Afghanistan has most definitely experienced the most hardship of any country in the world, successively for decades. The geographic location of this nation has seen every empire try and conquer it using it for a trade route, from Alexander the Great to Genghis Khan, there is no empire that has not left its mark upon this land. This is clearly evident in the diverse appearance of all the people, no other country in the world can boast such an ethnically mixed gender of population. The decades of war and hardship in particular, the treatment of women and children, is by United Nations’ standards the worst in the world, with 79 percent of the 31-35 million population (no clear statistics) illiterate after years of war and school closures. Human rights violations are astonishingly high and a part of everyday life, particularly for women and children.
The Islamist and fundamentalism movement has been active in Afghanistan since the 60s when the Mujahideen forces won over the Russian red army that brought an end to the Cold War. These local forces with its many factions and leaders exercise considerable influence over the lives of Afghans. Each faction with its own ideology of democracy, human rights and interpretation of Islamic religion, and each having its own public followings within the community. Women’s oppression as a sub-ideology of fundamentalism is “radical Islam” which provides the ideological basis for a vision of Afghan solidarity as a nation. Unfortunately, this fundamentalism and “radical Islam” is totally averse to women’s rights, feminism or gender equality. This ideology does not recognize women as equal human beings, it denies women their basic Human Rights and legitimizes the use of violence and abuse to sustain patriarchy and women’s subordination. Female repression and control is a sub-ideology of fundamentalism, something that came into full fruition during the rule of the Taliban. The truth, however, is that a sub-ideology of female oppression/control has been deeply embedded into the fabric of social institutions and the mindset of men, leaders and even many women. In other words, it is an ideology that is embraced not only by the Taliban but by many institutions and citizens of Afghanistan.
The people are numb to things, the average person finds absolutely impossible to comprehend but what I find disturbing is the fact that everyone has an excuse for the most awful and atrocious behaviours not only of themselves but for others. It seems that decades of hardship has compounded to the point that human decency and an innate responsibility of actions does not exist (as there is an excuse for everything).
I found myself working in Afghanistan for an NGO as my mother is originally from here and I wanted to see what I could do to help my “motherland”. Having worked all over the world as a human rights activist, I felt that perhaps I was ready for Afghanistan and that I had sound knowledge of the people from my lineage. I soon discovered that I knew nothing besides a bit of the language, the old customs, and realised how savage, discriminatory, ruthless, biased and greedy most of the people (in particular men) of this country can be. It is an impossible challenge to find people you can trust have an alternative motive and change allegiance at the drop of a hat so you have no idea where you stand with people. Tempers are very high and hang on a thread, the person who was friendly and sweet is violent and aggressive moments later. They say things that astound you and aggravate the current social situation, empathy has no place here, just self preservation and a keen eye for cash.
What you notice first when you arrive in Kabul is the women, hundreds and hundreds of blue Burka clad women who are begging on the streets with very young children, they are the widows (1.5 – 2 million) and victims of violence and a reminder of all the wars this country has experienced. They sit on the streets in the heat of summer with temperatures as high as 40 degrees and the cold winter with -20 degrees, waiting for someone to show them some kindness. These women are the product of a country and government that is not catering to their economical and social needs, besides the fact that they are the poorest and most vulnerable of the population.
The second thing you notice, the men dressed mostly in “paran turbans” and “pashtun turbans” you feel as though you have stepped back in time. The third immediate realisation is that as a woman you are immediately and instantaneously subjected to visual rape, leering, sexual harassment and threats. Despite dressing in a modest Muslim manner you are stared at with vicious, angry eyes and men start to shout and hurl all forms of abuse at you, this almost knocked me off my feet. The moment I was outside the Kabul airport I was being pointed and shouted at by the hundreds of men on the streets hanging about being macho. This is a favourite pastime for them, subjecting women to harassment (of all forms) and at any point you feel threatened and want to seek police assistance but you might actually find that the police are actually part of the problem as they leer at you in the same way. Besides they have absolutely no authority amongst the general population, on many occasions I have seen police and civilian men in fist fights or chasing cars that won’t stop when they are requested to, they simply have no authority or influence within the community.
The lack of general respect is completely nonexistent and considered a byproduct of years of war and lack of education. I disagree with these pathetic excuses for bad behaviour every person whether educated or not knows the difference between right and wrong and the difference here is that the men take it as their Islamic duty to harass women and then excuse themselves for their behaviour as it is a byproduct of war and illiteracy. Finding an honest, polite, respectful male who does not have an alternate motive in this country is most certainly “a needle in a hay stack.”
During my time working in Afghanistan, I was brave and foolish enough to travel alone to document human rights violations and these travels took me to Kundoz, Takhar, Balkadshan, Mazar-E-Sharif and its rural provinces, Bamiyan and surrounding areas as well as Kabul city and rural provinces of Kabul. I saw a great deal in these travels and mostly under the “Chapan and Burqa (Chadorie)” trying very hard to not be spotted as a foreigner, as kidnapping, rape, torture, robbery and murder are rife in some of these areas. In these regions, I worked with NGOs and local organisations in Law and Judicial reform, maternity hospitals, children’s hospitals, Courts, Education and girls schooling, the prison system for minors and adult women and other related areas. In war everything is connected to another, it is inevitable. In documenting the cases of these women and children I saw some shocking and horrific things which had a huge and profound effect on me.
