I put a spell on you...

There are sorcerers, fortune tellers and holy men in every corner of Kabul conning women.

Even educated women in Kabul consult street sorcerers.

Gulbuddin Elham / Aina Picture Agency Afghanistan

Since these conmen make women believe that any misfortune that befalls them is caused by sorcery and any cure is in sorcery too, women go to them when facing a wide range of problems such as childlessness, illnesses, domestic violence, poverty and more...

Through ‘praying’, reading palms, numerology, astrology and by simply asking their djinns and ghosts these con-merchants declare that only they can solve the problem.

Their solutions include extended praying: issuing taweez, pieces of paper with verses of Qur’an written on them which are wrapped in layers of fabric and leather and worn under clothing; or showest, pieces of paper with verses written on them which are put in water and drunk.

If women started trampling over these taweez, the conmen would have to close up shop

In exchange, these men get money and livestock from women. The loss, however, is not only monetary. This con pushes women into an irrational space, away from the rational world of science, expression, politics and social activism. In this world of sorcery and fortune-telling, the conmen – and they are men – hold the power to interpret women’s lives. Women have no control over their destiny and cannot trust other women. Women seeking explanations for their misery in sorcery are unable to seek explanations in the rational world and are therefore unable to perceive the unfairness of the social system in which they live.

One of my own family members is a prime example. When her husband refused to allow her to take off her burqa after the fall of the Taliban she went to the nearest mullah and asked for his help. The mullah said that the reason why her husband was not agreeing to her going bare faced was that there was a woman in her family who had put a curse on her. She paid the mullah to get the curse removed and he gave her a taweez to wear discreetly under her burqa.

Needless to say, there was no change in her husband’s behaviour and he continued to force her to cover her face. When I asked him why, he said that it was the decision of his tribe to ensure that their women remained covered in post-Taliban Kabul.

The situation had nothing to do with sorcery. It was a simple case of men making a collective decision about a woman’s life while she was given sorcery to play with.

Evil, scheming women

Another case related to a woman I met who was fed up with coming home from work every day to look after her husband’s sheep. She tried to talk with him about it but it didn’t work, so she went to a mullah and got a taweez, hoping that her husband would change his mind. She continued looking after the sheep while waiting for the taweez to take effect. While she told me the story, she was laughing at herself. She knew that what she was doing was irrational but she felt good that she was doing something, albeit something useless.

Maybe if sorcery were not there, these women would go to the real cause of the problem and try to solve it through discussion or even a healthy dose of argument with their husbands. Maybe my relative would gather the rest of the women of her tribe and try to persuade the tribal elders not to impose the burqa. This is not an impossible idea. I myself participated in that particular tribal meeting and my views were at least listened to.

Sorcery divides and rules women. In almost all cases of sorcery that I came across, the perpetrators were declared to be women. In the sorcery circles, women, especially sisters-in-law, daughters-in-law, mothers-in-law and co-wives, are portrayed as jealous and unable to see another woman happy.

When a family friend’s husband took a second wife, she blamed her misfortune on a few lines scribbled on a piece of paper placed inside a dough ball and hidden behind some ornaments in her house.

Once the cause was clear she set off to find a cure. The antidote was recommended and administered in exchange for cash. Soon after that, the husband and second wife had a violent argument and she left the house, beaten and pregnant. The husband returned to his first wife.

Order was disturbed and then restored through sorcery. The husband came out of the situation with his reputation intact; the villain of the piece was the second wife.

Afgan women are conditoned to mistrust each other.

Radu Sigheti / Reuters

In this, and many other cases, women are made to see other women as threats, as evil and scheming. Men are seen as neutral or as the victims.

At a household level the mistrust sown in the minds of women makes them unable to co-operate and support each other. I witnessed this when I got married. Many women, both educated and illiterate, told me never to eat anything prepared by my mother- or sister-in-law, never to wear anything they gave me and to wash any jewellery they gave me with water from a pipe or with the urine of a dog!

When I did not comply and suffered from a bad case of typhoid, every woman scolded me and blamed my in-laws for my illness. One acquaintance even got me a taweez to counter any sorcery that had caused my illness.

This fragmentation of women at the very basic level makes the job of women’s activism very hard, as any feminist movement needs a feeling of unity and sisterhood amongst women.

Unfortunately, women from all strata of the society are involved in this illogical activity. I was first introduced to a sorcerer by an educated woman. During my first visit the poverty of the sorcerer, the cheapness of his service and the generality in the way he predicted my future invoked in me a feeling of pity for him, at best. The educated woman who had taken me there, however, came out with a bunch of taweez to address a range of issues, including forcing the powers that be to grant her a visa to get out of Afghanistan. It is rumoured that many female parliamentarians, social activists and even the wife of Hamid Karzai believe in these illogical activities.

If women started trampling over these taweez and showest, and were vocal about their irrelevance to the modern world, these conmen would have to close up shop. Alternatively, maybe I should start a new movement where I should speak with the djinn of human rights and the ghost of rationality, and advise women to question their situation a bit more deeply; and see the evil in germs, in viruses and in the society run by men.

Zuhra Bahman is an Afghan writer and regular New Internationalist blogger.

