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Children in the notorious Jalozai refugee camp (c.mann)

FemAid report: From Kabul to Kisangani

September 2011

For the last ten years, I have been going just about every year first to Pakistan, then Afghanistan, coming back with long reports published on the FemAid site.
Now in under one year, I’ve been twice to DRC, to lecture in Kisangani university on gender issues, on the way to help setting up the first gender study institute in the country, with the extremely enterprising sociology department. As usual, aid projects are part of the project as can be seen from the site (

This is the country formerly known as Zare, the Congo that had once been Belgian King Leopold’s private African back-garden, ruled with savagery beyond imagining. Little in common with Afghanistan and there again quite a bit, when it comes to rampant corruption and nepotism, an inefficient army and police, the tentacles of globalization in control of resource management and the local population as absolute victims of this combined process. More about this a bit later.

I’ve been to big sprawling ugly Kinshasa, with its endless traffic jams and tin cans made of shards of blackened metal posing as cars letting out hellish fumes. Half the city’s in the dark and the atmosphere is aggressive, each one for himself. The Chinese have built a huge eight-lane highway in the middle of the city, part of the 3500km of roads they are meant to build, along with 31 hospitals and 145 health centres. Some of the provincial roads are already buckling up because of the flimsy material used. Amongst the many rumours in circulation is the one about the Chinese convicts being sent to built them on a one-way ticket to Congo. In exchange of this and several heavy-duty loans, they allowed to help themselves to fourteen billion dollars worth of cobalt and copper, not to mention the less documented items of a possibly more unsavoury nature. To my outraged reaction, my friend Antoine just answers, shrugging his shoulders “Look so far, colonizers and multinational companies since have just helped themselves to our resources. At least these guys are doing something in exchange”. He may have a point, but only to a limited degree. The situation is unacceptable. One little thing struck me: the identical office furniture in mock mahogany and faux brass, made in China in both countries. In neither place has anyone bothered to remove the bubble-wrap from the swivelling arm chairs and the plastic upholstery has the same nauseating smell. In Herat, Afghanistan, such furniture was given to NGOs by the American PRT (Provincial Reconciliation Team). The package included a little bell you could hit to call someone in to bring the tea. But in Congo, no-one goes ‘Ping’ in business meetings to offer you anything at all. They might pour you a cuppa in Afghanistan, but in Congo, nothing, not even the western NGOs; if you get lucky, you may get given a bottle of sucr, enamel-eroding Coke or Fanta made locally under licence. Soft drinks, the very emblem of globalization, have definitely taken over the world, with disastrous consequences in terms of diabetes in Africa, all the more that the main dishes are starch- note the aptly-named Boule nationale in Congo, made from kassava flour, washed down with Primus beer. Never mind the fabulous fruit falling off the trees, these are rarely eaten, hardly considered real food… Remember that the first factory newly elected president Karzai opened was an Afghan-Cola plant…

In Kisangani where I spend more time- teaching at the university, starting new aid projects, I was interviewed by a very nice journalist. She asked me: “But if you work specifically on gender and awar, why do you come here? We’re not at war”?
To which I answered. “Yes you are. Economic war, perhaps the most sinister of all. All your resources are being ruthlessly pillaged by multinational corporation and people here forced into poverty, by way of acute violence. Surely that’s also war.” She smiled sadly, sweetly and nodded, her pencil poised in mid-air, not sure if she could write that immediately down. Meantime, I could feel the sweat drip from the base of my skull and neck, my blouse ready to be wringed-out as she remained crisp and dainty.
Indeed, in the past few years, I’ve seen different aspects of war- not all out shelling and snipers as I had experienced in Sarajevo, or even the occasional terrorist attack in Kabul but some of the other kinds, especially the one fuelled by the modern economic rationale. The chronic, insidious cancer of our societies that feeds on human lives and expectations.

In Afghanistan, I had watched a bungled Western intervention digging its own grave to reveal its true motivations. What had fallaciously had begun as some kind of pretend operation to save the burqa-shrouded women in Afghanistan (whatever saving meant in the diminutive minds of the politicians who orchestrated that public relations operation) had lost any such messianic pretence by 2010, if not before. It really hit home with me when that ill-fated Operation Mushtarak was launched. That ISAF grand production which started in February 2010 brought together several of their troops, mainly American and British, in coordination with a shredded Afghan army to liberate what their PR variously called ‘the town’ or even ‘the city of Marjah’ (in truth just an expanse of fields with one mosque and a couple of tumble-down shops) from the Taliban. The interesting part is that this place is situated in the heart of Helmand which holds the world’s major resources in a) poppies for opium b) cannabis. As an added, albeit less publicised attraction, there are uranium mines in the vicinity, which I have been told more than once are being exploited by British forces, so that makes it c), indeed three excellent reasons to carry out a supposedly military operation against imminent allies of the US government. As we all know, the self-same General Mc Chrystal who was leading this inspired operation had gone on record in the previous month for recommending negotiations with the Taliban, much to the dismay of Afghan feminists. Is this a case of schizophrenia, the innocent reader may ask? Au contraire, a vivid example of economy-based realpolitik! Let’s pretend to attack the evil enemy so we can occupy a strategic place between Iran and Pakistan and above all, gain control to all these illicit substances we like to penalize on a street level, but depend on to finance elections, shady government deals in brief preserve precious cash reserves so handy in these days of failing national economies. That’s Chrystal clear surely (forgive me that lousy pun).

Did someone say human rights, women’s rights? Definitely and fatally last item of anyone’s agenda. If you need any proof, just check the statistics after ten years of Western presence in Afghanistan. The country holds the worst record for maternal and child mortality, the lowest level of female literacy. After billions pumped into the country for aid. Of course, it’s easy and partly justified to blame local corruption: but had their been a real will from those right at the top to change things, workable strategies would have been enforced, including those taking into account Afghan traditions and ways of seeing the world. I have spent years of my life trying to get this through, from Kabul to Geneva and Paris and have failed dismally. of course, I’m neither worldly nor particularly tactful or PC, but the truth of the matter is that those in power don’t care. Money speaks loudest and the rest of the world has be silent. An underfed thirteen-year old mother in Afghan village is not a future investor or consumer, so who cares?

Now what about the Congolese mother- more likely to be close to sixteen or seventeen? Nobody has officially invaded the country to save her or anyone else for that matter. Admittedly, feminists are troubled and justifiably so by the wave of rapes taking place in the east of the country. Public opinion has equally begun to show alarm, so some funding appears to be available for victims and the NGOs who are trying to look helpful in this situation. Whatever helpful means as they arrive very much aprs la bataille, so to speak, after the battle, once the disaster is there staring you in the face. Prevention takes place in the form of moralising admonitions that do not appear to have great effect, but yes, as people have been telling me, funding is available for this emergency so this is what you are meant to be busying with yourself to interest donors… But do not probe too deeply, for instance into the whole economic system that has taken the civilian population hostage especially in the mine-rich regions of the Congo. We know about blood diamonds, but there is blood-gold, blood copper, blood coltane (the all-precious material that goes into your mobile phones and computers), so in brief there is blood-High Tech as well. Who’s ready to tackle that one in the vast multinational world of relief dependent on international political organisations? You might well ask…

Kisangani, some as 1700km up the river Congo from Kinshasa is an ideal vantage point to view this problematic country. Once known as Stanleyville, this is the city Conrad talks about but does not mention in the Heart of Darkness which is a good way of describing its location in the midst of the tropical rain forest, a lush expanse of endless green, crossed by pink ribbons of earth roads. It lies 50km away from the Equator, which means that there are no seasons, save a rainy one and a dry one, each for three months, but through global warming, even here, the rhythm has disappeared, leaving nature confused. Thus, we should have been in the midst of the dry season, with caterpillars falling off trees straight into the frying pan- because this is meant to be a great delicacy not to mention a major source of protein. But not so right now

The city has a dream-like quality, or maybe I was in a continuous trance because of the light and the climate. The mythological river flows slowly, with gondola-shaped canoes going from one bank to another. The colonial buildings- some good twenties and thirties architecture amongst them have been appropriated by the state and are in a state of imminent collapse, especially as the war wounds have never been repaired and walls riddled with bullet holes are covered in black mould. Electricity is haphazard at best with the few who can afford it resorting to charcoal made by artisans locally or fuel-fed generators. Petrol is mainly sold by women, with various admixtures on wooden shelves at street corners: transparent plastic containers of uncertain size showing a liquid of varying shades of amber. You need to know your supplier personally. The latest arrival of Chinese made motor-cycles are heralding the way the city is going if nothing is done to stop the exponential pollution.

On every street corner, there what iare known as les ngotiants, the people who buy up gold, diamonds just about everything that can be mined in the area, with evocative names such as ‘La Paix du Christ’. They theoretically work ith some kind of official license, whatever that means. Nowadays, rural diggers (les creuseurs) are savvy about gold prices, but for diamonds it’s far more difficult to assess. These counters run a brisk business, some advertise on TV. For instance ‘Gustave, achat diamonds, grande puissance’. The ad shows a man with an ear-to-ear smile handing out wads of dollars to a well-dressed couple who are then seen climbing into a new car. Nothing could be further from reality and besides women, do not partake in this business at all. If some of the miners have walked for days on end from the middle of the jungle to these places, often middle-men have bought them out on the sites directly, paying them a pittance and they are the ones who roll in to Solidiam, Papa ibrahim Needless to say, quite number of these places are owned by foreigners I am told, Lebanese, Indians. I heard that a couple of Norwegians were doing time in the local jail for running this kind of racket. For them to actually get caught AND incarcerated, whatever they did must have been pretty nasty, even by the relaxed local business standards

People working in the administration complain that they have n’t been paid in months, teachers, officials of every kind suffer from the same predicament. University professors run shops, students and office workers sell ice or cold drinks from their homes. Policemen routinely beg for tips and/or stop cars under any pretext to extort some kind of ransom. That’s not so different from Afghanistan, after all.

