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Afghan Women, Culture, and Development

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written by Melissa Kerr Chiovenda

A recent report from Human Rights Watch describes the situation of Afghan women who are jailed for committing "moral crimes." These women are accused of running away from abusive husbands or of committing adultery, while others were raped or were forced into prostitution. Within the next several days, more stories concerning the problems of Afghan women came to my attention, one on opium addicts and another on self-immolation. The plight of these women raises several questions: What will happen to them when U.S. and NATO forces withdraw? Will the Taliban gain control of the country again, restricting women to their houses and denying them the chance for education or employment? Will projects designed to protect women's rights fall by the wayside? And, how much progress has been made with respect to improving the lives of Afghan women?

As an anthropologist conducting research in Afghanistan, I find that whenever the gaze of the international media falls on Afghan women I feel uncomfortable. Implied in many reports is the suggestion that Afghan women need to be saved from their own culture. (an insightful piece on this is "Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?" by Lila Abu-Lughod). The idea that the United States needed to help the women of Afghanistan was strongly promoted in the early years of the conflict. For many, after reading about Afghan women certain questions arise: "What can we do? But, is anything we do hopeless, as these problems are deeply ingrained into the culture?" I also want to help Afghan women, especially those I know personally, but there is little I can, or should, do as a researcher. While voicing support for continued international military involvement against the Taliban might be one answer, the battles between insurgents and international forces in Afghanistan have increased instability, putting women in danger and possibly continuing a trend that has been going on for many years, whereby women's lives are more restricted as their families and communities try to protect them from both the gaze of outsiders and increased violence.

Is culture the problem?

The Taliban, and Islam, are often blamed for the oppression of Afghan women, yet another oft-named culprit is Afghan culture, due to practices, such as stoning and baad, that deny women basic rights. This point in itself is somewhat problematic, as Afghanistan is an incredibly ethnically and culturally diverse country. During the past two summers I conducted fieldwork with Afghan women working on international development projects in Jalalabad and Bamyan, Afghanistan. The lives of women in these two areas, the first populated by ethnic Pashtuns and the second by Hazaras, are very different, as Hazara women are much less constrained (although they also face many difficulties) by behavioral norms that limit their activities outside of their households.

I wanted to find out, particularly among the Pashtuns in Jalalabad, how women working for development NGOs "bent the rules" of their community regarding the proper comportment for women by traveling daily to an office and regularly into the surrounding countryside to monitor projects in outlying villages. Pashtuns are generally recognized to be the most conservative group in Afghanistan, particularly regarding the behavior of women. I myself was very restricted in my movements. I could not leave the house without my husband, and I always wore an enveloping, light blue burqa when I went out.

The women working for development NGOs I interviewed in Jalalabad changed many of the assumptions I had when I first arrived. Most importantly, they showed me that rather than subverting Pashtun culture, they embrace it even as they change it. They take what they believed to be the most important aspects of the culture -- modesty, hospitality, showing respect for men, and they put it to use for their work. They look to their male colleagues as older brothers who they can depend on to protect them. An office segregated by sex means that women receiving support from an NGO safely and comfortably meets with the female staff. The NGO workers listen carefully to the elders in the villages where they carry out projects and try to provide the most needed services. The women use their culture to justify their work as improving the lives of fellow Pashtuns. They show that cultural norms are not static but can, in holding a variety of meanings for different individuals, be enacted in different, malleable, ways.

What assistance do Afghan women most need?

The Pashtun women NGO workers I interviewed have very strong ideas on what is most necessary for the reconstruction and development of Afghanistan, and they are not always in agreement with international donors. Most of my informants work on income generation projects involving handicraft and carpet production for women living in villages. Almost all of the NGO workers said, however, that if donors really want to help Afghanistan, they would focus on large-scale infrastructure development which would promote business. Male income generation projects should be given more attention, as a family in which the wife earned while the husband didn't was more vulnerable to discord or abuse. What these women believe is needed to help other women was access to education and health care. I often heard male leaders of development projects state that the important thing is to "get money into the hands of the women," while women working for the same projects told me a different story. Of course, not all women working for such projects share this view, and not all international development organizations focus primarily on women's income generation. One organization reported that they had shifted their main goals to large scale infrastructure projects, such as providing electricity. They realized that these types of projects were what the people felt were most important, and they also recognized that projects related to activities such as carpet weaving, while well meaning, can all too often lead to exploitative relationships between women and children and other family members (my own research confirmed this). The overall sentiment among Pashtun women working for these projects is, however, that there is a disconnect between the types of projects most needed to improve the lives of Afghan women and the types of projects that were being funded. They are willing to accept any help provided, however, despite their frustrations.

What can be done for Afghan women?

I cannot pretend to know the answer to this question, but I can reiterate some of the points that the women I interviewed in Jalalabad made. First, continued military operations in the region will, at least in the short term, make lives more difficult for women living in these areas. They are forced to cope with insecurities arising from both insurgent activity and NATO and US forces. Often, these threats result in a tightening of restrictions on women's lives, either because their family or they themselves fear for their safety if they venture too far from their households. Second, any attempt to provide development projects for Afghan women must take into account that they are embedded in a web of social and familial relations which are deeply important for all involved. For this reason, it is wise to focus on projects that will develop the infrastructure of Afghanistan and put men to work, rather than continuing to over-focus on women's income generation which, while important, should be a secondary consideration. Third, even the most independent Pashtun (insert Hazara, Uzbek, Tajik, etc) woman is most likely going to still consider herself part of the culture she grew up in, and while she might rail against certain aspects of that culture, other aspects will be valued and embraced. The ways that women make use of the dynamic aspects of their culture even as they promote change in some areas of society needs to be better understood.

Melissa Kerr Chiovenda is a Doctoral Candidate, Graduate Assistant, and Summer Class Instructor in anthropology at the University of Connecticut. She has conducted fieldwork in Afghanistan since 2009, when she began traveling there with her husband during every break from classes and teaching responsibilities. Her research has focused on Hazaras in Bamyan (Central Afghanistan) and Pashtuns in Jalalabad (Eastern Afghanistan).