Thursday, December 17, 2009

Code Pink's misfire on Afghan women by Wazhma Frogh and Lauryn Oate

Friday, December 11, 2009

In October, the women's antiwar organization, Code Pink, went to Afghanistan. The Christian Science Monitor reported that the pink T-shirted women were surprised to learn the overwhelming majority of women do not support a withdrawal of foreign troops from their country. Expecting their counterparts -- Afghan activists fighting for peace and gender equality -- to support their demands, they were confronted with the problem that perhaps their position has been counterproductive to the Afghan women's movement, or even wrong.

We hope this means Code Pink will rethink what we see as a damaging position out of sync with the peace building and development priorities voiced by ordinary Afghans. But why did it take Code Pink so long to ask Afghan women what they think?

Code Pink has been around since 2002. The thrust of their agenda has been to see the departure of soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan. This policy has profound implications for those two countries.

Afghanistan is where the prospects of a Taliban government loom gloomily over a fledgling civil society movement, a population struggling for basic human rights, hoping to be lifted out of poverty. Afghans will ultimately contend with the fallout of abandonment by the international community. Their everyday lives are shaped by decisions made in boardrooms in Washington, Brussels and Ottawa, and by public pressure in those nations. For Afghans, these policies truly are matters of life and death.

It seems logical that a foundational step for Code Pink would be to consult the people who live in those countries, to find out what their actions might mean for those most affected by the position they espouse. Code Pink's modus operandi is symptomatic of a western feminism that is not rooted in values of global solidarity, but is self-interested, insular and shamefully relativist. It is based on tribalism and rejects internationalist values. In this feminism, emancipation is only for western women -- not for women in places like Afghanistan.

On Oct. 12, the New York Times reported that Code Pink would stick to its position of calling for troop withdrawal. Even when the shrillest "antiwar" pseudo-feminists are caught in a direct confrontation with facts exposing the moral bankruptcy of their demands, they recoil from the duty of solidarity with Afghan women in struggle.

If western feminists who have staked out a "troops out" position remembered to ask Afghan women their views, they would find that rather than bristling at "masculine militarization," "cultural imperialism," or any other in-vogue sin found on the placards waved at rallies, many Afghan women are haunted by the memory of the Taliban's public stoning to death of women. They recall what life was like when you couldn't leave your home alone, when you could not speak aloud in the streets because your voice was deemed inhuman, subservient, inherently impure. It was not the West's interference that led to their collective misery, but the lack of it.

Afghan women might also tell you about the intensely empowering experience of watching 1,500 women gathered in Kabul's Loya Jirga tent in the historic "5 Million Women Campaign" where they mobilized to go out and vote. They might tell you about the exhilaration of watching women take their seats in parliament in 2005. They might tell you about the courage of the hundreds of women who protested the discriminatory Shia Personal Status Law that a fundamentalist mullah sought to push through parliament.

Every day, Afghans give us signs of their desire for change and send us reminders that they are entitled to the same rights we enjoy in our privileged and free societies. You can see it in the activists who lobbied for the Elimination of Violence Against Women Law in Afghanistan. You can find it in the schools opening on every corner of

Kabul, and in the journalists courageously calling election fraud and trying to build a free press. You can find it in the more than 100 democratic political parties registered since 2002. You can find it in the reemergence of artists, writers and musicians, whose work the Taliban had banned.

We need to read those signs, and respond to them with the empathy and commitment that we would to those resisting injustices in our own societies. We need to throw our weight behind the need to protect the breathing space Afghans need to lay the foundation for a future where the fascist, misogynist ideology of the Taliban is obliterated. When we pay heed to the progressive voices in Afghanistan, they will drown out the mantras of the Taliban.

Canadian women have an opportunity to stand behind their Afghan counterparts and play a part in a movement that could be the beginning of a lasting transformation. This requires ensuring that what we do at home links into the goals of fellow activists outside our borders. Organizations like Code Pink that profess to be feminist can magnify their impact, their global mindedness and their relevance if their actions mesh with the design Afghan women have for a future where the Taliban would never find a foothold. For now, foreign intervention needs to be part of the picture. Western peace groups and women's organizations can play a role in structuring how that intervention plays out, criticizing it, contributing ideas, and calling for its maximum effectiveness for peace. But they need to acknowledge that Afghan women think Canadians and Americans should be there -- that we may owe them this much, and that it's time we listen as a habit, not exception. Then the real dialogue can start.