Carnage sells — but we aren't cowards

Just 24 hours away from the elections,  I woke up and heard that some armed people had entered the Pashtany Bank in Kabul and the Afghan security forces had killed them. I heard news of rocket attacks, suicide bombings and killings in other parts of Afghanistan.
The news saddened me – but more than sadness I felt anger that a handful of people were trying to ruin the run up to one of the most historic days for us.

Our maid, Nadia, heard the news on the radio while washing clothes. We talked about it but the conversation soon turned to the election. She wondered where the nearest polling station was, she is new to our area. She had kept her voting card from last election. She knew who she was going to vote for. She took some money from me, put on her burqa and headed out to get groceries for the day.

The events made us cautious but not paralyzed. I walked out to nearby main road, feeling the energy and excitement in the air. The carts laden with cherries, mangoes, melons and peaches were parked under the colorful campaign posters of Afghan presidential and provincial council candidate. Queues of manual laborers waited on the bridge chatting about the elections. I took a taxi to work. The taxi driver didn’t know who he was going to vote for; he liked Karzai, Basahrdost and Mazhabi. I told him about who I was voting for and we had a nice little discussion but I couldn’t sway him. He was going to make his final decision behind the curtains of the polling booth.

At work I chatted online with a friend in Kandahar and another in Mazar, both angry at the unrest but both ready to vote.

I drifted towards the news sites; Kabul had made it into headlines and every outlet carried a feature on the Afghan elections. I could not recognize the Kabul they described; their Kabul was closer to the stuff of my nightmares where I am in Kabul streets and some stereotypical Hollywood-style Taliban, with white cloths, black turbans, long beards and kohl lined furious eyes, take over my city.

They portrayed the Kabulis as cowards that were hidden in their homes. Kabulis making their way to work and excited by the prospects of voting, some for the very first time, were ignored. Our anger was ignored and instead the empty threats and fear mongering of some criminal thugs were given column inches.  The voices of thousands of provincial council candidates were ignored and instead the voice of the spokesperson of the terrorist organization was amplified.

I hope those covering this election do not fall into the trap of sensationalism. They might think that terrorism, threats and carnage sells, but they should give bravery, human emotions and a nation making its decision a chance too. Just because we don’t have guns in our hands shouldn’t keep us out of the headlines.

Weak, cringe-worthy women hiding behind men

Amongst the 40 plus candidates in the Afghan presidential election are two women: Shahla Atta and Frozan Fana. Neither has managed to impress me or other women in Afghanistan. Their clichéd slogans, weak campaigns, non-existent leadership skills and uncharismatic personalities, are cringe worthy. This has done nothing to change the situation of Afghanistan and its women for better.

Like most candidates, both women say they want security, rule of law, human rights, negotiation with the ‘moderate Taliban’ and national unity. Like most weak candidates they are unclear on how they are going to achieve any of these.

Their stance on women’s issues is identical to all other candidates’but they unashamedly engage in petty sexism themselves as they claim that women are better than men or that it’s women’s ‘turn’ to run the country.  They both seem to be part of school of thought that sees women as mere victims and see women’s strength manifesting itself only as mothers, sisters, wives and daughters forgetting women’s own personhood.

Fana and Atta’s unoriginality and lack of initiative has resulted in their failure to form a solid support group of women around them. This is a painful situation in the country where women are craving a leader, someone to inspire them, that could be a role model and source of strength.

Instead, both candidates are campaigning in most predictable way, unable to hide their weakness and strengthening some people’s bigoted beliefs that say that women can’t lead.

Fana campaigns standing behind her dead husband’s ghost. He was a minister in the Karzai Government and was later assassinated. By becoming the president Fana wants to further his vision. Her own personality, achievements and thoughts are largely unknown or maybe just too unremarkable.

Atta, an MP from Kandahar won her seat in the parliament due to the quota system that makes sure that at least two women are brought into the Parliament from each province even when they actually haven’t won enough constituent votes.

Atta was one of the least vocal women in a Parliament which recently passed a law passed forbidding women from leaving their houses without their husband’s permission. The law was later changed mainly due to the pressure from the Afghan human rights activists.

Atta is also hiding behind a man, namely the ex-Afghan Prime Minister Daud Khan, whose reforms Atta wants to continue and whose pictures adorn her campaign posters.

Ignoring their weakness and inability to gain public support, the international media has managed to keep a straight face while suggesting that the only obstacle between these women and the presidential seat is the conservative Afghan society which would never vote for a woman.

However, in doing this they are giving totally wrong view of the Afghan society, particularly women, who I believe are making the right choice this time as they are refusing to follow someone just because they happen to be of the same sex.

These two candidates’ looming defeat will not be a blow to the cause of women in Afghanistan; ending up with candidates like them in the next elections would be our failure! We have another five years until the next elections to harness the female potential in Afghanistan; for a woman with independence of thought, political sophistication and fortitude to decide to stand for election and gain public trust. Even if she failed, she would be a legitimate role model for future generations.

Inside the tent of an honest man

Zuhra Bahman meets the likeable – and unlikely – man who would be Afghanistan’s next president. He’s considered honest, unpretentious and the country’s Ralph Nader.

There are 44 candidates in the upcoming Afghan presidential elections. The list, published last week by the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan, includes: people who were part of the pro-Soviet Afghan Communist regime of the 1970s and 1980s; people were active in the 1990s Afghan civil war; ex-Taliban member Mullah Rocketi; and several disillusioned members of the current government.