Life in Kisangani is expensive when it comes to buying anything at all; the real problem is that people are cash strapped. There is some kind of tax system and it is collected directly where one is working- admittedly, it can be negotiated but it still means pulling out those green bills which have to come from somewhere. BTW, according to their agreement, the Chinese are exonerated from any kind of tax as are the wealthiest, and that by their own decree. The economy is aligned on the dollar, as everywhere else in countries enslaved to the Debt. At the end of the Mobutu reign, the IMF ordered mass privatization, as a result much social aid disappeared, especially the health and education department. Of course, with all the wealth in that country just under the ground, it should be the opposite: indeed the place is potentially heaven on earth, it has everything going for it. I am certainly naive as usual when I say that I have rarely met such generous, enthusiastic people determined to make things work, but this is how I feel at the moment and I take responsability for my own optimism, a chronic disease to be sure! But despite this potential, for many it is indeed hell on earth

And those who have to cope, day in day out, are the women, the relentlessly brave Congolese women who, whatever their age, buy and sell. A handful of cassava flour here, some plantains there. A purely hand to mouth existence, they are the ones who bring in the much needed cash to pay bills and buy food All are unbelievably enterprising, in a single-minded way, but however competitive, show great solidarity and support for each other. Young women have quite recently started a street-level restaurants, serving omelettes, cooked on the spot, with an option of fried plantain. You eat them standing up or resting against the odd car or wall from a plate, otherwise, they are packed to take-out. These eggs have been coming in lately in vast quantities from Uganda, by truck and are bought by middle-men who then sell them in the city. Young men boil them and sell them as street food-rather like in cafs in Paris, with salt and chilli powder to dip, whereas girls cook them, bringing in the relatively new notion of fast-food on a manageable, affordable level. There are no burger bars or anything of the kind in town. Other women sell defrosted fish that has come up the river in ice-containers and at times, get together to capitalize on the stock and push up the prices. Often non-literate and counting in units and cup-fulls, these indomitable women use market-control techniques ruthlessly. The children (they all have several, each one is seen as a blessing) follow their mothers to the market; they might go to school for a few hours, eighty pupils huddled in a room. A woman carrying a heavy load on her head or selling at the market with a baby strapped to her back is a frequent sight. That young woman, fighting away relentlessly every day of the week is the one who is paying for the planetary madness known as economic globalisation. Selling her bunches of amaranth leaves, she is the one ultimately paying off the world’s debts and the traders’ bonuses. Her very existence is all that’s left to guarantee return-on-investment.

But in Afghanistan women are absent from the public, or rather still excluded . The few girls who work in downtown Kabul remain an exception. There are lawmakers in Karza’s cabinet who are tryng to enforce the Quranic recommendation that no woman should move around without a male relative, whch means cutting these hapless girls right out of the job market. With the Taliban at the gates of Kabul, such measures are bound to be written into the legislation, sooner rather than later. Has anybody evaluated how much the absence of women in the open work space contributes to impoverish a country? This is what has started to happen in parts of Nigeria where Sharia’h law has taken over and for the first time in African history, women are locked into their compounds. On top of everything else, how bored they must be, cut out of the buzzing social life that working in the market, talking with clients, breathing in the rhythm of the city of which they are so much part of.

Unlike Afghanistan, schools and health centres are plentiful in Kisangani, but the money to pay is rare: in some areas, up to 40% of children don’t attend school. In case of illness, traditional advice is sought before finally resorting to white man’s costly medicine. This may well be more efficient in many cases, especially as so many counterfeit drugs flood the market. A whole area of town has a high concentration of healers and fortune tellers. As Hyppolite, a botanist told me, there are many plants in the forest that can be used with greater benefit than much modern medication. The anarchic sprawling of the city, uncoordinated land exploitation, unregulated tree-poaching, not to mention the do-it-yourself gold mining mean that the plants seem to have taken refuge further inside the forest.

There is health education, that seems to be effective, at least in theory. Yes certainly as some women told me, birth control is recommended but apart from condoms (which men are often reluctant to use), female contraception is expensive and often supplies break down. So, as in Afghanistan, between five and eight children remains the norm. Same with water; cholera broke out earlier this year and is always looming in the near distance, made worse by the absence of any garbage disposal and open sewers. As Angle told me: “Yes we all know that if we boil water, amoebas and cholera can be voided, but the fuel- charcoal or petrol- is just too expensive and we need to chose. So that’s simple enough: food comes before water”

An Afghan diary, November 2009

The view from Kandahar airport

The plane has landed at Kandahar airport on my way back to Paris via Dubai. As good a place as any to start this report about my latest trip. Welcome to Kandahar International Airport, it says. A stop-over to Dubai from Kabul. Somehow, one does n’t exactly feel that welcome. Could it be the US war planes that just took off at full speed, spewing flames into the dusk? Next to me sit a few high cheeked, heavy featured young men speaking Russian- did their fathers fight here? If so, in view of the chunky sports watches, they’ve come back with a vengeance, a solid profit-based vengeance. War is big business. Look at who gets out of this cramped Ariana airlines plane, replete with ashtrays and a no-smoking sign. Kandahar is n2 opium producing region of the country, a Taliban stronghold and a female literacy rate of under 1%. What a success story in 8 years of Western presence, even though admittedly things are much better in the cities! Local ‘entrepreneur’ types (to use fashionable parlance) make their way to the exit, turbans, smooth beards, a mixture of rose water and quotidian sweat. My neighbours exude vodka. An unfortunate woman in a blue burqa cautiously threads her way up the aisle, groping at the seats. Her husband is clutching a baby who begins to whine, the father starts shouting at the infant, baring his teeth, the woman whirls round, grabs the distraught mite, as if used to her husband’s rage. How she manages to walk down that rickety stairway to get of the plane in the dusk, with an unlit tarmac, I’ll never know.

Reflexions on my aid mission eight years on. Each Afghan person I’ve met this time is convinced that I’ve come on some humanitarian business, wielding megabucks, the World Bank in person; an ulterior motive is suspected, whatever it, but presumably sinister and nothing to do with actually helping anyone but myself. My dear young friend Zala has to explain each time, patiently starting anew with each person we meet in Farah. I’ve known Carol for over eight years, she’s a teacher, not a manager, she does projects connected with women’s rights, she earns all the money she brings here etc etc. FemAid is not the World Bank etc. I am viewed as a curiosity, not that interesting as I’m not rich and don’t appear to have resources. Idealism is not a word with any kind of resonance here, not even with those groups I had once believed in and supported. This time round, I ‘ve emerged quite gloomy from this trip. My hitherto indomitable optimism has been shaken to the core.

Big white guilt

War, as I have just said is business. Two days ago in Kabul, I had my camera in my hand fumbling for something in my bag and a woman in a blue burqa came up to saying, ‘You’re going to make money out of my face, are n’t you’, thereby instantly demanding dollars. I’ve had the same comment thrust at me in a village in Senegal. The Afghan woman was aware of the global market place the media constitute. I hope that she gets angry at the right person next time, not some idealistic sod like me… Prices for pizzerias and coffee- now that the latter have appeared here- are practically Western. Will Starbucks and Mac Afghan open as half the country quietly starves? As soon as a foreign face appears - mine, for instance - as just now at the airport store, prices are multiplied by ten. Of course one can blame to foreign presence for this and just about everything, but that’s too easy. Admittedly ‘Farangi’ are n’t exactly loved and never have been, Russian, American, Chinese or whatever. A beautician I met the other day regarding our project for training a girl from Farah for our Centre paid me a handsome compliment: “Usually foreigners’ faces are n’t nice, I really don’t like them but you’re really pretty, you’ve got such nice smooth skin”. Should I be flattered? Imagine saying the same in Paris or anywhere else in the world, why should we find excuses for this kind of comment just because of some delayed post-colonial guilt?
I’ve stopped idealizing Afghans and Afghanistan: my readings of Pierre Centlivres and Louis Dupree fall short in front of the reality that has been thrust in my face.

They reminisce an age of innocence which doubtless may have existed before war, but does n’t this fantasy smacks of paternalism? The ‘innocent’ native, the happy-go-lucky peasant etc. The rich were much happier than the poor and everyone beat their wife. Paradise very likely, until the Farangi (foreigners) turned up. OK, so it’s the Imperialists’ fault, but in view of the reality today, that’s rather like spending your whole life complaining about everything your parents gave or did n’t give you and never taking responsibility for your own life. Enough already. The only ones who don’t complain (enough) and would be entitled to do so are the women. So are warlords really only corrupt because “We” whoever we may be (count me out) put them in power? It’s all the more difficult to cultivate romantic fantasies about a place when one has caught some ghastly stomach bug and lives in less than salubrious conditions without a proper loo. Romanticism flies out of the window when your innards rumble!!!

And the winner is…

This place has still the world’s highest rate of maternal mortality (in Badakhshan), despite all the massive investments. Afghanistan produces about 95% of the world’s opium used for heroin. Literacy remains spectacularly low, the democratic process and the very notion of basic human rights are inexistent - but you can buy Viagra in smart supermarkets and “Romantic Dream Life” products, including “Smart Love Woman gel” that produce “Virginity” and “Tightening Vagina Muscle”… Homeira, the midwife in Farah who sees women about their problems twice a week at our Center explained to me that husbands complain that their wives’ vaginas’ have become too wide, in view of the many babies they have (8 on average) so sex is no longer fun for them. These unfortunate women complain about the alternatives that are enforced upon them in the name of male gratification as well as the fact that husbands won’t let them use contraception… (Is that the fault of the West as well?) But if you’re wealthy, you can buy these Wunder products, that probably work like a million wasp stings. Is that why tubes of surface analgesics are sold just next to ‘Romantic Dream Life’ offerings, to be bought by considerate males? Global capitalism meets undiluted machismo, a marriage made in heaven. Buy, buy, buy, don’t ask questions, just spend the money you don’t have or better still, finds ways of raising it, does n’t matter how, in the name of ‘empowerment’ and ‘entrepreneurship’ There on the shelf of Chelsea Super Market (sic) lies the portentous symbol of all that the Afghan ‘success story’ might crumble to if some basic thinking is n’t undertaken…

And the Taliban are getting stronger…

To come back to the doleful state of affairs here. Of course, one could say that most money pouring in here goes to the war itself- in which case why on earth are the Taliban stronger than ever before? The US initially wiped them out in a week and now these people are better equipped than ever before… Could some of the resources have been leaked out, by any chance? Rumours and indeed more than that abound…Some NATO countries just can’t politically afford any more casualties and are said to pay the Taliban to hold their guns, so that their leaders can stay in place: Canada and Italy have been amongst those openly accused (and we won’t go into the ones covertly implicated). Others are very busy with the ever lucrative heroin trade which is booming since the Coalition Forces landed. What about the story about Taliban forces being flown by military helicopters from the South to areas further north where they had never been before? US ambassador Karl Eikenberry took great pains to deny this particularly persistent rumour which President Karazi asserted as a verified fact. Why, you may ask, have the Western troops retreated from Nuristan, a province which borders Pakistan , therefore reinforcing over-the-border (which is no border anyway) Taliban activity? Totally incomprehensible to me.

The PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Team) in action.

In the meantime, of course, there is the reconstruction effort and these are real, and tangible: I have seen the American PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Team) in Farah do an admirable job, recognized by the local population. The main problem is that a) the teams don’t always get the right advice, as there are no real experts (except the local self-styled types who are usually after personal profit) or anthropologists to guide them and b) the PRT teams don’t stay long enough (9 months) to familiarize themselves with the situation and develop some of sense criticism about local politics. Empowering a weak government is certainly laudable aim, but the motivations of those who purport to represent it on a provincial level would need greater scrutiny. The public interest is not the motivation for garnering those juicy contracts, why does n’t the State Department wake up to that? I am realizing that it is far easier for the local big-wigs to get sizeable money (at a time where contracts are getting bigger, therefore less easy to control) than small grass-roots outfits like Zala’s HOLD which we, FEMAID, support.

The results of blind support are predictable: some schools and other buildings have had to be rebuilt as local contractors have used shoddy materials- and guess who would get the total blame if and should one of these collapse with kids inside? I know that some of those reading these lines will assume I have gone over to the Dark Side for not wagging an accusing finger at the arch-Satan Amerika exploiting angelic Afghans. Well, Satan comes in many shapes and sizes and be assured there’s more than one of them and they certainly admirably coordinate their efforts. And as for angels, keep looking skywards. Zala and some of my young friends qualify, certainly, but the older generation (i.e. my own) is rotten beyond the core, let’s hope they don’t sit around too long to contaminate the next one.

What the elections mean in rural Afghanistan

Take the whole election issue, for instance. Now that the electoral fever has begun to abate in Kabul, I realize how little this meant in provincial Afghanistan, in the province of Farah where I spent the best part of a week, with Zala to work on our Women and Children’s Centre. This extremely remote province is set in a harsh desert. The PRT call it the Wild West of Afghanistan, Fort Apache.120 km away from the Iranian border, it is the third poppy producer of the country, after Kandahar, and 50% of the region is still under Taliban control- all of which is said to represent considerable progress in recent years. Which is to say that it has been worse, indeed much worse, especially in the regional capital known as Farah-City, reputedly pacified, according to the local authorities. The energetic local Education Ministry representative was very proud that by now 8% of girls could now read, whilst I was alarmed by the 92% tht could n’t.
In the first round of elections on August 20th, there was a considerable turn-out, not because of the president, but because of the voting of Provincial Council members which was taking place on the same day. The seven coucillors form the most representative local body as the Governor is an outsider nominated in Kabul without any proven aptitude for the job or even affinity with the local population. The present Governor, a jovial man called M.Roohula Amin explained to me that had previously worked in an NGO in Peshawar in Pakistan, he is a staunch Pushtoon nationalist, and explained to me at length that Afghan culture had absolutely nothing to do with nearby Iran… A debatable point, it seems to me, but I did n’t want to get into any form of discussion in his office, even if I was sipping delicious Iranian peach juice, shrouded in my black Iranian-style veil, whilst he was knocking back Red Bull which has appeared on the upscale Afghan market. Will M.Rohulla Amin fare better than his predecessors? In six years, there have been seven governors in this unruly province, most of them ousted by an exceptionally angry population, usually tolerant of corruption and favouritism. In the country, it is ‘normal’ to pay for a job, a favour of any kind, including stuffing a four-wheel drive with opium. Rapists and murderers buy themselves out of jail, and no-one bats an eyelids, save the unfortunate victims or their representatives who have brave enough to drag them to court. The deputy Head of Women’s Affairs in Kabul told me that their biggest problem was indeed the Justice Ministry and especially the bribe-happy judges

Anyway, the president (Karzai or Abdullah, it would have been the same) in the eyes of the voters, merely represents he who nominates the top dignitaries according to their degree of allegiance. The latter, in turn will favour, their own set of cronies and the whole system of reciprocity is replicated right down the social scale. The situation has to be seen as the a perfected form of feudalism, where a inherently weak suzerain gives out fiefs to governors and various rewards to assorted vassals in exchange of military help, in this case against the Taliban as this is the basis of the deal with the West. Not that moral considerations come into this. Take the sanguinary warlord, Ismael Khan, once governor of Herat and now Ministry for Energy. As leader of Jamat-e-Islami, his views on women and human rights generally are practically identical to those of the Taliban. His fight against them is purely on opportunistic grounds, to humour his suzerain, the president who gave him such a lovely job instead of having him sent over to be tried at The Hague where many of the ministers and other local potentates belong. Obdurate opacity is the true form of Afghan transparency.

Take the issue of ballot-stuffing: it’s far more complex and varied than one imagines. The example of Porchaman a remote North-Eastern district , some 420 km from Farah city is telling. Bilquis Roshan of the provincial Council described the situation in detail. TIt is ruled by local tyrant, Salim Mubaraz, who has made up his own set of laws, based on different forms of extortion. Taxes have to be paid on every occasion: birth of a child, weddings, bird-hunting etc. A believer in capital punishment, he has offenders routinely executed without reference to courts or authorities. He obviously had a field-day during the recent elections. Some 32 000 election cards were given out to those citizens eligible to vote, but they were press-ganged, threatened and bullied to give them directly to their ruler or otherwise forced to pay a penalty of 1000 afghanis ($20), a small fortune in this area. As a result, Karzai was awarded no less than 29 000 votes, and 3 000 for Abdullah to appear ‘democratic’. Did the authorities above protest? No way! Karzai was delighted- a vote is a vote, whatever the source. What about the US and Allied forces? Ditto, as M.Mubaraz has kept his part of the bargain by pushing the Taliban out his district. In exchange of undiluted power. This is but a modest version of what goes on a colossal level all over the country.

Where’s the enemy?

In general, the peasant anger against the Taliban is based on the fact that they exact money, help and food from them when they rule a province. The coalition forces don’t, so that’s a reason to prefer them. I asked several people to name the authorities that they disliked the most. The answer was 1) the Government 2) the Taliban 3) the Americans (all foreigners are seen to be American). According to Farah’s governor M.Roohulla Amin, the reason that the Taliban get the support they get is that people expect the US/Coalition forces to pull out, so they want to be sure they’re backing those who, in their opinion, will take over

Would it have been any different if another candidate would have got in? Of course not, the entire system is rotten to the core. “It could have been even worse, because the government would have been totally tribal based” says my brilliant friend Aarya, on her way to a Fullbright scholarship at Harvard.

So what motivates this particular ire? People expect a suzerain and overlord to deliver and President Karzai has n’t- nor would anyone else in this impossible place. The main complaint is not about corruption (perceived as normal) but the absence of safety and security which the Chief is meant to guarantee in exchange of their allegiance. Which is why, on the ground, ultimately it does n’t matter who provides this, be it the Americans or the Afghans. The Afghan police is notoriously ineffective, the army hardly better. But the problem, I feel, is elsewhere: there simply is no sense of common good, of shared responsibility. I was aghast when a representative of a well-known Afghan women’s organization that is resolutely anti-US claimed that rape prevailed since girls’schools had been built. Perhaps, but is that a valid argument to oppose school building, even by Evil Intruders? If families want their daughters to go to school, could n’t they organize their own parents’ militia? The Taliban are as strong as you let them become. An uprising is possible, after all the Afghans did precisely that by opposing the Soviet Army intervening on their own territory. But most rural Afghans are convinced that the foreign troops will leave because of the pressure from home, so they are backing the next source of power, however bad. Opportunism, as usual. How do you build up this notion of a shared, common good and goals, this sense of nation? Democracy is a lot more than encouraging ‘entrepreneurship” and sipping tooth eroding Afghan Cola. What way out? The Communists had a few valid ideas about this, albeit crude, cruel and heavy-handed. A compulsory military service would certainly help (Oh my! Did antimilitarist me really say that?), so would a real taxation system and hardest of all, a strong judiciary system that could ultimately defeat customary law

Tribal Customary law

If you were to try to identify the root of all evil in this country, it would not be Fundamentalism but Tribal Law.. The most dominant and strictest version is the terrifying Pushtoonwali, the way of the Pashtuns based on a pre-feudal, egalitarian form of reciprocity. Versions of this basic code are practised in many similar segmentary, previously nomadic societies, such as Bedouins, Nuers or the neighbouring Balutch. During the Soviet intervention and the mass exodus to Pakistan, it turned into a standard applicable to other ethnic groups of refugees which were able to accept Pashtun domination within the refugee camps because it efficiently vouchsafed family honour through systematized control of women.

Its practices have been made more rigid since the rise of Militant Islam which seeks to legitimize the ascending violence, especially against women, through religious texts. However, customary law and privatized violence are precisely what Muhammad sought to ban through Quranic law by introducing spiritual references that went beyond the private domain and instituting a real code of law which gave some rights to women which, however limited, by Western standards, constitute real progress compared to what was there before. But Islam is not what is being practised these days in Afghanistan, even by the Pushtoon Taliban: the West has got this totally wrong and may be fighting (another) wrong battle.