Wazhma Frogh is an Afghan human rights activist, gender and development specialist and recipient of the 2009 Internationaal Woman of Courage Award, as well as a Chevening Scholar in International Development Law and Human Rights at Warwick University. Lauryn Oates is a human-rights activist, gender and education specialist and board member of the Canada-Afghanistan Solidarity Committee. She has advocated for Afghan women's rights since 1996, often through Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Emerging Afghan Media: Beyond the Stereotyping of Women? Published Originally by Middle East Institute

The Emerging Afghan Media: Beyond the Stereotyping of Women?

Wazhma Frogh

For the past 30 or more years, media content in Afghanistan mostly has been con- trolled by the central government and its supporters. During this period, as throughout the 20th century, the most important and widely available forms of media have been national radio and television. However, rural perspectives and the realities of rural life have been conspicuously absent from most media content. Moreover, because of tradi- tionally rigid gender roles, Afghan women have had very limited or almost no access to media and information sources.


In spite of the strong hierarchy and patriarchy in Afghan society, central governments, such as that of Habibullah Khan in 1903, introduced a series of social and legal reforms to help raise the status of women and girls and used media to promote gender equality. Mahmud Tarzi started writing about gender equality, human rights, and social inclu- sion in his popular Siraj ul-Akhbar magazine, which was operated by the central gov- ernment. During the same period, King Amanullah’s wife, Queen Soraya, established the first women’s magazine, Irshad-e Naswan, which focused on domestic violence and other social and political issues relating to women. This magazine was a perfect means for the Queen to convey her perspective and that of the King on women’s rights.

A second period of reform occurred during the rule of the Soviet-backed Commu- nist regime. During the Communist era, a third of teachers were women. In addition, a substantial number of women held high-profile positions in the security field and served as doctors and nurses. These efforts to emancipate women were publicized by government-controlled radio and television networks and newspapers.

Nevertheless, Afghan women were depicted in television and radio programming and newspapers as “urban, educated, and modern” citizens. This did more harm than good to Afghan women. The rural communities felt left behind, intimidated, and overlooked by the elites influencing the central government. By representing only the educated elites, the central media created a clear distinction between “good” and “bad” women in the eyes of rural Afghans. Based on these media-created images, local communities gradually formed the opinion that those who were educated wore modern European- style clothing, and worked outside the home were not of good character. Furthermore,

Wazhma Frogh, is currently a Postgraduate Fellow in Inter- national Development and Human Rights Law, Warwick University, UK. The recepi- ent of the 2009 International Woman of Courage Award, Wazhma has been actively promoting Afghan women’s human rights for the past 13 years.

188 Middle East Institute Viewpoints: Afghanistan, 1979-2009: In the Grip of Conflict • www.mei.eduFrogh...

the broadcasted images of women created a very specific and strict gender model for women and girls in rural areas to emulate — although they were the country’s largest demographic. A local elder interviewed in 1990 described a rural woman as “pure, less morally corrupt, and a better Muslim” and stated that education would “pollute” a rural woman’s character. Although this statement represents the view of a single individual, my ten years of experience with rural Afghanistan has proved that this elder’s opinion is widely held in rural Afghanistan with regard to women and about women.


Educating and creating jobs for women and girls in rural Afghanistan is a major challenge for the current central gov- ernment and its international allies. Afghanistan’s emerging media can, and must, play a significant role in meeting this challenge.

According to the 2004 Human Development Report, a rural woman knows four times less than a rural man about the constitutional process or the constitutional rights of Afghan citizens. This fact illustrates the ill effects of rural Afghan wom- en’s and girl’s extremely limited access to information. The low social status of rural women and girls confines them to the immediate surroundings of her household. Yet, it is important to mention that among the rural Afghanistan, few men have ac- cess to modern forms of media, especially radio, and rarely to television due to geo- graphic constraints and sparse socioeconomic opportunities. Meanwhile, illiteracy in the countryside defeats the possibility that communities can be reached through print media, magazines, or newspapers.

According to the 2004 Human Development Report, a rural wom- an knows four times less than a rural man about the constitu- tional process or the constitutional rights of Afghan citizens.