The list is long but it could have been longer had certain others – including charmless ex-Minister of Interior Jalali or chameleon ex-Minister of Finance Ahadi or the semi-literate Governor of Jalalabad, Gul Agha Sherzoi – gone ahead with nominating themselves. There was a collective sigh of relief when these names didn’t make it to the list!

Three on the list do have a real chance: the incumbent President Karzai, former Foreign Minister Dr Abdullah and former Finance Minister Dr Ghani. The rest, with miniscule chances of winning, are using their candidacy to promote themselves in anticipation of getting a ministerial position in the new government or to raise awareness of certain policy issues.

Of the no-chancers there’s one who is attracting attention: Ramazan Bashardost, Afghanistan’s answer to Ralph Nader (in the photo above, with myself). Last week I saw his website. It consists of campaign material in a variety of languages aimed at showing him above the ethnic divisions in the country, a range of his educational certificates to show his transparency and competency, and a variety of statements, one-liners and press-releases showcasing his campaign platform.

Bashardost has built a reputation as a staunch idealist who resigned from his ministerial position in the Karzai government. He is popular with ordinary Afghans – he won a parliamentary seat with the second highest number of votes cast for an Afghan MP. Most important, he’s known as an eccentric who travels on a bike with no security, votes against almost any decision that comes to Parliament and receives his guests in a tent.

Intrigued, I called the number on his website. He answered the phone himself and invited me to see him in his tent on Friday before the prayers. I wasn’t sure why I was meeting him; I have already made up my mind who I’m voting for.
I took a taxi to his tent. I wasn’t sure how to give the address to the driver so I just asked him if he knew where the Bashardost tent was. He not only knew about the tent but he was all ready to vote for Bashardost ‘because he is the only one that seems honest; the rest are all thieves’.

In contrast to the heavily guarded Afghan Parliament building across the road, Bashardost’s tent had no guards. The interior was adorned with handmade colourful posters urging people to register to vote – and then vote for Bashardost. I arrived early and sitting on a plastic chair, surveyed his campaign posters. They showed a dove –signifying peace; hands shaking – signifying friendship; a plate of rice – signifying prosperity. And there were a few words from the Quran to show the candidate’s beliefs.

At 10 o’clock sharp Bashardost enters the tent. He’s a slim man, dressed in lightweight, white Afghan cloths that seem to have seen more than their share of washes. He is carrying a pile of folders, notebooks and a diary. He extends his hand towards me and starts talking.

He is not eccentric, I conclude, after listening to him for a few minutes. What he says is what most Afghans want. He says that the US is in Afghanistan due to self interest, but that, he says, is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s up to Afghans to ensure that they use the attention they are getting from the international community for their own benefit.

He says that the Taliban are not fighting the US for ideological reasons, they are fighting because the US Government has put war criminals in charge of the country. He calls upon the Western public to question their governments’ decision to pay the expenses of these war criminals which, Bashardost says, include an army of bodyguards and the living expenses of the warlords’ many wives.

I agree with him. He talks about the origins of democracy, quotes Abraham Lincoln, and talks about human rights violations in Afghanistan. While we are talking a group of Pashtun, and then Uzbek, men arrive. They sit, listening attentively. They seem tribal. I ask where they come from. They are from Faryab. Bashardost says that inside his tent there is a peaceful Afghanistan where all ethnic groups are one. People walking past the tent, on the road, look at us.

Bashardost takes us and shows us his parliamentary office. It’s five minutes drive from his tent. We drive in his old 1991-model car. I, the only woman, sit in front and Bashardost squeezes between my friends at the back. En route, he tells us that he chose his two deputies because of their honesty and dedication; one is a university lecturer and the other a female human rights commissioner.

We spend a few minutes in his office, where he gives us some campaign literature and lets us take pictures with him. He gives us a lift back and gets out of the car to say goodbye to us. Unlike every other Afghan politician he feels secure and has no bodyguards. He says people of Afghanistan ensure his safety and he has never received any threats.

I leave impressed by his honesty, generosity of spirit and solidarity for the poor of the country. But deep down I know he will not win. The reason why he will not win is because Afghans will not vote for one of their own; they will vote for one they can look up to, they will vote for a king not a messiah.

I hope that whoever wins the election takes a few minutes to ponder why some people chose to vote for Bashardost.

Talking to the (ex-)Taliban

Barely months after I left with broken bones, Kabul has pulled me back. This time I arrived at the new Kabul International Airport using Ariana Afghan Airlines. I was one of only three women on the three-hour flight from Dubai to Kabul via Kandahar.

Although eight years have passed since the fall of the Taliban, some Afghans are still returning to their country for the first time. Sitting across from me on the plane was one old man who was making the 24-hour journey from the United States to Kabul after an absence of 30 years. Despite the fact that his bags were lost and he was fed up with the lack of courtesy at the Ariana help desk, when the pilot announced that we had entered Afghan airspace, he extended his neck like a camel from his aisle seat towards the window to catch a glimpse of his country and, with tears in his eyes, invited us all to look at the beauty of its snow-capped mountains.

