book of conversations with Afghan women, is published! I will have books in my hands by October 8th and on Amazon sometime around early November. (email me if you want me to send you a copy before November.) The writing process has taken nearly two and a half years but really, Gathering Strength is the culmination of ten years with The Afghan Women’s Project including two trips to Afghanistan.
It’s been over a year since my last post. I couldn’t tear myself away from writing and editing to write about the book. Now it’s the end of an era of narrow focus with a workaholic intensity.
When I started working on Gathering Strength I never imagined that I was capable of creating a work this profound and this beautiful. Of course it wasn’t all, or maybe even mostly my doing. Editing, layout and cover design have shaped this book into a form worthy of the Afghan women who shared their thoughts and stories with me.
From my last day in Afghanistan in May 2012, when I realized that I needed to and could write a book, I only knew that that I’d need an editor and that I would self-publish so I could maintain control over the material and the timing of publication. As I worked, I found that this book had a life and timing of its own and all I could do was to work as hard as I could (in a way balanced for the long haul) and be open to what came my way. Realizing that probably kept me from going crazy while trying to select from the myriad publishing and other options and it helped me be patient with my unrealistic imagined timeframe.
Thankfully, during the writing and editing, when I awoke in the mornings, I was driven out of bed to begin the day’s writing, a much different experience from the resistance I’d felt during past writing efforts. By the end I couldn’t wait for the writing/editing to be completed, but I never felt it to be drudgery.
As I wrote my early drafts, I dreamed of handing over the manuscript to someone who would transform it into a finished book for me; a knight in shining armor. Oh, well, that didn’t happen. Instead, I worked closely with my editors, going back and forth over different points, sometimes changing my mind, sometimes not. It felt good to have the last word.
The transition from writing and managing my book project to putting it out into the world has been difficult. I suddenly find myself procrastinating and being distracted by the many different fronts I have to engage. Hopefully, soon, I will find my stride. Frequent posting in this blog is one of those new efforts.
I’ll end this post with a quote from the only writer in Gathering Strength, Roya. She says:
I’m going to change my life and think differently. I’m going to experience the things that are my right. I have to show my sisters, my friends, my family, and Afghan women all over the world that we can change if we have a chance.
September 20th, 2011
Forbidden Lessons tells the story of an extraordinarily brave Afghan-American woman who began raising money and delivering aid during the Afghan Civil War and continued during the Taliban and afterwards. Her first-hand account of her struggles to deliver aid during those times is compelling and enlightening.
A few parts of this book really spoke to me. One was the story of how Suraya was accompanying a load of 10,000 blankets being hauled in three Bedford trucks to Hesar Shahee, an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp outside of Kabul during the civil war. During their trip they were shaken down by gunmen at five different roadblocks and their supply of blankets was dwindling. At the sixth, Suraya was so incensed that she challenged the armed teenaged leader, telling him that if he were a “real man” he would escort her to the camp and help give out the blankets. And he did. In the process, he was converted from a gang leader into a person who would spend the rest of his life helping others. (or so he said when they parted.)
There were other confrontations as well through the years of her bringing aid. She stood up to Taliban as well as the stoned helicopter pilot who wanted to bring extra relatives on their aid delivery trip which would have seriously overloaded the aircraft.
It was interesting that had she been a man, she would have been killed in any of these situations. And while the men she argued with grumbled and spat with anger, in the end she won their respect and often friendship.
Her description of what it was like to be in Kabul during the random bombings of the rival warlords gave me a very vivid context for the stories I’d heard during my own interviews of women going to school or just trying to survive during that time.
Her story also illustrates the error of painting the Taliban with a broad brush. Suraya talked about the shock of seeing the trees from which were hanging the severed limbs and hands of those whom the Taliban had punished. On the other hand, she was also helped by the Taliban Foreign Minister in setting up a clinic in Logar province.
After 9/11 the scope of her organization, Help the Afghan Children (HTAC) grew even more as they established more schools around the country. HTAC has also developed a peace curriculum that facilitates the development of attitudes and behaviors to help people live in harmony. The Ministry of Education is incorporating these courses into the government schools.
Sadeed, Suraya with Damien Lewis. Forbidden Lessons in a Kabul Guesthouse: The True Story of a Woman Who Risked Everything to Bring Hope to Afghanistan. NY: Hyperion Books 2011.
For an annotated bibliography of other books on Afghanistan see my website: http://www.kelseys.net/bibliography/
And my own book continues along….
May 20th, 2011
I’ve gone way too long without posting. That’s good in some ways because I’ve been so focused on writing my book that I can’t bear to take time away for blogging. Of course that’s counter-productive. Everyone in the writing and publishing world keeps telling me to be sure to spend the necessary time to grow my platform.
My writing process has been interesting. For years, I’ve resisted the idea of writing a book but during my last days in Kabul, Elias Amidon shared his vision of the book I might write. Somehow, in that moment, the idea of writing a book finally resonated. I began the project on January 2nd, committing myself to write four hours a day, five days a week. It doesn’t seem like much except it involved fitting four hours into an already full schedule and a full life.