Unfortunately, the emerging Afghan media continues to neglect rural communities. The “typical” Afghan woman is still depicted as educated, modern, and a member of the working class, while the majority of the country’s women are rural, uneducated, and have a very complicated lifestyle, which is different from those portrayed in national and private television channels. It is important to recognize the backlash and resistance in rural communities that such depictions can generate. As Homa Ghosh claims, rural Afghanistan is home to “the roots of tribal powers that have frequently doomed the Kabul-based modernization effort.” Today’s media, too, has overlooked the predominant role of the Afghan woman as rural housewife or rural daughter — one who does not attend school and does not work outside the home. Rural women and girls are not able to relate their lives to the content of current media programs. This creates a backlash whereby there is growing resistance to the idea of educating and empowering women and the stigmatizing of women who are educated or who do work outside the home as dishonorable.

The emerging media forms in Afghanistan have a very important role to play to undo the harm that has been created by previous media sectors with regards to their portrayal of the role and status of women in the country in its differ-

Middle East Institute Viewpoints: Afghanistan, 1979-2009: In the Grip of Conflict • 189


ent regions. Experiences in Afghanistan have shown that inadequate or incomplete knowledge about an incident that involved women has had a huge impact, jeopardizing the social status of women. The recent examples of the killing of female journalists has sparked rumors that have spread from one part of the country to another, closing doors for women and girls to pursue journalism as a profession. Perhaps the female journalists were killed for the same reason that hundreds of their male counterparts have been. But the media’s failure to acknowledge this as a possibility has ramifications for how women are perceived and ultimately how they are treated.

We cannot ignore the impact of globalization on the emerging independent media in Afghanistan. With plenty of in- ternational intervention, the local media has almost lost its autonomy and functions as members of the global village of media actors. However, if the Afghan media endorses international standards of human rights for women with little understanding or regard for the differences between rural and urban populations, the gap between these segments of Afghan society will increase and eventually the country will be torn asunder. After all, international standards are far beyond the understanding and perception of a common villager, who still believes that if children are delivered at home by a daya employing traditional treatments, their children will be much healthier. This is not to suggest that the media should refrain from promoting gender equality. On the contrary, the emerging Afghan media should be doing so with greater vigor, though particular attention to challenging traditional stereotypes rather than reinforcing them.


Media has an important and vital role in social change, by encouraging equality and social inclusion. Therefore, the emerging media in Afghanistan must make an effort to incorporate the rural perspectives of women into the regular media content and to challenge the pervasiveness of domestic violence, gender disparities in health and education, and gender discrimination. The emerging media can accomplish these aims through several means. First, the media can feature male change agents who have had a positive impact on the lives of women and girls. Second, the media can condemn both obvious and hidden forms of gender discrimination. Third, the me- dia can introduce to the public positive images of women as experts, authorities, and skilled resources on various issues such as health, education, security, politics, and governance. Fourth, the emerging media can take steps to strengthen its investigative research capacity and employ it to examine and bring to light the effects of domestic violence on women’s and children’s health, and the need to further the education and political participation of women and girls.

Written in October 09 on Afghanistan elections second round

Why a run off?

“Going to a second round of elections between the two kings, is like the two chopendaz that run so hardly to get the wounded goat that is terribly injured in the first round of Buzkashi. No matter who makes it to hold the goat, it’s the goat that will completely die, and that goat is Afghanistan.” These are the words of my 80 year old grand mother, who still envies her life during 70s in Afghanistan and doesn’t agree that we don’t have kings in Afghanistan anymore.

While the whole world is analyzing, critiquing, deciding about Afghanistan’s elections result and the possibility of a run off, the major question is will a run off ease the current crisis, or increase? At what cost are we pushing for a second round of elections.

It needs to be to understood that a run off will put this fragile state of governance back into suspension, at a time of rising insurgency. When the soldier on the borders of Spin Boldak is still thinking if he should continue the strike, because who knows the next command might come from the ones he is striking at. This is the real situation on the ground in Afghanistan. When the teacher in Kabul has stopped teaching the classes, with the anger that the salary hasn’t come for the past 4 months, when the attorneys have already stopped prosecution of criminals because they are still wondering if they will remain in this job thereafter. The struggles for the power holders to remain in power have limited their reach only to their islands protected by the cement blocks, metal traps and scores of armed AK47 body guards and it won’t be exaggeration that they won’t even know if there is a civil war going on outside their palace.