The other two females in the plane were travelling from Germany – one to visit her family after eight years in exile and the other a teenager who had left the country when she was two, returning to rid herself of the feeling of melancholy that had been consuming her in Germany during past year. The two wore a bizarre ensemble of western clothing, aiming but failing to blend. The colour and tightness of their attire, their neatly French manicured nails and the odd German word in their speech gave them away. They were cousins.

Apart from these odd Western Afghans the plane was full of turbaned Kandaharis, mostly labourers, returning from Dubai. One, who sat with me for the first half of the flight, was an ex-Taliban member. He told me about the time he met Taliban leader Mullah Omar, who, he said, was a mild man, a good leader, surrounded by bad advisors and foreign cronies. He showed me his old Taliban-issue ID card. I was as interesting to him as he was to me. He asked me about the law curriculum at British universities and I asked him about his law education under the Taliban.

We talked about theology – mainly about why there were so many western theologians who knew about Islam but few Muslim theologians specializing in other religions. We talked about the future of our country. We concluded that violence was no longer sustainable and the people’s hatred of both the Taliban and the international forces – as perpetrators of the violence – would grow if they continued with their current policies. He showed me pictures of his wife, who was green-eyed like me, and his chubby-cheeked, smiling baby daughter. He told me that he was teaching his wife Arabic to prepare her for life in the Emirates.

Meeting him, a moderate former Taliban, I am even more convinced that negotiation is the best solution to Afghanistan’s problems – but only if the supply routes to the Taliban are severed first.

The plane made an hour long stop-over in Kandahar, where my Talib friend got off and I joined the girls, who had thus far kept away from Kandaharis, choosing instead to stick to the Afghan returnees. With the girls I talked about Afghanistan too, about insecurity and about the smell in the plane!

Turban and beard, to the girls, were not styles of attire but a symbol of the Taliban era. They were astonished that I had spent the first leg of the journey sitting next to a former member the Taliban. They didn’t believe they could ever do the same. They feared violence, even in the safety of the plane.

All this made me wonder whether before any negotiation in the political field is possible, dialogue between the rural majority and the urban élite of Afghanistan needs to take place so that the person behind the turban and burqa can come out and be understood.

I am now off to buy a burqa for myself. I am doing so because my ex-Taliban friend advised me to do so – not because he thought I should be kept hidden as a woman but because he thought the current members of the Taliban were indiscriminately violent and they might target me if I wandered around barefaced. We both hoped for a time when I could do my work without having to hide behind the burqa.

Beyond the burqa

Two of Aina’s photographers, *Farzana Wahidy* and *Freshta Kohistany*, present contrasting images of contemporary Afghan womanhood. Behind them is the Kabul River Bazaar.

Fardin Waezi / AINA PHOTO AGENCY / AFGHANISTAN www.ainaphoto.org

During the Taliban era, many in the liberal world saw the burqa as the symbol of Taliban oppression. Now the Taliban are ousted from power, yet the burqa remains firmly on the heads of all sorts of Afghan women.

Why? Because the burqa is a symbol of traditionally conservative Afghan society which pre-dates the Taliban, in which women are viewed as men’s possessions, to be kept hidden from other men. Freeing Afghan women from the burqa can only be achieved if the mindset of the nation changes. Removing the Taliban does not solve the problem.

The same applies to a range of other issues – such as inequality between men and women and underage marriages – which are embedded in the traditions of Afghan society. These customs are extremely hard to change, as most Afghan people and institutions either passively endorse or actively follow them.

At a local level, traditional conservatism is kept alive though the jirga (assembly of elders) and shuras (councils or consultations). These largely democratic, but old and male, institutions decide on a wide range of issues from family matters to land disputes.

They are useful for dispensing swift justice in a country which, after decades of conflict, has very little in the way of a formal legal system. However, they punish those who break with tradition in ways that are inconsistent with human rights standards – as I found on hearing the story of Homaira, a mother of five children living in the Parwan province of Afghanistan.

On the run

While high on drugs, Homaira’s husband, her brother-in-law and her brother got into a scuffle. Homaira’s brother-in-law shot her brother, who died instantly. Homaira’s brother-in-law and husband went into hiding.

Following tradition, Homaira was taken back to her parents’ home, whereas her children, including her two-year-old son, were given to her in-laws. Homaira stayed in her parents’ house while another of her brothers sought her husband and brother-in-law to exact revenge.

When the search didn’t bear fruit, Homaira requested that her parents and brothers allow her to go back to her in-laws so that she could be with her young children. The parents and brothers did not agree, but Homaira left anyway to join her kids.

Leaving the house against her brothers’ wishes was a big mistake. Homaira was disowned in a gathering attended by hundreds of people in a local mosque, where her brothers swore to kill her for her disobedience. Fearing for her life, Homaira is still on the run with her five children. And popular support remains with her brothers.

Afghanistan’s national Western-style justice system has little impact on this type of traditional conservatism, where women who are raped are imprisoned rather than the men who rape them, and women who try to escape hardship are punished for setting foot outside their homes.

Although Western NGOs are working to strengthen the central justice system, its institutions are ill-equipped and often inaccessible to those who need it. How can a village woman, suffering from domestic violence, be expected to travel by donkey for two days to get to a city court and start legal proceedings that might take months to complete?

The reality is that more than 80 per cent of Afghan people prefer the traditional justice system because it is fast and local, albeit unjust and not human rights-friendly. It is futile to demonize the traditional system and expect people to subscribe to an alternative that is unknown to them.

