Commentary

Stop Knee-Jerk Blaming of Afghan Men, Culture

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Corrupt, tribal, medieval, misogynist. These are the refrain of reporters, media marketers and officials on Afghanistan. When reporters and officials pander to stereotypes, we lose the chance to understand what's really going on.




Author's husband and baby, center, with two other Afghan-born men, 2008
Author's husband and baby, center, with two other Afghan-born men, 2008.

Credit: Fariba Nawa.

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(WOMENSENEWS)-- After reading more than 500 news articles about Afghanistan in the span of six months, I came to the conclusion that Americans, Europeans and Australians think Afghans are savages who are beyond salvation.

It's the heart of darkness and dumbness, so endemically corrupt and with men so evil that the best thing to do is leave them to themselves to fight it out to the last blood. Their culture advocates domestic violence, zealotry and war. Their women are victims who need to be saved. Council on Foreign Relations fellow Leslie Gelb even suggests Afghan women should be evacuated.

In Gelb's Daily Beast in headlined "To Hell with Karzai," one comment by someone with the screen name Slander summed up the image of my birthplace in the eyes of many Westerners: "You are brothers like Cain and Abel," Slander wrote in response to someone protesting Gelb's piece. "America should leave your country ASAP, so you can be left alone to continue killing one another instead of Americans. Good luck."

This has become the Western narrative of Afghanistan in the last 12 years while the U.S.-led Coalition has been at war in my homeland.

I combed through the actual articles in search of words that classify Afghans.

Endemic, inherent, corrupt, culture, victim, tribal, medieval, misogynist and war-torn popped up over and over again.

So it's no wonder why readers have a simple-minded and racist mentality about an extremely diverse and complicated country. It's what they're fed.

Latest Magnet is Anti-Violence Law

The latest magnet for this narrative was the debate over the Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

A 2009 decree by AfghanPresident Hamid Karzai, invoking international law, made most violent acts against women illegal. As a result, some criminals who committed crimes, such as rape, beatings and bartering young girls, have been prosecuted.

But recently, Fawzia Koofi, a female candidate for the next presidential election and legislator, brought the bill to Parliament over the warnings of women's rights advocates who said conservative legislators would either kill the bill or turn it into a weapon for weakening women's hard-earned rights.

Koofi argued that since the next Afghan president might eradicate the decree it should become permanent Afghan law. She was confident that Parliamentarians would pass it. But when the bill reached Parliament, conservative legislators, including some women, decried it as un-Islamic and blocked it from passing on May 18.

Koofi was wrong and some Afghans accused her of jeopardizing the rights of women so she could score points for her election campaign.

A reporter for the Washington Post by lauding Koofi as the "face of female emancipation in a tribal, male-dominated society." Most of the 552 comments on the piece blame Afghan society and religion as backwards and its men as barbarians.

Better reporting, that didn't pander to stereotypes, would have included an interview with an Afghan male legislator who supported the bill.

Ahmed Behzad, a male legislator, who wants the bill to pass, told me in a phone interview that the conservatives are happy it has fallen into their hands. "They will not let this go now. The President must defend it to make sure the rights of women are not compromised."

It's not just journalists who push the stereotypes. Foreign advisers, policy wonks, military personnel, aid workers and Afghans in positions of power themselves are equally responsible. They're the ones being quoted in most news reports.

For example, United Nations envoy to Afghanistan Jan Kubis in a March 18 press conference explained the 20 percent increase in violence against Afghan women in 2012 on Afghan tradition and culture. "The majority is linked to domestic violence, tradition, culture of the country," Kubis told reporters at the United Nations in New York.

And the press ran with that.

Other Explanations Omitted

Kubis could have said that several reasons account for the rising violence against women. These women are fighting not just patriarchy but 30 years of what war does to a country. War has demoralized Afghanistan men, living with no jobs, no legs and no dignity. Some turn on their women as a result. It has created one million war widows, some who are forced to become prostitutes. Families in debt and afraid of being killed by drug smugglers barter and force their daughters into marriages. The daughters rebel and some are killed.

Then there's the problem of what media marketing professionals think the public wants to hear.

Take my own book, "Opium Nation," about Afghanistan. I didn't choose the title. My preference was "Where the Poppies Bloom." But the marketing team didn't think that would sell well and the publisher had final say.