Originally an ancient honour code, the Afghan customary system ensures the domination of the single oldest male chief of any household who sits atop a pyramid, followed by his married sons, sons and grandsons, then his wife and at the bottom the youngest as yet childless (or, more precisely son-less) daughters-in-law, just above the daughters of the family. Male domination is never questioned, indeed it is seen as God-given even by women themselves who perceive the frequent marital brutality as a normal part of marriage, which they deem ordained by the Koran, even though they have never read a line of it

. Girls join their husband’s household upon marriage which is one of the reasons they are badly treated at home. “ Why feed someone else’s property’ is the recurring explanation. When the patriarch dies, the oldest son takes over. I have seen cases in Afghan refugee camp in Pakistan where households were dominated by teenage boys who forbade their sisters to go school or leave their enclosure. Collective decisions (collaborating or not with Taliban, building roads or schools etc) are taken by dominating males in councils called jirgas where all have to be in agreement. Everything else is left to the head of the family’s discretion, no-one will intervene unless it is to reinforce the application of his rights- in the case of stoning a wayward young girl, for instance. The basic male duty is providing for the whole family (parents as well as children, unmarried or widowed sisters) and once again, no limits, moral or legal, are put on this most basic of responsibilities. In this most basic of capitalist units, there are no qualms about opium cultivation or smuggling. In a seminar I conducted last year in the Gender Institute at Kabul, I pointed out to the male students that the lack of women’s rights meant that they would never be able to become rock-stars or poets but that they had to earn as fast as possible to keep their numerous dependants. They saw the point that if such reponsabilities could be shared between the genders, (and state pensions instituted), greater freedom and more satisfying lives would be enjoyed by all.

The most recurring word ‘Badal’ signifies transgenerational vendetta-type vengeance, but some variations such as ‘Adal-Badal’ means exchange of brides within the same family. The preferred partner is the first cousin on the father’s side in order to keep any wealth within the family. Has anybody ever wondered why it is that some of the most violent and unpredictable countries (Afghanistan, Pakistan) are precisely those where first cousins systematically marry and reproduce? Think of what happened to the Habsburg and multiply that by hundreds of millions over generations….Or that proto-fascist eugenic thinking?

To get back to customary law. Every act of male daily life is integrated in a form of reciprocity , so nothing, so to speak, comes for free. Melmastia, the basic tenet of hospitality means ‘I will put you up if you ask me to, even you ‘re a murderer on the run, but in exchange, you fight my battles’. Which is how so many of President Karzai’s cronies remain in place. And also why Bi Laden was ensured safety in the Afghan hinterland when he married one of Mollah Omar’s daughters. Women are excluded from this as they are merely bartered objects: they are literally sold upon marriage (the father is paid money for the labour and reproductive rights he has fathered,) and under this contract, men do as they please with the female body they have purchased, whatever her age. The younger, the more expensive, and marriage in the provinces especially is routinely consummated even on pre-pubescent bodies. The mother-in-law, that is to say the husband’s mother makes sure that her son’s rights are respected, and often the dreaded ‘xushu’ is feared even more than the husband. Female solidarity is therefore nipped in the bud in conservative households.

Yet women are precious in their own way. The honour of the family is its principal ‘cultural capital’ to quote Bourdieu and this is ensured by women never getting a chance to show any trace of independence which could show up male failings (and/or criminal doings) and therefore tarnish collective respectability. Which means that they have to be strictly secluded, made invisible as they are personally responsible for the desire they potentially might ignite amongst the men they could meet in such dubious places as schools, hospitals, parks or markets, all considered public places. Hence the all covering burqa, a portable enclosure. As every female simultaneously carries her father and her husband’s honour, she will stoically and passively submit to all forms of violence committed in its name. Going to the law courts is practically unheard of as it would mean denouncing unacceptable family practices. From the male’s point of view, resorting to outside police or judicial intervention by going to the police or suing would signify being unable to fight one’s own battles, in brief admitting defeat and castration. As violence is strictly a private matter, relinquishing justice to state institutions is unacceptable humiliation. Charlton Heston could have been a true Pushtoon hero and the First Amendment could be enshrined in the Afghan constitution.

Yet times are changing. An awareness of alternatives is seeping through the media, however limited.. But even with three TV channels in the provinces (compared to at least twenty in Kabul)- one local, two national and therefore a highly censored and restricted world view, Iranian films and the much loved Indian serials, not to mention the occasional American eighties family productions, influence expectations. Add to that the experience of having lived abroad as refugees in Pakistan and Iran. Girls know that there are other options to being sacrificed to a now-unacceptable way of life. This is especially the case for those who have been to Iran, living in a totally Muslim environment that allowed for freedom to study and work. Forced into early marriages in brutal surroundings, many- especially those returnees from Iran- have resorted to self-immolation as the ultimate, agonizing way out.

The worst part is that male violence is actually on the increase as men are equally destabilized by these new icons of modernity- they “naturally” take it out on the wives; Many have resorted to heroin addiction, especially in the Western part of the country. Cutomary law and expectations are simply too brutal for women but for men as well.

In the bath- a couple of flippant remarks

A few days ago, I was invited by my friend Mary-Ann who has been valiantly conduction reconstruction projects in Kabul for over seven years. There’s an exceptionally courageous woman if ever there was one. She kindly invited me to stay over, even gave me her bed which has an adjoining bathroom. A bathtub, a soft mattress, heat, in brief, paradise. I clambered into the tub- a rather 1950s affair in dull blue, reminded me of Auntie’s Sadie’s taste in bathrooms which was Afghan except she did n’t know it, back then in Golders’ Green, but that’s another story. Anyway, I sit there soaking, my head full of shampoo- Mary-Ann has lots of different kinds, it took me a full five minutes to decide which I was going to pour on the few inches of desiccated straw that sprouts from my skull, flattened by heavy veils. A few minutes, total black. A power cut. I thought that this was finished when I got out of Farah and three hours of electricity a day. I remembered Mary-Ann saying something about a power cut before the Taliban blasted the centre of town a few days back. Then in my head I find myself thinking: I don’t care what happens, but the Taliban are not going to get me with shampoo running down my back for once I’m enjoying warm water…So I fumbled my way to the taps, to rinse my hair carefully and exit in a regal manner. The lights eventually came back, the Taliban never materialized that night and I slept blissfully…It reminded me of that night many years ago, in 1994 in Sarajevo. I had missed the possibility of going back to ‘my’ suburb’ of Dobrinja so a French officer said, look you can’t go back now, but you can sleep in a room at the Holiday Inn (where the journalists thought they were embedded in the war.) The soldier who slept there had been evacuated on sick leave. By then, I did n’t care if I caught whatever he’d been flown home for though eventually I did pick up assorted bugs and lice. They had just put in purportedly bullet-proof windows at the hotel. In the suburb of Dobrinja where I was staying, there was nothing of the kind, everything had been shattered a long time back and we stuck plastic sheeting to what used to be windows. I was used to noise and shooting, as we actually lived about three feet away from the front-line. In the room at the Holiday Inn, it was quiet, too quiet. Lying in bed, for the first time, I felt panic creep up. How do I know if I’m alive if it’s so deadly silent in here? So I got up, opened the window- to let in the noise of war (and possibly stray bullets): this was the only way I could sleep…

Years later in Kabul, the memory came back in a flash

For details on the 2009 trip, see my articles in Le Monde Diplomatique, Manires de Voir, April 2010 and in L'Humanit

FemAid report on Afghanistan, May 2008

I have just returned from three weeks in Afghanistan, which turned out to be spent in Kabul only, because of security reasons. My Afghan family and friends were terrified by the prospect of me being kidnapped to the point that I was not allowed to take a taxi on my own. Naturally, from their point of view, my presence, however welcome, was a liability and a heavy responsibility. I nevertheless managed to work on the Library project in Farah, teach a course on ‘Women at War’ at the new Gender Studies Institute at Kabul university, research maternal mortality (still one of the worst in the world) and start work on a programme trying to limit this catastrophe. And I lived Kabuli style, as usual, with my family sharing meals, laughter, Indian video-clips on TV, homework, housework, outings as well as limited electricity and water, open sewers and the ensuing stench and the daily restrictions which befall this brave population.

Kabul in May 2008.

I was expecting the worst, conditioned by what I- and everyone else- had been reading in the media. It was bad, I nearly have to add ‘of course’, but I have seen worse in this country. Far worse. Despite the noise, the filth, the pollution, the bustle, the intense misery, the obviously paracolonial aid installations, things are changing and moving. There are roses growing everywhere for a start, carefully tended. Our beautiful little Leili is responsible for watering the parched pink roses in our house which she does extremely diligently, pulling out the bucket from the well, filling the pitcher and going back to her homework which really means another scuffle with her younger sister who has been taunting her all along. I hope none of them will ever think of pushing the other down the well: as an over-anxious western mother, I’d have a lid padlocked, but nobody even thinks of anything like that here, a dish just sits on the rim of the well: there is obviously much more to worry about in Afghanistan today.

In a messy chaotic way, one step forward two back and a side-way shuffle here and there, but the movement is there and the people of Kabul- if not the rest of Afghanistan- are making it happen. In the West, it is fashionable to blame international humanitarian aid for all the ills in post-war and reconstruction zones. Yet, even if I am to be called a politically incorrect harridan, I have to say that some of this aid- if not all - has been producing positive, indeed invaluable results. There are hospitals and clinics in Kabul, schools and universities have been renewed, perhaps not to Western standards admittedly, and the principal beneficiaries have been the local population. Much of this aid is patchy and has been uncoordinated, but it is better than none at all. Girls in cities are returning to school, but certainly not enough and figures never take account of the alarming drop-out rate. Naturally, this does not mean that I automatically condone military intervention and operations, the real problems are well beyond military fireworks and out of reach of any Kalashnikov or Stinger missiles: these are the contradictory expression of cynical politics that are decided upon in plush distant boardrooms and padded armchairs. They are in the domain of power distribution and political alliances.

And I have to repeat that Kabul is not representative of the rest of Afghanistan, the standard of living of its population of two and a half million is completely unequal and founded on revenue.