What about Mrs Karzai?

Even people who do know about alternatives and who wield considerable influence openly endorse some of the customs that lead to human rights violations. Take the example of segregation – a tradition rigidly imposed on most women. The country’s President, Hamid Karzai, has so far kept his wife behind closed doors and out of the public eye. Mrs Karzai, who is a medical doctor, does not even attend state visits or other official engagements with her husband.

One prominent female parliamentarian and human rights activist has decided to remain in a bigamous and violent marriage in exchange for kudos within a traditional community that frowns upon divorcees. This personal moral sacrifice is winning her the political support of the traditionalists. However, she is setting a very bad example for ordinary people who want change.

Some officials use their office to impose traditional values. For instance, the Minister of Culture, Abdul Kareem Khuram, banned the broadcasting of Indian soap operas on Afghan TV channels because, he said, they challenged Afghan traditional values. The dramas showed bare arms and midriffs, and depicted social issues such as children born out of wedlock – and were massively popular with viewers.

The Government presents itself as a liberal force for change. But, at a personal and local level, it endorses ideas that are outright violations of human rights and freedoms.

This contradiction is reflected in society. When I asked a 28-year-old NGO worker, Zabi, about women’s segregation, he said: ‘I respect and am friends with women I went to university with and work with. But when it comes to my sisters, I am a bit strict. I don’t want people to talk about them behind their backs. They can go to university but can’t be friends with men. When they get married they can change, depending on their husband’s thinking on these matters. Afghan society is not a good place for free women.’

Perhaps it is not the personal wish of Zabi or Mr Karzai to keep their female relatives segregated, but they and millions of ordinary Afghan men feel compelled to follow Afghan tradition, which provides them with a collective security but leaves little room for personal opinions, freedoms and rights.

Elaborate trade-offs: women may agree to lose one basic freedom in order to gain another.

Parwiz / AINA PHOTO AGENCY / AFGHANISTAN www.ainaphoto.org

Ways and ways of rebelling

There are many, however, who rebel and fight for modernity, choice, freedom and human rights. Everyone who attempts to rebel will face challenges from the traditionalists. Any success they have depends on their strategy towards these traditionalists.

For instance, I met a young woman, Wazhma Frogh, who is challenging the practice of child marriages and child abuse at a grassroots level. But she is using traditional means and methods to change tradition. For example, she uses Islamic scripture to defend women’s rights. When I met her she was busy organizing a mass prayer in a mosque for victims of child abuse, in order to raise awareness of the issue.

I also met a local shura or council leader from Parwan province who told me about his attempts to bring women into the local governance system – something that he said was ‘unthinkable’ a few years ago. He did this by creating a separate women’s shura first, so that segregation was maintained; then he slowly incorporated the men’s and women’s groups to form a big shura. He then introduced a quota system for the leadership of the shura so that women got a chance to lead. He was delighted at how the conservative locals had accepted change that was introduced gradually.  

The urban centres of Afghanistan now have huge expatriate communities where prostitution, alcoholism and drugs are rife

Those who attempt to bring about change through outright rebellion suffer the most. However, it is sometimes hard to gauge what is deemed acceptable and what is not. TV presenter Shaima Razayee found out the hard way. She was shot dead, two months after being dismissed from her job presenting a pop music show, for acting in a way that a council of scholars considered too ‘un-Islamic’. Her sins were laughing and joking with her male co-presenter and wearing a scarf that was deemed too small.

Some people just negotiate and agree to lose some aspect of their freedom in order to gain another. The burqa and marriage are two negotiating tools that most women use to keep traditions alive, while gaining some personal freedom in exchange.

Friba, a high school student, wears a burqa on her way to school. She says: ‘My father didn’t like people seeing my face in the street and he wanted me to stay at home. I begged him to let me go to school and he agreed, only on condition that I wore a burqa, and I agreed. I am very happy now.’

Her friend Mursal has just struck a deal with her parents over going to university. She has agreed to get engaged to a man of her parents’ choice in exchange for being allowed to go to university. ‘I really wanted to go to university, but I’m not sure if I have done the right thing. I am hoping that I will fall in love with him by the time I finish university.’

Most people who, to an untrained Western eye, appear liberated and educated may have had to choose a severe injustice in order to gain and practise the freedom that we see. Women usually lose out in these negotiations, while older men, the representatives of the conservative traditional society, have the upper hand – which they use to their advantage.

Sex in the city

Waheed, a privileged young man, had befriended a young woman. He told me: ‘I saw her on her way home from school. I gave her my business card with my number on it. That evening she called me. We spoke for hours. We met for a burger twice. And once I took her for a drive.’

When I asked him whether he intended taking any further the relationship with his mobile-phone girlfriend, he laughed and said: ‘I don’t want to marry her. Today she is my girlfriend, tomorrow she might become someone else’s. I can’t trust her. Girls like her are not trustworthy.’

The relationship between Waheed and his girlfriend was uncomplicated. However, I met Dr Suhaila, a gynaecologist from one of Kabul’s middle-class residential areas, who claimed to be dealing with cases of abortion in unmarried girls. She also gets enquiries about reconstructive surgery of the hymen to hide the signs of a sexual relationship before marriage. She said: ‘I used to deal with similar requests before and during the Taliban times too. However, at that time these issues remained hidden. Nowadays people talk about them and write about them, which gives the impression that things are getting worse, that there’s more immorality.’

