The United States and its allies have worked for a decade to instill democratic and legal reforms in Afghanistan, with a particular focus on women’s rights. We asked Afghans through this Facebook note to share their views on the West’s influence in their country. We received responses via e-mail and Facebook. Here is a selection of the responses, edited and condensed.
Nawa Arsala, 22, is an Afghan-American law student living in Washington.
The “Western” ways and laws in Afghanistan are not completely foreign to Afghans. Many forget that during the 1970s, Afghanistan was a flourishing and prosperous nation, with women who were teachers, nurses and entrepreneurs. The burqa was a rare sight, if seen at all. I believe that these laws are simply being reintroduced to a war-torn country that once had a taste of prosperity and democracy.
Curiouss Mindss, a teenage Afghan living in Kabul, wrote on Facebook:
Over 40 percent of Afghanistan’s population consists of people who have lived their entire lives facing tragic events like war and illiteracy and have no familiarity with modern civilization. Adapting and accepting Western cultures and thoughts are absurd and against their views. I’m an 18-year-old Afghan living in Kabul and unless these war-stricken Afghans vanish I’m pessimistic about the future of this war-torn country.
Jawed Nader, 30, lives in London and leads the umbrella organization British and Irish Agencies Afghanistan Group.
It’s a common misperception, reinforced by the international media, that democracy and human rights were imposed on Afghanistan after American forces ousted the Taliban in 2001. The 1964 Constitution included a bill of rights for Afghans, specifically including women. The 1977 Civil Code stipulated that girls under 16 should not be allowed to marry. The New York Times called this Afghanistan’s “Golden Age,” noting that “Afghan women not only attended Kabul University, they did so in miniskirts.”
We Afghans have always been concerned with laws promising rights and democracy. It is just a coincidence that our fellow human beings in the West think the same way.
Samira Hamidi is a human-rights activist who has been working on women’s issues in Afghanistan for the past eight years. Formerly the country director for the civil society network Afghan Women’s Network, she is studying for her master’s at the University of York in Britain.
It is very important for the international community, international media and Afghan counterparts to understand that moving ahead with Westernized ideologies only cannot bring democracy, human rights and women’s rights to Afghanistan.
While it is very important to look back at the past 12 years and measure the progress, one should always remember that there have been failures, too. While individuals and organizations kept pushing for women’s rights, they also created a huge hatred toward them, causing the conservative but influential rural men to say that women’s rights are against religion and Afghan values. The irony is that there has been a lot of publicity for women’s rights and promoting a few elite women activists in these years, but there hasn’t been any effort to build trust in communities, to encourage these conservative men to join the platform to support women’s rights and to ensure that the approach is not only according to the religious and traditional values but actually follows it taking the diversity of Afghanistan into consideration.
In terms of current laws including the electoral law, elimination of violence against women law, etc., I disagree with using the Westernized word with it. These laws are purely the efforts of Afghans within the government and civil society who made it happen through lots of lobbying and advocacy.
Saad Mohseni is the owner of the MOBY Group, Afghanistan’s largest media group.
Don’t judge Afghans by what they say but rather by what they do. It is an approach we apply to our television programming. Afghans are quick to criticize our various soap operas, reality TV shows, etc., but they fail to miss any of these shows. Today, millions of Afghan women are attending schools and universities, as well as the work force. The fact that they are allowed to “participate in life” is testament to the changing attitudes toward women. Bravado statements (from chauvinists) are expected from Afghan men. Again judge them by what they do (or allow), not what they say.
Shaharzad Akbar is from Afghanistan.
The majority of Afghans do not consider women’s education a “Western value,” but see improvements in women’s education as one of the biggest achievements of the past 10 years. Similarly, women’s participation in public life is not a new reality to Afghans. I come from a village in northeast Afghanistan, and my father’s father, a local mullah, built the first school in his village. My maternal aunt traveled and lived alone in another province to go to university in 1971-72.
The fight for improved education and democracy is not a recent phenomenon funded by the West; in fact it’s insulting to Afghans to suggest so. Afghans have struggled for democracy since the early 20th century.
Kamilah Ataee wrote on Facebook:
Since 2002, Afghan women have found a chance to start getting education and work outside of their houses once again. We, Afghan women, are very grateful of Western ways in Afghanistan. Today, we need to live as global citizens not as villagers!
Aarya Nijat, a graduate of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, lives and works in Kabul.
Afghanistan of today, in whatever shape that it is, would not have been possible without Amanullah Khan’s attempt at reformation in the 1920s and the “Decade of Democratization” of 1960-1970. Today’s Constitution is based on the Constitution of 1964. So the seeds of the nascent democracy that we have today were sown roughly half a century ago, in this country and by the people of this country. We own what and where we are today.
This is not to deny, I must emphasize, the facilitating role of the international community, in particular in the past decade. External players can only facilitate or influence processes of internal change; they cannot cause them. To be fair, we own both our achievements and losses, that is we give neither the credit nor the blame away.
Masih Mas wrote on Facebook:
As an Afghan, I would say yes, certain Western values and laws would be a welcomed addition to Afghanistan. We must remember that the most peaceful and prosperous times during Afghanistan’s history were under Sardar Mohammad Daoud Khan’s secular government that kept the tribal and religious problems at a far distance. Many members in Karzai’s government are religious warlords who have immense influence in Afghan culture. The average Afghan who supports these warlords does not realize that the same person has killed thousands of innocent Afghans and is involved in drug trafficking, corruption and fraud.
Atta Nasib wrote on Facebook:
It is wrong to assume that Afghan society is reluctant to embrace reforms. Let’s not forget that it’s only been a decade since the Taliban were removed from power and democracy took root.
Younger Afghans are caught in the cross-fire between modernity that comes with democracy and traditional values that are still practiced in general throughout the country. As older cohorts die, so will traditional values.
And modern education is still at its infancy in Afghanistan. It will likely take a generation of Afghans to remove cultural barriers when it comes to women’s progress in particular. It took nearly two centuries to realize universal suffrage in the United States.
Ali Mohammad A wrote on Facebook:
Your note makes me want to send you my mother’s photos from the ‘70s, wearing a miniskirt in Kandahar. I will only e-mail you my thoughts.
Javed Rezayee, an Afghan who was born and raised in Kabul and works in New York with the Open Society Foundations’ Regional Policy Initiative on Afghanistan and Pakistan.
I’ve watched my country transform over the last decade. There have been a series of occasions that marked a range of landmark changes in the Afghan psyche. In early 2002, my jaw dropped when for the first time I watched a man criticizing President Karzai on TV. It was a moment of elation mixed with a chilling fear of what my father said happened under previous regimes when outspoken government critics “disappeared with their families.” Today, many young women are participating in sports, and millions are in school, which means millions of parents are approving of female education. The illiteracy rate is fast decreasing, including for women.
Challenges remain. The rise of the neo-fundamentalist groups like Hizb-ut-Tahrir is a disconcerting reality. Earlier this year, the group staged a never-before-seen demonstration against women’s rights in Kabul University, where alarmingly the Taliban flag was raised. In June, the Afghan Parliament eviscerated the possibility of endorsing the Elimination of Violence Against Women Law that was favorably decreed by President Karzai years ago. Earlier this month, women’s parliamentary quota was lowered and the only single seat previously reserved for Hindu and Sikh minorities was eliminated during the passing of the elections laws.
The struggle between leaders of change and forces of reversion will continue, perhaps forever, but what has irreversibly been internalized by Afghan youth is the increasing sense of freedom. The genie of freedom is out and cannot be put back in the teapot. Read more…
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