Exile and return

Afghanistan has particularly suffered from the loss of its most educated and skilled population which left the country during successive waves of exile, during the Soviet intervention (December 1979 onwards) but also after the withdrawal of Soviet troops and the pro-communist government (February 1989) which heralded the breakdown of health and education and the departure of doctors and teachers, male and female. The ensuing factional fighting during the Civil War permanently scarred the city reducing it to rubble so that the Taliban were welcomed with relief when they came to Kabul in 1996. But many artisans and those who deemed they could make a living in nearby Iran and Pakistan scrambled out.

Few Kabulis stayed out of sheer patriotism, many remained out of despair and unwillingness or incapacity of being able to tackle the ardours and expenses of exile, especially as city-dwellers with no rural roots or homes to fall back on.

The state of the country reflects the hotchpotch of population which has returned, inter-acting sometimes painfully with those who remained, as after any war. Most regret the more comfortable and safe conditions in Pakistan or Iran, despite the obvious hardship of being unwelcome and shunned. The most skilled professional have established themselves abroad, unwilling to sacrifice their lives and their families for such a hazardous return. The new elite is composed of Anglophone exiles, those who benefited from an English-language education in Pakistan, especially those who have been in the US as well. Apart from the strong Afghan-American community, the US is giving out a number of scholarships to bright students, encouraging girls especially to apply, the same way the Soviets had done in the 1970s. Elites are created from the outside, to replace the tribal and family power structures which nevertheless still exist in parallel, functioning through influence (Ibn Khaldoun’s ‘Assabya’) and tactical alliance.

A middle-class is steadily growing, especially amongst the young (boys, but also girls) eager to study and gain well-paid jobs with NGOs. As in Sarajevo, the elite find themselves working for foreign aid and the Civil Service suffers badly as a consequence. Teaching attracts the least competent candidates and, as a nation-wide consequence, the level of education is abysmally low. Indeed, why teach school for $ 80 to $100 a month when you could be working in front of a computer in an air-conditioned office for eight to ten times that amount at age 23? The young often say they cannot financially and morally afford idealism in a society where everyone has to fend for himself, prices are soaring and health care, like everything else, needs to be paid for. Families in the city are increasingly subsidized by their young unmarried members. The twenty-something year-olds are the ones dutifully bringing in their pay and shouldering all the expenses, especially the astronomical rents in the city. As Farid, a returnee, said: “I came back from Pakistan hoping to build up this country my family had dreamt about all these years. Now, I don’t care anymore, all I want is to make money anyway I can, pay the hospital bills for my mother, the rent for my family ( 6 brothers and sisters) and when all that’s taken care of, think about something else, even get out of the country”. Yet having said that, I have occasionally observed the opposite with women. In Herat this has been the consistent stance of the incredibly courageous lone female attorney Maria Bashir (who, as I have been saying for two years, I really think should get the Nobel Prize in Afghanistan, save that she does not have PR machinery to get her name around). She has refused to work for NGOs in order to continue to defend women. Also my young friend Zala who speaks perfect English has accepted to be vice-principal of a school because she knows that will make a difference in the children’s lives, whereas she could have had a job anywhere in the city.

Kabuli women today

In the streets of Kabul, there are far fewer blue-shrouded women than I had observed a couple of years ago. The burqa has become more than anything a class marker, principally indicating poverty and unemployment. And there are many desperately poor women in Kabul, some begging with their children, huddling in the middle of thick traffic. Cars swerve at the last minute to avoid them, drivers shooing away beggar children clawing at the windows. But as a Kabuli friend observed, these people are not homeless, no-one sleeps openly in the streets as you find in Paris, London or New York. There is always somewhere to go, however miserable, at least for the night, a glass of tea, a crust of dry ‘nan’.

Yet all the different groups are united by their strict attitudes to women as vessels of family honour: at every level of society, women remain subservient to men, their marriages arranged, vital decisions taken by fathers, brothers, husbands and reinforced by the all-powerful mother-in-law. The right to study, to work, to go out, to seek medical aid are privileges that may or may not be meted out by the males of the family, be they vegetable vendors or ministers. Suicides by self-immolation or the slashing of wrists are the ultimate resource of girls of every background.

On the everyday, urban level, the novelty has been all these young women in scarves, long skirts and coats- belted raincoat affairs, mid-thigh sometimes surprisingly tight, made up eyes and painted nails, sometimes even a bright and flimsy headscarf. But also quite a number of Iranian style black veils which is something which would need further exploration.
At the university, there are a number of female students. In the vast and beautiful gardens of the campus, the girls sit together on benches, giggling, obviously pleased to be where they are. Only the boys loll around in the grass or crowd the new outdoor cafeterias, complete with white parasols, tables and chairs. At the end of the day, they will return home to ramshackle flats where electricity works for about 4 hours every two days, and running water cannot be depended on (as I found out one night, my hair full of shampoo when the water and the light stopped simultaneously). With a bit of luck some of these students’ families might have a generator which will further add to the enormous pollution of the city. They will do their homework seated on the floor under dim neon bulbs, the girls will have to negotiate every outing with their father and sends scores of SMS in Dari-English to their friends. Their marriages will be arranged- engagements take place early on and there is no way of getting out of them, short of the bridegroom visibly advertising that he is a drug addict/murderer etc. Thus was the case for one young girl I got to know on a university bench. An educated family, her father an engineer, her brothers students, one employed part time in an NGO. She had been engaged at fifteen to a handsome cousin she hardly knew and subsequently grew to dislike intensely. Her parents, I am sure thought they were doing their best and put down her reticence to her immaturity and lack of experience. “The difference between your society and ours” as a Pakistani lady I had met in Peshawar years back had explained “is that you want love before marriage, and for us, it grows after marriage” As the wedding date was approaching, young Shahida had to be coerced to go to her fate as by now the family honour was at stake. On the eve of her departure to what would be her new life in her husband’s town, she attempted to slit her wrists. When I met her, she still had discreet bandages on. I found out that, despite the suicide attempt, the family would not be moved and everyone piled up in the car to go to the wedding, complete with the exhausted and patched-up bride whose knife had not been sharp enough. It was only when they realised that the prospective son-in-law was indeed everything their unhappy daughter said he was that her father decided to call off the ceremony. Did the members of this otherwise enlightened and educated family feel guilty in anyway? Not sure. 20 year-old Shahida had, it turns out, refused to eat for days on end and protested any way her gentle self could devise in the previous two years but to no avail. How many brides come to the altar with bandaged wrists in this society in the name of family honour? Suicides by self-immolation are still frequent for comparable reasons, especially in the Western part of the country, near to Iran. But the trend has spread to other regions.

Many weddings in Kabul are henceforth celebrated in one of those new-fangled Vegas-like ‘Wedding halls’ with names like ‘ A Night in Paris’, Paris-Kabul’ Kabul-Dubai’ etc. There even is an illuminated “Eiffel Tower” in the middle of a roundabout. The building themselves are encased in ribbons of bright coloured lights whilst the poorest citizens huddle in dark, dank make-shift tents on the other side of the avenue. Wedding halls appear to be a favoured investment for warlord-politicians with a surplus of cash from their wholesale drug ventures. Hardly a risky venture as families spend fortunes there, a lifetime of debt guaranteed, with up to 1 500 lavishly fed guests, two orchestras- for males and female guests rigorously separated on different floors. Such was the wedding I went to. Each one of the younger women- that is to say before she had reached the status of becoming a mother-in-law herself- had lavished attention and money on evening dress and an obviously lengthy expedition at the beauty parlour. No veils, scarves or burqas here to hide the elaborate lacquered coiffures or spoil the dramatic make-up, inspired by the Eighties American B-movies that seem to abound on satellite TV, just as the sequined fuchsias, reds and turquoise outfits seem to owe their glitter to the much-loved Indian music clips and soaps watched gleefully by most of Afghanistan (that is to say any location where electricity is available). These have elicited self-righteous wrath on behalf of the orthodox clerics who would like to see such pagan sedition banned.

And the Taliban?

Admittedly, there are the Taliban about which the press go on so much and which seem to be there to justify US and Allied Intervention whilst being simultaneously sustained by Iranian and Pakistani aid, I am told. From what I have heard, these are not the Mollah Omars of yesteryear. This lot are gangsters with little or no ideological backing of any kind, save the usual misogyny. They are into money, power and business, allied to local warlords and drug barons (many of which happen to be MPs) and act as pressure groups against a government that (feebly) opposes their endeavours. They attract the poor to their circles who are desperate enough to do just about anything to make a pittance. As Jamshed observed: “Look at their activities over the year in the provinces. During the poppy harvest time, they are busy at work in their fields but for the other nine months they need money to survive”. Kidnapping is a major resource. Sometimes a small group sets up and goes into business. The media likes to label them as Taliban sympathisers, but this is not necessarily the case, some of the kidnappers may well be locals, even neighbours, hence the huge mistrust. This was the case for a hapless doctor who lived across the road from one place I was staying at in populous (and litter-choked) Kheir-Khana which I call Chattal (garbage)-Khana. Some pals came to pick him up in order to go to a wedding. He never returned and a day letter, the distraught family received a note clamouring a million dollar ransom. No-one has that kind of money here (outside the more dubious entrepreneurs), I don’t know how he got out of it, but he was returned to his family a month later. How much he was made to pay I don’t know. Having said this, I keep on encountering Taliban nostalgists who claim that life was much safer, less corrupt and the prices lower when Mollah Omar was around. As Nahida at the university put it “Life was really boring for us girls, but it was safe”. There naturally are groups of ideological neo-Talibans at work amongst the young in the universities, but I doubt very much that these are the ones throwing bombs at civilians in the south of the country. Every university is potentially a hotbed for political ferment, the best is to keep it in the open and offer public debate.

Teaching Gender at Kabul University

This was a project I was able to put together thanks to the new Gender Studies Institute at the University of Kabul. This was done via my new academic association Women in War ( I was lent a classroom in the French Studies sector where Paris-nostalgic professors dream about La Douce France, accordions and unmentionable Bordeaux wine. My blatant lack of patriotism and audible lack of respect for our new president, not to mention the absence of an official, stamped embossed letter of introduction somehow put them off. As well as my iconoclastic way of teaching, eliciting maximal student participation. The students loved it and this has turned out to be one of the most positive teaching experiences in my life.