The urban centres of Afghanistan now have huge expatriate communities where prostitution, alcoholism and drugs are rife. But there is also education, women with small scarves, male-female relationships and employment in such areas.

Traditionalists link all these vices and virtues and so instil in people fear of change; this makes it harder for those who want to promote education and greater freedom for women.

The people of Afghanistan have gone from living in one of the most highly regulated societies during the Taliban era to one that is now very much exposed to new ideas and practices. It is hard to achieve a balance between maintaining tradition and accepting change, especially during a time of war. The first step is for Afghans to recognize the practices within their culture which are against human rights and then find ways of dealing with them that are not too much of a threat to traditional institutions and customs.

The international community, too, must recognize that Afghanistan’s traditional systems have survived for hundreds of years and they cannot suddenly be swapped for Western ones. Only working within the existing systems, with patience and understanding, bringing about change slowly, and with subtlety, will succeed.

Zuhra Bahman is an Afghan writer and law researcher currently living in London. She visits Afghanistan several times a year and you can read her recent NI blogs from the region on www.newint.org

‘I cannot believe how lucky I am’ – Shogofa

I hate being 23 years old and still in year 11 of school – everyone is at least five years younger than me! But it’s not my fault. I was born and brought up in Kandahar in Southern Afghanistan. Women’s lives are very hard there.

When I was young I was engaged to a boy who was related to me. I never really spoke with him or met him but I waited to be married to him.

One day we got the news that the Taliban had killed my aunt’s husband. We all went to see. They had left his body in front of their house. His head and hands had been chopped off and placed on his chest with some letters and leaflets. The Taliban said that he was dead because he was a teacher and he sent his daughters to school. I was extremely upset; he was a good man, very kind.

I was in year eight at the time. My father was very scared, so he took me out of school. I stayed at home doing housework. I got ill and my engagement was broken off. I had nothing to look forward to. I was a sick girl with a broken engagement and no education.

My father refused to send us back to school because he was scared of the Taliban killing him; but he was also scared of us being caught up in a suicide bombing in the city. He said that he was scared of seeing my dead body lying bloodied and exposed on the street.

I knew he would never let me study in Kandahar, so when I came to Kabul to attend my cousin’s wedding I refused to go home and begged my father to let me stay here. My uncle’s wife took my side and promised to look after me.

I am now extremely happy in Kabul; I cannot believe how lucky I am to be here. I am studying hard, although I can’t concentrate because I keep thinking of how unlucky I have been in life. I am also worried that my uncle’s family are planning to move abroad and the time will come when they won’t be able to look after me any more.

If all goes well I will study business and start a business of my own. At the moment I am not sure if I want to get married, because all men have created problems for me. But, since I am living in Afghanistan and life here is hard for a single woman, I will have to get married. But I do want children; I think I will be a good mother. I will not restrict my children and make sure they have the best education and are kept away from people’s superstitions.

Shogofa was interviewed by Zuhra Bahman.

The Opium Bank

Massoud Hussaini / AINA PHOTO AGENCY / AFGHANISTAN www.ainaphoto.org

She is a plump 28-year-old who, unlike other women in her village, wears her scarf tied around her head instead of flowing around and behind her. I first met Belqees about 10 years ago in a village near Balkh in Northern Afghanistan.

She was wearing a gold ‘set’ made up of a ring, a necklace and a pair of earrings. Belqees kept a keen eye on the price of gold and sold her set whenever the prices went up, making a small profit which she used to buy another bigger and better set.

When I met her again in the summer of 2008 her gold set was very small and plain. I assumed she had made a loss. I asked her about the set. She laughed and took me into the garden – a huge square full of vegetable plants and trees surrounded by three-metre-high walls. She pointed to one side of the garden and told me that her investment was buried there.

Belqees had bought two barrels of opium when the Government started to crack down on poppy farmers. Her brother was one of the poppy growers affected and, with the money she got from selling her latest gold set, she bought his last load of opium before he switched to growing cotton.

She put the opium into two big blue barrels and buried them deep in the ground. This happened in 2005. In 2007 she took one barrel out and sold half of its contents to a smuggler friend of her brother’s. She was astonished to find that the opium had grown five times in value.

She used the profit to become the silent partner in a business venture with her nephew, selling foodstuffs from a small kiosk. As a woman she could not appear in her shop, but she does all the behind-the-scenes work. She calculates profit and loss and makes all major business decisions – the most recent was to invest in a freezer and sell ice. She is wary of selling the rest of her opium, which she claims has grown eight times in value.

Belqees is very proud of her business skills and plans to buy a better set of gold next year from the profit she has made from the shop. Her wealth as a woman and her increasing years has made it almost impossible for her to get a suitable husband, however. Those who turn up these days to ask for her hand are almost always already married and wanting a second wife. One of these suitors is the man she sold her opium to.

