On the Way to Afghanistan
Jean Athey of Montgomery County (MD) Peace Action (and Secretary of the national Peace Action board) is traveling to Afghanistan with Women for Afghan Women (WAW), here is her first blog post about her trip:
Dubai Airport, On the Way to Kabul
I am fortunate to have been invited to accompany Fahima Vorgetts of Women for Afghan Women (WAW) on a trip to visit the projects funded by WAW in Kabul and nearby villages. Fahima is an extraordinarily impressive Afghan woman who has lived in the US for many years now. She sells Afghan carpets and handicrafts, and with the proceeds, funds projects for women’s education, health care, and other critical needs. I will have the opportunity to talk to the beneficiaries of these projects first hand.
In addition to the women from the WAW projects, I plan to interview a wide variety of individuals, each of whom has a special and distinctive perspective. Friends who have visited Kabul on earlier trips have given me introductions, and so once I arrive, I will be able to set up appointments. My goal is to learn as much as possible in the short time I have.
Why Go to Kabul?
I am taking this trip in order to become a more effective peace advocate. There is no better way to acquire knowledge and an in-depth understanding of a country than to visit it. Obviously, a two-week stay in only one city will not make me an expert on Afghanistan, but I believe it will give me a much better sense of the complexities of this war and of the country itself and will lend credence to my statements.
I especially hope to learn more about Afghan women. I was very moved by Ann Jones’ descriptions of Afghan women she has met, as described in her stunning book, Kabul in Winter.
I want to make the war become more real to me and to people at home, with whom I will share the stories when I return. It is far too easy to ignore this war. It seems to be happening in another dimension, far removed from anything connected to our daily lives. And yet, it is OUR government that has further destroyed an already-devastated country—and OUR tax dollars that are paying for the bombs, drones, and bullets to continue the destruction.
A few years ago, I was arrested in the office of Sen. Barbara Mikulski for sitting-in as a protest of her continuing votes to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the arresting officer said something surprising to me: “If you believe the war is wrong, you have a moral imperative to do everything you can to stop it.” I agree with him. Interviewing people on the other end of our violence will, I hope, help me to do a better job of meeting that moral imperative.
Some Questions I Have
What stories are rarely, if ever, covered in our own media? For example, the film Rethink Afghanistan shows a very large refugee camp on the edge of Kabul where people from all over the country have come to escape the fighting and where they live in appalling conditions. Nowhere else have I seen anything about this refugee camp, and yet, thousands of people live there in horrendous conditions, according to the film; children die frequently in this camp from exposure, for example. What can I learn about this refugee camp? Another issue that doesn’t get any attention in our media: under what conditions do women receive, or not receive, medical care? And who are the women in the women’s prisons and why are they there?
What ideas do Afghans have for the best way forward? Numerous studies and proposals have been put forward in the U.S. about next steps, but Afghan voices are rarely heard. I don’t expect that all Afghans will speak with one voice. I know that there is a diversity of opinion—not surprising in a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual country, with urban-rural and religious differences; however peace comes, it will bring gain to some groups and loss to others. So, it will be instructive to see what different people, from different groups, advocate.
How is corruption manifested? We have heard that the current government is hopelessly corrupt, and yet we are fighting to strengthen and further empower this government. How do ordinary Afghans experience corruption and what do they propose as the way to counter it?
What is the best way to advocate for women and children? We have learned that the “warlords” are just as oppressive towards women as the Taliban–the same warlords that largely compose the Afghan legislature and for whose benefit we are fighting. How can we design a strategy to move to peace, while protecting women and children from the warlords we have funded and empowered and from the Taliban that we fight? Which civil society organizations are doing the most for women and children and how can we support them?
My flight was from Dulles to Dubai, where I am now waiting for a connecting flight. Dubai Airport is probably the most beautiful, modern airport I’ve ever seen. The atrium features many large palm trees, and the ceiling in the departure lounge is three stories high. I was surprised to see kiosks for Cinnabon and Cold Creamery.
With eight seats across, the plane was big, and it was almost full and mostly male. I’d bet that 80% of the passengers were American contractors. One guy had on a Blackwater tee shirt. The man sitting in front of me on the plane was going to Kabul to do “human resources” work for three weeks for DynCorp. I wonder how much money is going to pay salaries and expenses of just those people on my flight.
My husband and I had some electrical work done on our house last week, and I mentioned to the electrician that I was going to Afghanistan in a few days. He said that his neighbor, a construction worker, has had a job in Afghanistan for three years, at the rate of $130,000, tax free, for every six month stint. How many contracting firms there are, I have no idea. I read that there are 800 NGOs in Kabul—an astonishing number—most run by foreign consultants. What’s clear is that a lot of people are making a lot of money off of this war, and most of them are not Afghans.
I find myself here in the airport closely studying women’s clothing. In preparation for the trip, I struggled over what to pack. Because I am bringing medical supplies in my baggage for the WAW clinics, I had extremely limited space for clothes. The few clothes I packed needed to be appropriate, by which I mean, clothing that would help me fit in. So, a scarf—yes, no problem. Long sleeves and no scoop neckline—okay, I have a couple of things that fit both criteria. But then, I read that the tops to go over pants should be long, mid-thigh length. Hard to meet all the requirements with what I had on hand, and it is possible that in the end, I’ll buy something in Kabul.
Here in the airport, where people come from all over the Gulf and other places, quite a few women are wearing chadors, the total black cover-up costume, and a veil with just a slit for the eyes—very similar to a burqa. I have a visceral, furious reaction when I see them. The chadors look hot, bulky, difficult to see through, hard to walk in, awkward and generally uncomfortable. Initially and inexplicably, my fury is directed at the woman for wearing such a thing and then I remind myself that it is extremely unlikely that it is her choice. My rage is more appropriately directed at whatever patriarchal society she comes from and the men who control her life.
Some chador-covered women wear stylish high heels, even high heel platform shoes, that you can see peeking out below the hem of the chador. I imagine that these women feel that dressing stylishly under the chador is a way to express their individuality and modernity. To me, such shoes are a different form of oppression from the black chador, one that originates in the West, and seeing these shoes reminds me that the oppression of women is worldwide. How sad to see someone exhibiting BOTH the Eastern and Western forms of oppression of women, as reflected in apparel.
In a couple of hours, I’ll get on the plane to Kabul. Electricity there is supposedly sporadic and Internet access uncertain. I hope to have the time and ability to send this blog post right away and another one soon.