I asked the students what they thought about the controversy regarding the Indian soaps. One of them, a boy, surprised me by saying that he thought them reactionary and demeaning in their depiction of women as schemers and plotters or just victims. It was during this seminar that I came to the conclusion the best solution for Afghanistan would be to rid the country of anyone over forty. The younger generation as represented by the fifteen students I exchanged with over a period of two weeks was enthusiastic, intelligent, desirous of change and cautious freedom. As were those I met outside. Admittedly these were relatively privileged being able to afford their studies, which means not being expected to support their families, even though many had part-time jobs. With one exception, all of them had spent their lives inside Afghanistan, had experienced continuous war and disruption. One girl had taught her neighbours how to read and write during Taliban times, when she was twelve. One boy remembered how an older girl in the house had taught him and his siblings. We discussed all manner of issues concerning gender and they themselves concluded that prejudice and gender difference were largely a social construction. I thought back at the various bearded and turbaned Pro-Taliban sympathisers I had met in earlier years in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan expounding on what they considered to be their divine authority.

The girls spontaneously welcomed any kind of criticism of the system and an opportunity to vent their anger. The boys managed to see that they too would suffer from gender discrimination, being forced to work all their lives for their parents, sisters, enormous families. “And if your future wives could work and share the responsibilities with you as equals and partners, you could become poets or singers or anything you like” I said. That argument won them over. I imagined saying that to old Abdullah in Khewa camp whose beard reached down to his navel, his two young wives looking so worn and weary kneeling silently beside him. He had offered to marry my own daughter, “I’m just and fair to all my wives, I just bought a new burqa for each of them! Your daughter will get the same”. I could imagine how delighted my Alice would be and got out of it by saying that I had to consult my husband about this momentous and, I hastened to add, most flattering, proposal….

All things not being identical, a male student boy at the seminar in Kabul asked me candidly “In your country, are marriages arranged?”. The elder of Abdullah’s wives had asked me that question as well. As had the girls at Herat University two years back. All marriages are arranged here on a scale goes from being advised, strongly suggested, enforced to brutally forced. In these more liberal times, boys’ consent is generally sought which is not quite the case for the girls. Romance only happens on starry Indian video-clips, involving the divine Shah Rukh or his younger look-alikes on the innumerable satellite channels.

At Kabul University, those kids were nevertheless united by the refusal to continue as before and claimed a minimum of self-determination and autonomy as far as their own existences were concerned. I really hope they get the opportunities they deserve. Many of the US influenced teaching directives seem to emphasize “entrepreneurship” ( a favoured term in much of the documentation I have seen) which I find rather alarming. There seem to be a few too many ‘entrepreneurs’ as it is, dealing in narcotics, smuggling etc and not enough emphasis on responsible citizenship and nation and state building.

With Palwasha, we are thinking of organizing a conference in Kabul on ‘Women and War in Afghanistan since the Taliban’ and we really want the students to participate with their own research. They were very enthusiastic about that.

Across the years, since 2000 when I first got involved in the region and its inextricable problems, I had only ever heard women’s rights being vindicated in such an open way in RAWA rhetoric. What is marvellous is that other young people in Kabul, educated young men and women are beginning to express similar convictions. To what extent this will be truly enacted in their lives remains to be seen. I have seen supposedly progressive families react in startling ways towards the girls in their midst. Doubtless, we need another generation or two and really widespread education and awareness.

As an additional project, we will be sending toys to the Kabul University day-care centre in a scheme I am putting together with my local Town Hall and transported by the French Army. I don’t quite understand the usefulness of a couple of thousand TV- bred boys French, presumably recruited from the French suburbs, stuck out in Afghan desert conditions, hoping for some kind of action but the fact that they will be delivering teddy bears fills me with glee and deferent gratitude to our valiant Minister of Defence in his magnificent office in Paris, decked out, wall to wall, with priceless antique furniture.

One hundred children come every day to a damp, dismal place, where toys are carefully put on shelves and rarely taken out because they cannot be replaced. Babies - up to one year old- spend much of their day in their cots. Day-care centres in a university such as this one are vital for women’s rights, because this is how students, professors, clerical staff can actually go out to work and study. I met one woman, Ferida, whose mother-in-law refused to look after her grand-children whilst her daughter-in-law was out working, because she thought this would keep Ferida in the house. Through the day-care centre, Ferida and so many like her can go to her job and earn some much needed money for her family, as well as stake her (modest) right to some autonomy.

Perhaps we can help set up day care centres in all Afghan universities and colleges some day. . I have since found out that there had been a project by a French-Afghan charity to build a such a crche at the University: monies were seemingly collected as well but obviously never arrived, or not anywhere near these children and their hapless carers. As I deal with so little money and even less pretence of any kind, nothing of this will happen here, short of the French troops delivering at the wrong door.

The library in Farah

This is a project that has been going for the past two years with the then Member of Parliament, Malalai Joya. Let’s hope she will be reinstated. My dear friend and associate Carol Mark in Toronto and yours truly had valiantly tried to find money for it through exhibitions, appeals of every kind, sales of handicrafts and donations. An uphill battle in face of chronic donor fatigue and the lack of interest in things Afghan generally. In recent months, we had heard that the American PRT team in the area (Provincial Reconstruction Team) were in fact building a civic centre which includes a library. This was as unexpected as it was positive: the PRT are very discreet about they do, one only hears about the military bungling and hapless punitive expeditions. I have been corresponding with an officer working enthusiastically on it and it does look promising, despite continuing and despairing set-backs. One does n’t realise that apart from a lot of (to me useless) swash-buckling there are some very dedicated idealistic soldiers out there really trying to bring the best they have. I had discovered the same thing with some UNPROFOR soldiers in Sarajevo who had agreed to deliver the parcels I would send them from Paris as purportedly personal post. They generally contained medication, chocolates, packets of soup and sanitary towels for the women I knew and worked with during the siege. At one time, I sent antibiotics for 800 kids in the school we were attempting to rebuild disguised as a birthday-cake for a kindly French officer. In those days, as a novice in aid, I had no idea this was illegal and was just worried about an outbreak of flu in the frozen besieged city.

Back to Farah, a stone coloured city, hard and rough and wild where I was hoping to go. We are really hoping to add a play centre to the project for young children, in order to entice these teenage mothers to come along. This would introduce the notion of childhood being a special time in life, not a gap between infancy and adulthood where you learn to harden up for whatever fate holds for you- and fate here deals out mean cards to girls and boys alike. It would not be wrong to say that childhood as the West invented in the latter part of the 18th century does not exist here at all. Afghanistan needs its very own Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Certainly in the West, childhood was a privilege reserved to the well-off, until the First World war when child labour gradually receded and state pensions came to replace their contribution. But in Afghanistan, there is neither state, nor pensions, nor care-free children.

Carol in Toronto will be able to airlift supplies for the library and we will look after the books- in Persian and Pashto and educational games. In the meantime, in Kabul, with the guidance of teachers and specialists, I bought a substantial amount of books for a lending library for schools in the Farah area. I purchased one encyclopaedia-type dictionary for each of 60 schools and books that the headmasters and headmistresses will come and borrow for their school. Once the PRT central library is up, we will purchase more books in local languages: for the time being, English and other foreign language books are useless in a context of such low literacy.

In the age of Internet and uncertain electricity, books remain vital. I purchased a number of children’s books, from fairy tales to books on science for the Mehan orphanage in Kabul where I also taught some English. The time spent reading is time not spent practising being an adult.

Maternal mortality

Maternal mortality and suffering have been my core obsessions. Ever since I gave birth the first time, twenty three years ago, in the supposed comfort and safety of a Paris clinic. Not Afghanistan.

Maternal mortality in this country continues to be the second highest in the world, after Sierra-Leone, with 1 800 deaths for 100 000 births and in areas such as Badakhshan, rising to 6 500 maternal deaths which is the world record. 75% of those newborns babies die, because of lack of food, warmth and care, usually the unloved little girls. In Afghanistan as whole, a woman dies of pregnancy-related causes every 27 minutes of every day. That is at least every 27 minutes, because many such deaths go unrecorded, just as for cattle. Many, perhaps most, we will never know are, or rather were, under sixteen

The Taliban- generally blamed for just about everything by foreign aid, politicians and media- have officially been gone for nearly seven years, so what went wrong? Mobile phones abound, there is something called ‘Afghan Cola’, internet works (sometimes), there are a couple of ATM machines, sophisticated heroin laboratories, four-wheel drives, five-star hotels, operatic ads for private banks- the trappings of capitalist modernity yet women- adolescents mostly- die like flies, in pools of blood and deep-rooted indifference. Why has n’t this been the Number One priority in this country and of international aid generally?

Despite assistance programmes and aid that has been pouring into Afghanistan, the overall figures have hardly evolved, even though improvements have been noted in urban areas where health facilities have been built and those boasting new community health-care workers programmes and newly trained midwives. As one doctor told me: “ A competent midwife or nurse had rather be out of work in Kabul than stuck in a remote village”. Most Afghanistan is indeed composed of remote villages, those in Badakhshan can at best be reached after a day’s bumpy ride on a donkey.

This situation has been attributed to different causes, mainly lack of infrastructure and local economic conditions, war and strife, yet cultural questions have not been addressed.
Maternal mortality is caused by a number of factors, possibly the most important being gender discrimination, this needs to be said, repeated, clamoured, louder and louder.

I heard a dreadful story of a breach birth which a traditional midwife did not know how to handle. In the end, she wrenched the baby’s body out, severing it from its head which remained six days inside the mother’s womb. It took them six days to get to a hospital in Jalalabad which in fact was not very far from where the unfortunate girl lived. She was operated upon and somehow survived, with major health complications including permanent fistula. The tragedy can be read on many levels, each more heart-rending than the next. But note this vital fact: it occurred near a health facility. As soon as the midwife saw that the baby was coming out feet forward, she must have known that there was little she could do to save mother or baby. Even before that, she would have noticed that the child had not turned properly and that major problems were on the way. This means that someone- a husband, mother or father-in-law had taken the decision not to send the young woman to the hospital and kept her in inhuman suffering for nearly a week.