Lust, caution - hijab

It’s extremely hard to plan a summer wardrobe for Peshawar as it needs to meet two opposing conditions. First, it needs to cover the entire body; and second, it needs to be cool enough to keep one alive in heat of 45 degrees Celsius. I spent hours in London shops and failed to find anything that fitted the bill. In the end I resorted to extreme measures and entered my local Muslim shop which, alongside T-Shirts calling for jihad and Hizbul Tahrir propaganda books, sells an array of full-on hijabs. After careful consideration, and to the delight of the shop assistant, I chose a free flowing three piece hijab that hid everything but my eyes.

I wore my hijab for the full three weeks that I was in Peshawar. The experience taught me a lot about being a woman in that city and about being a hijabi woman in a country that is confused about, and fearful of, its role in the ‘war on terror’.

The first lesson I learnt was that no amount of hijab can suppress lust. Peshawar is one of the places where women are mostly covered in hijab but it’s also a highly lustful city where women are openly touched and harassed on the streets. Women can’t shout or protest because it is their fault for being out in the first place, as one shopkeeper who, ironically, sold fabric for women’s clothing, told me. The other shopkeepers I spoke to in the famous Sader Bazzar all said the same thing. I shuddered and left. I wonder if they felt my fear; they certainly couldn’t see it on my covered face.

The second lesson I learned was that the fact that more women are wearing hijab post- 9-11 is not a sign of female support of the anti-West forces in Pakistan; it is simply a survival mechanism for women who fear the repercussion of being associated with Western ideals. A student at Peshawar University told me that he sees more hijabi women at the university, including his own niece, who cover up to be safe, to remain unknown to the extremists who have thrown acid on the bare faces of college-going women.

The third lesson I learned, is that public reaction to the hijab is a prime example of the confusion and fear that has been created in Pakistan because of the country’s role in the ‘war in terror’. Stranded in Peshawar in early hours of the morning, I tried to hitch a ride with a family who were going towards my side of the town. Their attitude was cold; they barely communicated with me until I sat in their car and removed my hijab. It made me laugh when they told me that they were afraid that I may be a suicide bomber because I was wearing a hijab. To them hijab was a sign of fundamentalism, fanaticism and terror.

My last adventure in my hijab was at Peshawar airport on my way back to the UK where the combination of my hijab and about 40 books on jihad, Islam and the Taliban in my bag earned me an hour’s interrogation about my profession and intentions. The policeman dealing with me was reluctantly doing his job of flicking through my books. When I asked him about what he was looking for he couldn’t answer; he vaguely talked about some list of banned books that was given to them. He is now supposed to stop anyone who looks like ‘trouble’, he told me that he had no problem with me there but he had to make sure that I didn’t take anything ‘dodgy’ out to the UK. In a nutshell, he was supportive or indifferent to my hijab but was instructed to see it as an indicator of ‘trouble’ – though he was so confused about what to do about me if I were ‘trouble’. He wasn’t sure which side was he on, who was he fighting and what for!

As I sat in my freely upgraded first class seat, sipping various incredible refreshments, I took off my hijab, folded it neatly and put it in my bag. I was wondering what that extremist Islamist leader who had praised me for my hijabi modesty would think o me now. My hijab is now in my wardrobe only to be taken out for next Pakistan trip or some politically incorrect fancy dress party! By the way, the hijab didn’t keep me cool or hidden.

A 10-car pile-up and scars to be proud of

I had an accident. (Actually, I want to shout that I almost died!) I was being driven from Mazar e Sharef in Northern Afghanistan to Kabul and we got caught up in a 10-car pile- up. There were three of us in the car: the driver, my brother and me. None of us got too  badly hurt. In our vehicle the main casualties were my laptop, which broke in half, and our mobiles which got nicked as we ran for safety, expecting an eleventh car to smash into ours.

People were surprised to hear that this was my first accident. Having lived 25 years, I was expected to have been in at least a dozen collisions by now. In Afghanistan car accidents are a fact of life and people proudly show off scars they've sustained in their accident-prone Afghan existence. There’s that scar on my brother's wrist, and that one on his friend Attaullah's forehead. Now I too have one on my forehead, which everyone was very keen to inspect. I was quickly told my scar looked exactly like the logo of the Afghan Wireless mobile network. There were suggestions that I email a photo of my scar and attempt to claim a free sim card. They saw the funny side, more than I did – but I did appreciate the empathy.

Every accident anecdote was followed by a sobering recollection, with gory details of course, of the relative/neighbor/friend that was savagely butchered on the road. This was followed by a collective sigh of relief that I was safe. And of course theories of why I was safe, including the fact that I had visited the shrine of last Caliphate of Islam in Mazar city just before the accident and obtained a silk scarf from there. Then same suggestions about what to do next: kill a sheep and buy twelve huge Nan breads and distribute them to the poor, to thank God for keeping me safe.

The two details of my accident in which people were most interested were: did the driver managed to get away from the scene of the accident and did I think that it was the driver who had nicked our mobiles. My answer to both questions was – yes!

Everyone sympathized with the driver for running away: there are endless tales of police detaining drivers and imprisoning them for months even if they were totally innocent. And they would sympathize with him for nicking my phone – he needed to feed his poor kids. There’s a Robin Hood mentality that’s quite understandable in an anarchic place like Afghanistan, where there is no welfare state, no insurance, no alternative employment for the driver while he repairs his car.

There is no data on the number of road accidents either, but anecdotally it seems like there are a great many. There are various reasons for this.