During July and August, ballot center requirements had to be transported by donkeys on the same roads that are already blocked in the remote and rural areas of Afghanistan. Even if we take it for granted that the ghost voters will transform into real human beings this time and will genuinely vote. A run off that is expected to happen during a fierce winter in Afghanistan. However, if the run off is delayed till next year, the uncertainty and non functionality will take this government back to non existence.

Whenever I see the analysis of the election process by the media, I literally forget that the country in question is Afghanistan. A country that is going through severe war. A country that is indulged into corruption from international aid contracts to approval of a house mortgage contract by the local district court, forgetting that the fierce winter has already fortified the chronic food and heating scarcity for the majority of Afghans. And enduring all these costs for reassuring what is known to us already? Hence, the popular speculations and forecasts have already affirmed the eventual winner.

Here comes the so called argument of legitimacy for the people of Afghanistan that is a lesser matter of concern for Afghans themselves than to the rest of the world. There is a famous Afghan proverb that it’s wrong to re-examine the tested. As an Afghan who is part of the grassroots community for many years, I can assure that a run off recommendation, and that, coming from a UN backed Commission, will not grant any legitimacy to any upcoming government in Afghanistan. But what will, would be to restore the faith of Afghans back to a structure that can be called the government. And that will be to respond to the needs of survival for Afghans that includes security and rule of law in its immediate and stringent manner.

Afghans are worried and fear the warnings of the leading election challenger on the deterioration of the situation or internal conflict because they know that these claims are hugely backed by the power and resources from the war lords responsible for 1992 civil war, when Afghanistan saw its worst times of destruction and when we lost our hundreds of army force that were the strongest in the region.

We are in the similar situation as we were in 1998 or earlier, when the Afghans were frustrated by the violations and fragility of the Mujahidin government and even embraced the Taliban regime of then and allowed them to convert The Republic of Afghanistan to funeral Emirate of Afghanistan. All for the sake of stability and rule of law. This is another debate that the stability and rule of law was barbaric and expansion of oppression on every Afghan man and woman. We have to return back to 2004 and claim legitimacy for an elected government. Today, the mere and immediate crisis for an Afghan is how to survive both economically and politically in a drowning era at the hands of militants and insurgents. I wouldn’t even try to discuss here how much have we already lost in the past 6 months or more, during government uncertainty period, where the functions of the government almost frozen with the fears that its power will be snatched away by the elections outcomes.

What is needed right now for Afghanistan is strengthening its defense and preventing the militants for expanding their reach and access into major cities of Afghanistan. This is a shared goal with the international community and US government, from a national security perspective as well and requires ongoing external assistance.

We are struggling to put a government structure in place for the past 8 years and still aren’t succeeding, and we are demanded to prove how democratic and legitimate we are? The world needs to be realistic with its expectations from Afghanistan that is in a serious war. How much can any war zone achieve in 8 years?

At the same time, a national Loya Jirga (Grand Assembly) should be convened by Afghans themselves so that the Afghans talk to each other and find a solution to the current crisis, which is also a constitutional one, a constitution that its architects themselves are not able to interpret it anymore. This process doesn’t require any expatriate complaint commission, but rather declaring it to Afghans on the part of international community, that you need to learn to stand on your own feet and come up with your own solutions. If the assembly comes up with a solution for the two leading candidates to form a coalition government, then that is what Afghans will call legitimacy. This process can be observed by international community as well; so that they are assured that they have a legitimate partner in the ongoing war. Otherwise, viewing the current crisis from the external checks and balance mechanisms, will not only waste the limited time, but will also intense the current crisis, that may eventually result in a huge internal up rise in Afghanistan.

The mandate of this assembly should be also to come up with benchmarks for the next 5 years for the agreed government, those could be prioritized from the previous efforts of the government or mutually agreed by all members of the assembly, and the parliament should be assigned to monitor its progress. In the next five years, we might be only able to increase our defense and rule of law mechanisms, if adequate resources and measures are provided to strengthen these two fundamental pillars of the government, on which a long term vision for democracy can be built for Afghanistan in near future.