Why, why, why?

The answer is not (just) about building more hospitals but about changing deep-rooted disdain and disrespect for women. I do believe things have got worse in the past thirty years, with Political Islam of a particular Afghan brand compounding an already misogynist pre-Islamic, tribal tradition. The situation cannot be reduced to being simply stone-age or medieval or whatever the condescending mass-media would have us believe. It is the paradoxical product of backward-looking and reactionary form of modernity, not the expression of a monolithic culture. The point is that in this Fundamentalist day and age, with the rise of right-wing governments everywhere, the threat to secular values and the erosion of socialist values, modernity does not necessarily equate progress and social evolution.

The law, education and media could change this in Afghanistan, but no official entity has taken this seriously enough so far. Women’s lives are not valued and suffering is perceived as unavoidable by the women themselves as well as the men.

There should be an inquest after each death and laws making it criminal to forbid access to medical aid, when available, to women and children (or more correctly children and their children, seeing that girls are often married by the age of 13, malnourished, ill-treated). Prisons, I fear would be full of abusive husbands and I regret to say, vengeful mothers-in-law.

I was fortunate enough to meet a marvellous woman M.A. C, working on media projects in Kabul for the national radio and TV. She has been in Kabul for five years and knows the situation well. Together, we are working on the concept of health and awareness programmes for radio and TV designed for a largely illiterate population. What seems incredible is that there has not been any consistent and continuous media-based health programme created by the government or aid agencies. Instead, a flood of private channels, musical clips which when shown on public channels are especially funny as any soupon of flesh is hidden under a hazed blur.

I really hope this will work out, I will do my outmost. I have managed to get the Health Ministry, WHO, the Malalai Maternity Hospital and others on board and I will continue to further research this frightening subject and work on it. In a record time, I managed to get all these people to agree. I could not go in taxis, did not have a driver to myself and depended on the kindness of the strangers so to speak, asking whoever I met if they had a driver going into some other part of town. They would look aghast ‘What, you have no driver?’. I would add, I have a tiny NGO, funded by donations given by friends and trinkets bought on Chicken St resold in Xmas/Chanukah bazaars and no, I do not have an office. I’m a hard-working militant academic zooming the world from my kitchen….. I don’t think anyone believed me, because they can’t imagine that people like me- and there are so many- exist.

In conclusion

In some ways, Kabul reminded me of Sarajevo at the very end of the war in 1995, but much more chaotic, intense and miserable. It ‘s the mix of destruction, arbitrary specks of haphazard reconstruction and circulation, the contrast between the local standard of surviving and the comparatively luxurious trappings of foreign aid, the over-equipped soldiers teetering under their armour and the thinly clad population, the ‘No Guns, no Weapons signs next to sandbags and litter.

Change is in the year but what happens next depends on so many factors, including the local elections next year. The state is very weak. It is to be feared that the reigning oligarchy with its Mafia-like interests may dominate the scene, to the detriment of the younger generation which really deserves to live. Even tribal chieftains in the provinces are being supplanted by Taliban et al. cadres, so local solidarity structures are being dismantled.

As long as maternal and infantile mortality are not made a priority, I feel that all aid will have failed because the priorities are wrong. Perhaps we should look towards other examples of countries nearer to Afghanistan who efficiently tackled a similar set of problems, such as Egypt and especially Iran. I think Teheran may hold the answer and this is the direction I feel like researching. We cannot continue imposing cut n’paste standard, pre-fabricated aid solutions.

When I returned to Paris, the big Afghan conferences were underway. I went to one of them given by the noble Sciences Politiques faculty, where three dignitaries from Kabul Universities pontificated about peace initiatives. During the three hours we all respectfully sat there, not once were women’s rights mentioned. The debate obviously concerned the male 50% of the Afghan population only. I naturally piped up and asked how one could even talk about peace/progress without mentioning women and maternal mortality. One pundit who shall remain unnamed said that women’s issues had to wait until ‘peace’, whatever that was, was achieved. So that means tens of thousands of more useless, pointless, entirely avoidable deaths until then.

There is enormous energy in Afghanistan, pragmatic idealists who want change and would know how to implement it, especially amongst the young (and not their professors) . These are the ones we should encourage.

Femaid’s aid projects in Afghanistan still concern women and children, health and education. Our participation to the library project in Farah remains, funds will be necessary to organize the collecting and sending of furniture and equipment. We have also decided that we will help the Farah Hospital and Malalai Joya clinic for women and children by sending medical supplies. From Paris, we will send a convoy of educational toys to the Kabul University day-care centre. The fight against maternal mortality will be a priority and more projects will evolve around this. I am particularly lucky in that I am able to combine academic research in sociology and anthropology with what I hope can be realistic aid projects. What is even better is that across the years, I have true friends in Afghanistan and real families. I am the batty, ice-cream toting ‘Khala’ from Paris and I love my little nieces and nephews dearly. Without their help and affection, none of this would have ever been possible.

(The names have been changed to protect privacy)

For any more detailed questions, please contact me

The Femaid website will be overhauled to include the recent events and changes, please bear with us!

FemAid report on Afghanistan, May-June 2006

Kabul, summer 2006

Kabul is still is the sprawling ugly city it was on my last visit a year ago. Instead of the slithering mud flying all over the place, clouds of dust seep into your eyes, ears and nostrils from the unpaved roads covered with litter of every kind. As does the stench of the open sewers. “Progress” may be summarized in the following poster, espied in the Kabul Bank: two women are clad in blue burqas; one holds out a credit card to other saying ‘Tut tut, don’t you use the Kabul Bank ?’ Feudalistic patriarchy remains undisturbed, but capitalism rolls on… There may be a new commercial centre, absurd glass fronted buildings and luxury hotels but the municipality still has n’t organized garbage collection, it’s everyone for themselves trying to make money as fast as possible. The hideous new commercial centre sports boutiques boasts the same made-in-China clothes one finds in any European market, overpriced for the local would-be clientele. The $200 + a night rooms in the new-fangled hotels are for the well paid NGO members, entrepreneurs and drug-dealers. Anybody with half a brain tries to work for an NGO, so the universities and schools are badly understaffed and rarely paid. One can’t blame them really. The head of the English department in the teacher training department can barely align three words in coherent English, his students despair, especially those who spent years in Pakistan and who would be well equipped to teach in his stead but don’t have the official diplomas or the kind of pull this pretentious fellow has. The school in housed in a resplendent building built by the French, but the contrast with the level of teaching is alarming and bodes ill for the next generation of teachers, not to mention their future students.

Of course the city is filled with admirable projects, especially those empowering women in rural areas run by UN Habitat which I saw in action; but overall they hardly seem unified and express more donors’ charitable fantasies than anything practical. Sure, there’s nothing wrong with the girl sponsored by France to take her troupe of clowns to entertain kids in hospitals- but what about the state of hospitals themselves, the level of the care and nursing, not to mention the sheer misery of this kids once they return to some form of health and probable begging in the street? In many ways a hateful city, the wild east, so to speak of Asia.

Meeting Malalai Joya was momentous. This is the famous young dissident parliamentary representative who never ceases to express her opposition to the warlords in the government, at the risk of her life. And as much as a committed feminist as any woman could be in this most patriarchal of feudal societies. A moving, tiny woman with blazing eyes- I realized how charismatic she was when I went to the welcome party at the airport where we waited for a couple of hours under the meagre shadow of a tree for her delayed plane to show up. She has to fight physically and morally against every kind of enemy, from bag-bashing fellow female deputies or crutch - wielding veterans during parliamentary sessions, to death threats by war lords. Talking to people everywhere, I have come to understand to what extent she expresses the by now barely suppressed anger of the Afghan people everywhere, outraged at being governed by the self-same warlords (now clean-shaven) who brought civil war to the country. The streets of Kabul are filled with men in jackets and women in burqas, yet slightly less of the latter than a year ago. Curiously, it is the memory of those years of civil strife after the fall of the Communist regime (of which the last Najibullah era is generally seen as a golden age) that remain more painful to the population itself, not the Taliban. The destruction of Kabul led by the savage hordes of Rabbani and Massoud led to the Taliban, initially welcomed for their law and order policies which even to the eradication of much of the poppy fields. Today, many Afghans feel betrayed by what was a promise of democracy and is turning into a rewriting of history best symbolised by the way the warlord Massoud has been turned into a national hero through Western pressure, giving his name to the airport, a main square etc. Feirouzeh, a physiotherapist from Kabul hospital told me that with the Taliban Women were admittedly locked-up, stopped from going to school but at least safe, not threatened by rape and killing by roving bands of Mudjhaddin. Having said all this, the situation in the capital city at least holds more promise today than in the recent past and Afghanistan reflects and perhaps concentrates the chaos and contradictions of what is indeed a global situation. President Karzai’s job is a phenomenally difficult one.

The youth library project which was the reason of this trip had been launched last autumn in Toronto by my friend Carol Mark and myself. The idea of a play centre had added itself on as something new and essential as the very notion of playing is alien to Afghan childhood. We had written to Malalai Joya and she had responded favourably. The Western area of Afghanistan, on the Iranian side has a long literary and artistic tradition and learning has a special status. For women, getting an education means accessing a hallowed privilege- which may also be the reason why on the other side of the frontier, women have been flocking to universities, even encouraged by the government, especially in the days of Khatami.

Malalai Joya is keen on the youth library project, but is worried that this may be another empty promise, the kind which she has heard more than once. In a city like Farah, with no facilities but a growing school population, this would mean so much. Properly managed, it could change even the self-perception of the citizens of this forlorn city. During our meetings, I realized that it would be heart-breaking to let Malalai down: I did not want to over-promise, but such a project does indeed seem possible…

Leaving Kabul for Herat in the nick of time.