First, Afghanistan's roads are unsafe, most of them are unpaved and those that are paved are too narrow or are inappropriately built for Afghanistan's mountainous regions. Road- building is a large, corrupt business where contracts awarded by the Government are sold on and roads are finally built with a fraction of the money that the Government originally paid. The result is roads that can't withstand Afghan extremes of heat and cold and which get distorted within a year. Our driver showed us bumps the size of tennis balls due to heat on the road leading from Pul e Khumri to Kabul.

Second, Afghan cars are unsafe... vehicles that have failed safety tests in other countries are exported to Afghanistan. One of my relatives, who lives in Germany, is involved in this business. More dangerous still is the import sub-standard tyres, which happens in bulk. Cars are also modified in unsafe ways, especially ones that are imported from Pakistan where, unlike Afghanistan, people drive on the left-hand side of the road. Sometime the ‘Pakistani Side’ cars are never modified to suit Afghan roads – particularly awkward when overtaking on the country’s narrow roads on which no speed restriction is imposed.

Third, Afghan drivers are unskilled! Driving licenses are issued to anyone who pays a few hundred dollars, therefore most people on the road don't have basic driving skills. This has created a distinctly careless Afghan driving culture... where wearing seat belts or keeping distance between cars is for cowards and maintenance of brakes is exclusively for cars  belonging to institutions like the UN.

What can one do in such a situation? Maybe police could be better trained to impose the traffic laws; maybe corruption could be curbed; or maybe people could be better educated and imports be more rigorously checked for safety. One thing is for sure: Afghans love driving and no-one can stop them. Maybe the best way, for a Western Afghan like me, to cope is to develop a sense of blind trust in fate and God and take pride in my scars...

Off  I go to the bakery to buy some bread to give to the poor to thank God for keeping me relatively safe and alive... of course I'll be in my brother's heavily modified Honda.

Laughter in Kabul

If I got a pound for every time someone asked me to take care as I talked about visiting Kabul I’d be a millionaire by now. I do promise to take good care of myself, and I mean it, but as soon as I reach my city of birth I feel safer than ever. This safety is not logical, of course, because statistically Kabul is getting more and more dangerous with the rising number of suicide bombings, kidnappings and armed robberies.  Perhaps my feeling of safety comes from sentimentality; pure irrational love and deep sympathy for my city. I love everything about my city, its people, its ever increasing paved roads, its ugly glass buildings, the great kabab, sheer yakh (Afghan ice cream)...

Last year when I entered Kabul from its eastern gateway I missed a suicide bomb by less than an hour. The car I was in drove very slowly so the passengers could watch Afghan Police wash the blood off the road and remove a blown up car from the street. What this evoked in me was not a feeling of fear but more of anger because Kabul was harmed. The suicide attack had happened in what was then dubbed the ‘suicide mile’, the next day I was back on the same stretch of the road.

Yesterday I went for a long drive with my brother. Driving on the road leading up to Kabul airport, he showed me a patch of road that was repaired. He said that few months ago a suicide attack had taken place there. The debris from the explosion had flown all the way to his friend’s house about 500 meters away.

Driving on, my brother told me about his day at work. He works in the booming private sector and is responsible for the company’s finances. Earlier that day one of his colleague had confessed to stealing over $80,000. They took him to the police station but the police officers refused to arrest him. The guy just left. Maybe the police didn’t arrest him because they were scared of him or maybe the police in Afghanistan don’t yet have the   concept of white-collar crime. Whatever the reason, the Afghan police action is, at the best, comic – tragic, at the worst. Of course my brother was extremely annoyed with the situation but we laughed at our police, at the suicide-bombing and our Don Quixote like politicians and drove off. This is what everyone does in Kabul, be angry but cope, laugh and continue with life.

So the talks of insecurity, low morale and weak governance are part of the daily discourse for Kabulis but not as much as in the West. While the West, especially its media at the moment, is declaring the immanent failure of the country and its state, Kabulis are busy understanding, debating and complaining about these failures.  Kabulis have optimism too and a broader perspective.  They can see the achievements of their country as well as its failures. So my brother and I complain and make fun of the country but we also are extremely glad that we can go for a long drive on Kabul streets and come to the Internet café and write about it.

I don’t understand. Why is the West concentrating on failure? Why is Afghanistan being punished for its failure to achieve highest standards of governance and human rights in less than seven years, when its starting point was 25 million, mainly displaced, people over half of whom were confined to their houses under Taliban rule; a country with an almost non-existent education system and a cursed geographical location?

As a person deeply rooted both in the political Left in the West and in Afghan society, I see naivety in the West’s approach to my country. People in the West signed petitions against the Taliban; the same people took to the streets when the international community took action against the Taliban. People in the West applauded the new Government when it took office, but soon afterwards, when the new administration failed to bring Afghanistan to the international standards of democracy, the same people vilified the new regime.

I think people in the West must honestly reassess their understanding and relationship with Afghanistan. Maybe they will reach the same conclusion as I have about the country, which is that it has suffered a lot, it has achieved a lot in the past six years. However, it is facing difficulties you would expect of a young democracy which has limited capacity and is a prime target for global terrorism. It is weak but it can be strengthened. Maybe I am biased because I am an Afghan but I firmly believe that we should not be abandoned for the sake of creating sensationalist news.  

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