Do you recall this photo, a young refugee whose piercing gaze confronted readers of National Geographic during the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan? Her image became an enduring icon of that war’s horrific impact on Afghan families and orphans.
For many people this photo symbolizes the suffering of people powerless to protect themselves or loved ones from the horrors of warfare, corrupt governments or greedy warlords.
Then as now few people are as powerless as Afghan women and girls. For centuries their traditional culture has oppressed women. All aspects of their lives are utterly controlled by the men in their family, bound by the constraints of a cruelly narrow-minded honor code.
Girls and women live in fear of saying or doing anything, even unwittingly, that might bring dishonor to the family or tribe. The smallest infraction could trigger an honor killing if the family or tribe decides it’s warranted. Husbands, fathers, brothers, uncles — all have the power to kill an Afghan woman whose behavior is seen as dishonoring the family.
The offenses that might merit stoning are unimaginable to someone who has grown up in a permissive Western culture. Displaying one’s face, arms or ankles to a stranger; making eye contact, talking while unsupervised to a male who is not a family member — the list goes on and on.
For most Afghan tribes the best way to avoid the risk of dishonor is to prevent women and girls above a certain age from being seen by any man outside their family. Hence the burqa, a shroud-like garment which covers the form from head to toe, considered mandatory for honorable women when doing errands away from home.
Most Afghan women are trapped inside the home, chained to the kitchen and an unending cycle of chores. Once a girl is deemed old enough to marry (as young as 9 in some families), she can no longer leave her home unless escorted by a male family member. If need be, sons escort their mothers to the bazaar for shopping.
Is Education the Solution?
This sequestration of women makes it very difficult to introduce Western-style reforms such as education, let alone the right to vote or hold office. Westerners have tended to believe the solution lies in building schools and libraries, funding teachers, and creating educational opportunities for girls.
The saying among philanthropists goes, “Educate the girls and the whole family benefits. Educate the boys, and they’ll leave home to emigrate to places with better opportunities.” This is certainly what my friends and I have believed. We were enthralled with the hopeful possibilities raised by books like Three Cups of Tea, the mission to educate girls in order to improve the society in which they live.
Just building schools and libraries — “build it and they will come” — may be doomed to failure, because it ignores the cultural realities that keep Afghan women trapped in poverty and illiteracy. In My Father’s Country, a thought-provoking book by an Afghan woman who moved to the US at age 15, raises challenging questions:
So much attention is paid to building schools for girls, but their men refuse to allow them to go. In a culture where women are so dependent on the goodwill of men, how can we expect to move women’s rights forward without getting the men to bring them to the new age of liberty and democracy?
— Saima Wahab, In My Father’s Country, © 2012
Saima’s book tells her journey from Kabul to Portland (and back to Afghanistan), with an emphasis on the impact of Pashtun culture on everyday family life.
One Woman’s Perspective
Like Sharbat Gula, the young Afghan girl in the iconic photo, Saima Wahab lost her father to the Soviets. Like her she was forced to flee with her family to Pakistan when their village came under constant attack from Russian bombing.
Unlike the orphaned Sharbat Gula, Saima was lucky enough to have relatives who could sponsor her emigration to America, along with two siblings, in the late 1980s. Joining her uncles’ household in Portland, Saima learned English, attended school and landed a full-time job.
Despite living in America, her uncles continued to enforce the Pashtun way of life and its restrictions on women. Their rules were so confining that Saima eventually rebelled and moved out of their house, once she earned enough money to pay rent.
As one example, phone calls from male classmates could send Saima’s uncles into a frenzy, falsely accusing her of provocative or licentious behavior despite her efforts to avoid anyone’s notice. The fact that these male callers were generally seeking homework help did not excuse her behavior in her uncles’ eyes, one of whom was a college professor.
In 2004 Saima was recruited as a translator by a military contractor (there were very few fluent Pashtu-English speakers at that time). This enabled her to return to Afghanistan, where Saima served as an interpreter for US military commanders in charge of reconstruction missions and liaison to government officials. While working in Afghanistan, Saima took advantage of every possible opportunity to meet and talk with Afghan women in their homes and villages.
Saima’s life story and her intimate conversations with Afghan men and women make her book, In My Father’s Country, a compelling insider’s look at the cultural realities and conflicts of contemporary Afghanistan. It’s well worth reading by anyone who wants to understand what life is like in today’s Afghanistan.
Sadly, the book does not offer any pat answers to the question of how best to help Afghan women. It raises troubling questions about the efficacy of today’s well-intentioned NGO and philanthropic approaches. (It also reveals the pervasive corruption within the Afghan governing structure.)
What it does make clear, however, is that any lasting solution must be forged by people who truly understand the culture and its mores, who operate from within the system to promote changes through solutions that will provoke less resistance from the people with power over women’s lives.
If only all we had to do was build libraries and schools to make a difference to these powerless women…