One particular incident that left me traumatised and severely depressed was during Id-ul-Fitr, handing out Zakat to poor children and women. Zakat is one of the five mandatory Islamic pillars: either give cash to the needy so that they can purchase what they desire for Eid. It is for the people who don’t have enough to spend on Eid but with Zakat they can celebrate the festival. I too gave some cash as Zakat and paid a large sum for a gun wielding bodyguard, a driver and a vehicle and still it was very frightening. We had to distribute the cash in specific areas to reach our street war widows and where if we were to be ambushed we had a clear route for escape. I also had to sit in the backseat in case the vehicle was fired upon by bandits or mafia to stop us and take the money. The method we applied I refer to as “drive by’s” was that we would come up to the street begging war widow slowly and then crush up $1,000 AFG bills into her hand, before she knew it we had driven off and the women never make a peep, they quickly hide the money or they too will get ambushed and robbed. It was rather scary and despite some hair raising moments we were able to hand out just over $1,000 USD in cash to war widows.
We also distributed meat, which was a different story entirely and the most traumatising for me and the street working kids. Again I hired two body guards (different ones as the others were occupied) plus a car. I had forty-five bags of fresh lamb meat to give and for these kids at $450 AFG a kilo for lamb meat, they eat it perhaps once a year if they are lucky. We had a location in mind where majority of these kids work: selling books, polishing shoes, selling plastic bags etc. On the way there, the roads had been blocked and cordoned off (happens often in war torn Kabul and the traffic is a nightmare). We had no choice but to walk to our destination with the meat, if we waited it will spoil in the rising temperature.
Once we arrived at Charai Haji Yaqoob (Haji Yaqoob Mosque square) the kids which all knew me by then, as this is the way I walked to and from work each day, approached asking “Aunty Helena what do you have for me for Idd?” I started to hand them the bags of meat. They were so orderly, gracious and polite. I was so happy to know they would eat well that night. Then out of nowhere I was pushed and shoved against a fence and surrounded by about twenty men, they started to pull the bag of meat and I resisted and started fighting them. I wondered where my security guards were and found them also pinned and being attacked. I shouted, “run across the street as there are police cars.” As we ran across the street through the traffic we were followed and surrounded by more men, all able bodied, able to work, not aged, not missing limbs or injured. My security continued to stand by either side of me while I had a police car (with four policemen inside) behind me. We continued to hand the bags to the children and then in a moment things changed, my security were physically attacked and the worst the kids were getting caught and beaten as they tried to run off with the meat. We did not have any control over the situation and suddenly my security team were gone and I was stranded and surrounded by over hundred men and more standed watching.
Children’s cries and wails of pain could be heard. I threw myself to the ground to save a five year old who was being held under the foot of a grown man while being punched in the face for taking meat. He would not let go, he had it clutched to his chest and was screaming “aunty help me”. I kicked the man behind his knee from the back and he tore out the meat bag and ran. At this point I had no idea I was still holding another large bag of meat. I stood up, gathered the kids and started hurling abuse at the men standing, watching children getting beaten by men for meat. Then a crowd of men rushed to me and I recall being pinned on a vehicle as they ripped the final bags from my hands. I turned to protect myself and to my amazement I was pinned to a police four-wheeler vehicle and four policemen were sitting inside watching the whole scenario unfold. To me this suddenly did not feel real. It was like a terrible nightmare filled with shouting men, screaming crying children in pain, unbearable heat, noise and dust of Kabul traffic (people had stopped their cars and were watching). I had a clear moment of thought you can drop to your knees in disbelief or get the children out. I punched the police car bonnet and shouted at the men in three languages calling them cowards and a shameful stain on their society.
I calmly addressed the crowd which by now was absolutely huge. I told them what kind of people stand by and watch hungry starving children get robbed of food. What dignified and self respecting person can do that and watch a woman get attacked by a group of men and do nothing. I called them cowards and clearly pointed out that despite the hardships on Afghanistan and its people, common decency does not exist and that is why change cannot come. I gathered the children (while the crowd and police watched) took them to my place, cleaned them up, fed them food and told them to come there tomorrow. One at a time and I promise them of meat. “Please do not tell anyone and bring a bag or backpack,” I told them. The following day I had the butcher sacrifice another lamb and I bought lots of bread (Afghans love bread) and had each child visit and receive their share.
To me this incident was profoundly life changing and a realisation of ultimate human depravity, to have my bodyguards desert me to save themselves, to have the police sit in their vehicles and watch, to have the general public pull up in their cars like it’s a drive by movie, to have adult able bodied men who are able to work rob, bash and harm children and finally have over a hundred strong crowd watch by as children are attacked, was beyond my comprehension. It was the moment I realised this country and more than forty years of hardship will perhaps take another eighty years to repair, for they did not even realise what happened was wrong.
Photographs by Helena Derwash