The truth is that Afghanistan, a country at war for 30 years, has some of the worst human rights abuses against women and children. It supplies 90 percent of the world's opiates. Ethnic and linguistic divisions are rife. These problems need to be covered, of course.

My issue is that the description is one-dimensional and the American mindset regarding Afghanistan has become linear. It fails to recognize other truths.

The Afghan man who has been demonized for the last 12 years is not so evil after all.

For every father who barters his daughter into marriage, there is one who scrutinizes every suitor who asks for his daughter's hand and only agrees to marriage with her permission. For every brother who beats his sister, there is one who will offer his food to her and go hungry himself. For every husband who bans his wife from school, there is one who will send his wife to school while he works menial jobs.

I saw the warmth of Afghan men firsthand as I traveled across the country for five years. I married one during my journey back to my homeland. My husband Naeem is far more open-minded, affectionate and committed than many men I have met in the United States.

Also, women are not just victims; they can be perpetrators. Many cases of violence against women are other women beating their daughters-in-laws or daughters.

Afghan women are humans with flaws. Do not glorify them. Many of those who are attacked fight back, and the increasing numbers of violence actually reveal the empowerment of women.

For the first time, violence is being recorded and reported. In the much-reported case of teenager Sahar Gul, her husband and in-laws beat and tortured her after she refused to be a prostitute. Her refusal is the agency and change against misogyny. Resistance is often met with violence.

But this kind of explanation takes up too much space and time. It's just easier and simpler for the media and experts to blame it on Afghan culture, and then the public does the same.

of "Opium Nation: Child Brides, Drug Lords and One Woman's Journey through Afghanistan."

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Thank you, Fariba, for writing this article.

One thing I was very surprised to learn from Shinkai Kaokhail, an MP from Kabul, when I was interviewing her for my book, Gathering Strength: Conversations with Afghan Women, is that she gets more support for her women's rights initiatives from MALE MPs than female ones! She said she can count on about 40% of male MP's to support women's issues. Part of the reason for the women's lack of support on issues that would directly affect them is that they are in parliament because some conservative men financed their campaign and they feel powerless to vote against their patron's wishes.

Many progressive Afghan women's organizations have male supporters, including RAWA and Young Women For Change. The group, Afghan Peace Volunteers, consists of men who work for women's rights as well as peace.

And as this article says, Afghan women are not necessarily innocent of violence against other women. Usually, it's domestic violence, mothers-in-law (and sisters-in-law) against the new bride. It's been estimated that 25% of Afghan domestic violence is perpetrated by women.

Yes, there are many repressive and sometimes sadistic Afghan men. These kinds of men exist in every culture but so do good men. The argument here is that it's important to look beyond the stereotypes and realize that there are people of all kinds in every culture. Maybe Fariba's husband is educated and westernized, but I also met a 60 year old rural woman who now lives in a squatter camp. She told me that she has a very loving relationship with her husband and that they have lived their lives as partners. I'm also sure there are examples of Western men who are educated but still horrible and repressive.

We do ourselves and the world a disservice when we accept stereotypes without looking into them deeply. I include in this statement the stereotype that many developing world people have of Western women, ie. that we are all sex-starved harlots. This stereotype is based on the films our countries produce and export that make it to Afghanistan and other places around the world.

Peggy

I wish you wrote about what causes women to become "perpetrators." A male dominated society itself causes women to both hate themselves and other women. When men do not let women to get education, when men have more than one wife and keep all of them in one house, when men create an environment at home where women have to fight with each other to get power and attention as mother-in-law or daughter-in-law, when men do not allow their women to even leave their houses, how do you expect those women to behave...? Your husband is an educated man who has been living in a modern country, how can you compare him with a man who treats his wife and animals the same?

I am the first to argue against cultural stereotypes based on ignorance and fear. But I believe this writer's anger is misdirected. There is a reason Newsweek named Afghanistan one of the 10 worst countries to be a woman. There's a reason it's been ranked the #1 worst place to be a mother. Facts don't lie - Afghanistan does offer a host of problems for you if you are a woman. Instead, the writer might point out the cultures often righteously criticizing Afghanistan have their *own* horrifying abuses of women - the U.S. is hardly perfect either. The honest approach, therefore, is recognition that most every country denies women full basic human rights, with some more egregious and common than others

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