It was tough. I added flexibility by recommitting to 20 hours a week and ended up spending my weekends writing, never giving myself a day off. Somehow, over time, something shifted and I began getting the writing completed by Friday afternoons. Now that my presentations are all created, except for one on business women that I’ll put together over the summer, and my speaking engagements are finished for a while, 20 hours suddenly seems too easy. So, from now until the fall, I’ve ramped it up to 25 hours.
It’s interesting to watch myself. I’ve finally admitted that I’m obsessed with getting this book written, and written well. Not in terms of constantly thinking about it when I’m doing other things, but in that I compare everything else I do to writing. “Would I rather do this or write my book” becomes my guiding question. Knowing its importance, I strive to keep myself balanced so I haven’t quite become a hermit. Not quite.
March 3rd, 2011
You will be able to read about the further exploits of Tajwar in my book which is scheduled to be out in January of 2012. Her life story is the story of the “freedom fighters” as she called them.
I’m now working on Suraia Perlika’s life story which tells of another woman also working for women’s rights and education, but from the Comunist side. She was one of the founders of the Democratic Women’s Organization which was supported by the Communists and also used as propaganda by them to show how much they’ve improved the lives of Afghan women. Ultimately, they imprisoned Suraia and put her on the “death list” but at the last minute she was pardoned by a rival Communist faction who had just come to power. She revived the Democratic Women’s Organiation as the Afghan Womens’ Union and gave herself the made-up name, Suraia Perlika.
February 18th, 2011
Women did not sit passively by as their men were fighting the Soviets. Tajwar was a leader, but she couldn’t have done much without the support of other women working with her. When Tajwar first told me her story, I could imagine her life up on the big screen, an audacious adventure story and action movie. When I shared my vision with her, she laughed and said that she was only one of many, some more intrepid than she was. She told me that she was writing a book on heroic women from around the country and their daring escapades while fighting the Soviets. I can’t wait to see that book!
And there were others… just the other day I ran across a short article about Hajiyani Abeda, a woman who in her heyday commanded 200 male fighters and another article from 2006 about Bibi Ayisha Kaftar aka “The Pigeon” who “fought off the Russians, the Taliban and local rivals.”
Back to Tajwar and her account of several of her actions.
Peggy: After I returned from Afghanistan I heard a story about a foreigner who had been sitting on her balcony one evening around dusk when she heard a rumbling sound in the distance. Thinking that it was more Soviet tanks coming to her part of the city, she looked around below to see if she could see anyone on the streets but they were empty except for occasional Soviet patrols. As the sound grew closer, she realized that it wasn’t the rumbling of tanks, but the chanting of “Alahu Akhbar”, growing stronger and closer until the chorus surrounded her. She looked down into the neighboring courtyard and saw the family members shouting their defiance from the safety of their compounds.
Tajwar: Afghan women were the first to demonstrate after the Russians came. Allahu Akbar was the first one we did. One day the Russians killed a lot of soldiers so that night a lot of people came to our home to write a night letter. There was a lot of snow that night and I walked the streets at midnight giving the message that we were to say Allahu Akhbar the following evening . When we started, you would have thought that all the world is saying Allahu Akbar. The walls shook and it made the Russians afraid. We said it all night. I was with my brother. One lady we know put boiling water on our heads.
Another day I wrote a letter and again took it door to door. It said: “If you hate Russia, don’t go to work, don’t go shopping.” For 3 days all the shops were closed. We did it just to find out how much support we had. For me it was very dangerous. All the communists know me and know my story. They follow me everywhere.
Peggy: Imagine the effect: 18 year old Soviet youth, ethnic Russians as well as others from throughout the Soviet empire, many never having left their small-town homelands, all indoctrinated against religion, having been drafted and shipped off to Afghanistan, which was to them, the ends of the earth. Accounts I’ve read say that “Already in 1983 word had gotten around (among the Soviet recruits) that Afghanistan was a hellhole”.* So, imagine these fellows patrolling the streets when first quietly in the distance when gradually from all around them wells up a defiant “Alahu Akhbar” that goes on for the entire night. They can’t get away from it, they can’t see who is doing it, but they can hear hundreds, maybe thousands of voices rising up against them, while being impotent to do anything about it.
Tajwar: We decided to disrupt the celebrations of the first anniversary of the Communist regime in April of 1979. Teachers would be forced to bring their children to watch the parade. We gave the kids some balloons and toy explosives. When the parade started, the kids began popping the balloons and setting off the firecrackers. Women in the crowd started shouting “The Mujahadin are coming!” and the Communists in the parade ran for cover. The rest of the ceremony was canceled.
Another activity we planned was to disrupt the May Day Parade. I talked with certain students at the school and told them to collect wasps in tiny boxes. On May Day, the Russians had a big parade with tanks and then rows and rows of soldiers marching with their rifles. A big crowd gathered to watch them. At a certain point, our supporters in the back of the crowd begin pushing everyone toward the parade. When they got close enough, at another signal, the kids started going crazy and they ran in and among the soldiers, stooping low while they opened their boxes. You should have seen it! The wasps flew up the soldiers’ pant legs and into their shirts. Soldiers dropped their banners and rifles as they began swatting at the wasps. The whole parade was disrupted and then disbanded. We collected 25 rifles and small arms that day and we showed the Russians our power. These were the kinds of things we did.
*Klaits and Klaits, Love and War in Afghanistan, p 151.