The French embassy was under orange alert on Sunday (turned red on the Monday when the riots started. The consul had been against going West, informed me that Afghanistan, like Liberia was officially off-limits for French citizens and refused to facilitate the visa for Iran which I wanted, as I was travelling near the border. We can’t stop you but…, the consular administrator said, taking a photocopy of my passport ‘just in case’.Just as I got to Herat, I found out that all non-Afghan personnel in any NGO or representation had been evacuated, so I was the only Western person in the whole of that frontier area

By a stroke of incredible luck Feryal my friend, assistant and interpreter and myself were on the early plane to Herat at exactly the moment the riots in Kabul were beginning- in Kheir Khana where I had been staying. On a rickety previously South American Kam Air plane (blacklisted after a fatal air crash earlier this year) rattling every screw and bolt all the way, women in burqas held their tightly swaddled babies. In an emergency, do they put the oxygen mask under or on top of the burqa? You may well ask….

As for going to Farah by road, everyone thought I was insane, but Malalai assured me of her protection, I feel that these people know the ins and out of the area better than anyone else- I am writing the first part of this report from Farah, we still have to get back from this place and go through the Taliban danger zone once again, so let’s hope they’re right or otherwise no-one will ever get to read these lines…

Herat is a truly beautiful city, the breathtaking blue-tiled mosque which was to influence all of Moghul India architecture. A feeling of near opulence even, shops filled with goods from Iran, down to freezers and cookers. Yet at night you hear donkeys braying and at dawn the call to prayer with the mosques competing in this heavily religious city. Which means that the women are shrouded in black veils of sweaty synthetic material from head to toe, contrary to the free-wheeling men dressed in white cottons. Because of the local tensions following the Kabul riots, I had one such veil made, the cut is complex with a circular peace at the bottom sweeping the floor and some kind of elastic band that needs to be attached in front one’s ears, then the fabric pulled over the side of one’s face. It keeps on sliding off and ideally one needs another scarf underneath to keep it on- which is great at 40C in the shade. This is indeed a major form of oppression and must rate as the most unflattering costume ever inflicted against women. I now get the hang of how to keep the wretched thing on, but I always have tell-tale wisps of hair showing and anyway the way I stride (rather than a demure mincing walk) gives me away- not to mention the time when the thing was practically blown off (as well as most of what I was wearing) as we came out of the mosque, revealing the tattoo on my shin. I am not sure the religious scholars in big turbans, walking hand in hand out of the madrassa as is their wont were particularly delighted. Feryal was falling apart with laughter, I was n’t. Rural Pashtun women often have little tattoos on their forehead and chin- so they always admire mine!
Apart from the library project, I wanted to pursue my research on self-immolation by fire of young women which has become endemic in the West- this is related to a research project I am presenting at a conference at the Sorbonne in September. My earlier hunch was right: much of this is caused by exposure to the media and the ensuing feeling of powerlessness. A number of educated girls having lived in Iran are amongst the victims, they had spent refugee years there , which so many tell me was so progressive, rich and open (in comparison with Afghanistan) one pretty girl (fashionably clad in a figure-hugging pink denim affair outfit bought in Iran) in the Journalism Faculty told me returning here had made her positively stupid- the Iranian deal is simple and utterly hypocritical: as long as you play the game, appear covered in public, everything else is your own business. The girl is much envied in her faculty for another reason. As her school mates told me She made a love marriage with another student. This indeed is exceptional here, as all marriages are arranged when not actually enforced which is more the case in rural areas. Yet of love, these girls indeed dream, doubtless the boys as well under their rugged manner, more and more so as they discover other norms through the media. The sense of deprivation is become increasingly intolerable as the soaring rates of suicides show.

Women as burn victims

We visited Herat hospital which according to articles had been lavishly renovated. Where and how remains a mystery. The sick lie on the floor lining the passages, babies covered in burn wounds are placed atop their mother’s burqas on the rickety beds, the filth and the stench are nauseating. In the burns wards, the girls whimper pitifully on filthy sheets, or directly on plastic-covered mattresses, they are tended by their mothers and mothers-in-law. The sole nurse on guard assures me they are given pain-killers, I found that hard to believe. Apart from suicides, the border between murder and accident is hard to define. Two girls had fallen in the fire as a result of epileptic fits, and had been left in the flames for hours! The mother-in-law of one such girl fifteen and pregnant (but probably no older than twelve) was indignant and all she had to say was We spent 40 000 afghanis ($800) on her, we did n’t know she was sick. In brief, cheated on the goods. I held the poor girl’s emaciated hand until she stopped shaking and weeping, so she drifted into asleep, I wish I could have taken her back to Paris to care for her. No love or tenderness is expended on girls in this most brutal society. What indeed happens to these girls when they finally return home? The survival rates must be low as their lives are incredibly harsh, something which I have been able to observe at close quarters across the years. Up from four in the morning to fetch water and make bread, these young women never get to sleep before eleven at night, when the chores are finally done. And they give birth to about eight children on average. In these clanic extended families, only the mother-in-laws (i.e. the mothers of sons) actually manage to rest and be waited upon by the dutiful wives of those sons. And as yet, I have never heard of a kind-hearted mother-in-law.

At the hospital, they claim that suicide figures are going down in the city- how far that is true remains to be seen- what about the cases that never get to the hospital? Furthermore, according to Angeles of Medica Mondiale whom I met in Kabul, girls often believe that a hospital will never treat attempted suicide cases. Awareness programmes and workshops may well have had an effect in the larger cities. This is not the case for the rough city of Farah, south of Herat and closer to Kandahar where things are getting worse and suicides are on the increase. In a remote village in the area I asked women about this. One summarized the situation In the old days, we were not happy but we accepted our lot: I was a slave to twenty people and tended to my five children. My mother in law was cruel, my husband did n’t care about me but that was the way life was. Today girls know that all lives are not like that, and they just can’t take it

One remarkable woman has been fighting nearly single-handed against this: the attorney Maria Bachir. At the Kafkaesque law court of Herat, women come to see her to ask for help against violent husbands and mothers-in-law. Maria tries to get them jailed, but they usually buy their way out. Judges, hospital authorities, the police, officials, anybody can be bought in this country, murderers go free, she confirmed. She has refused to work for any NGOOtherwise, who would defend these women? they’d be left even more wretchedly alone. In her pitiful office, writing on scraps of paper (while her superiors loll about in plush premises), the Shirin Ebadi of Afghanistan has to face death threats and goes about with a gun in her handbag

A youth library project for Farah

Farah was the aim of this trip. Now that I’m back, I can write about it. An ancient city with a ruined fortress purportedly built by Alexander the Great (in my opinion, a later tyrant who may have used him as role model), today it is wretchedly poor and isolated. This forlorn area is a furnace, set in a desert, surrounded by ominous black mountains, with temperatures reaching the 50C. I was told that I was lucky with the weather, only the early 40s, with me practically comatose under my black shroud. A year ago it had been ten degrees more at the same period… Plus the most voracious mosquitoes in the world, as starved as the rest of the population, they were feasting themselves on my pampered Western body as we slept outside by bright moonlight. The poverty is extreme, people live from the opium harvest. An average garden yields about $150 a month which is what families of about ten to twelve live from here. Poppies here are what geraniums are on Austrian or Swiss chalets windowsills, i.e. ubiquitous. A little girl handed me some dried husks which had been slashed to extract the juice that leads to heroin. A souvenir which I smuggled in the sleeve of a jacket to show my son in Paris. What seems obvious, that with the American pressure, drug abuse eradication seems to be limited to arresting the small fry on the road from here to Herat with a little bag of opium, whereas the four-wheel drives with official number plates sail past, stuffed with heroin according to articles and vocal rumour Because of the Taliban on the road from Herat and Farah, I travelled sotto burqa, between desert and jagged mountains that resembled rotting teeth. Each time some soldier or other stopped our car and peered through the window, I tried to sit demurely. We were joined by Malalai’s armed guard afterwards, and I had three cheerful Kalashnikov-wielding guards following me around hereafter- so everyone in town knew there was a foreign woman in town, continually buying ice-cream for her retinue…. It is only afterwards that I found out about a suicide bomber and a killing whilst I was there- no wonder the guys looked nervous each time I stepped out of the car…

I had come to check out the possibility of building a library or acquiring a building for this purpose. We had bought about 50 books from Herat to start it off- mainly Iranian publications, encyclopaedias, poetry, novels, English-language manuals. This is the just the beginning: we plan to buy many more. Illustrated encyclopaedias type books from abroad will be sent as well. Why a library in one of the most illiterate countries in the world? Since the fall of the Taliban, girls have been increasingly attending schools, they see education as a mode of salvation and self-advancement. School may be compulsory, but families can refrain their daughters from going. Nevertheless, some 3000 girls attend on a shift system, for 4000 boys, this indeed is promising. Furthermore, there is a tradition of folk poetry as well, as Pashtun women spontaneously compose ‘landays,’ a local version of haikus. In Herat, next to the imposing public library, I had encountered a group of girls who met weekly to write poetry and they told me this kind of pastime was not unusual in the city. Let’s hope this custom persists, at least alongside MTV’s Afghan look-alike, namely Tolo TV…

From France, I had carried educational games and toys. The project includes a library area for school kids, computers and room for young children with toys. Half the pupils in the Melman Nazo are married and mothers, so the idea is that they could come with their children. Playing does not exist, because the concept of childhood as a period of discovery, learning and development is inexistent. Just as in pre-Enlightenment Europe, a child is considered just an incomplete, immature non-sexual adult who has to train for future hardship, especially girls. Cheerful Nilofar, aged eight but looking no older than six, spends the day lugging her baby brother and /or heavy ‘toshak’, the mattresses people sit and sleep on, drawing water from the well and assisting her heavily pregnant mother ( in her early thirties, expecting number seven). When I taught her how to put a puzzle together, she was thrilled, but naturally the household chores were forgotten, something her mother promptly reminded her of. An area devoted to playing will certainly advance the cause of childhood here, but it seems essential that we train someone who can work in this way with children.

We toured the aid agencies, lethargic in comparison to the buzz in Kabul. People are waiting for money to materialize as they fan themselves with brochures, bemoaning the absence of funds. Much of the latter seems to have been sunk into carpeting and outsize armchairs of which the same species is visible in most of these offices anywhere in the country. The American PRT, the reconstruction team sits in cement bunkers behind miles of barbed wire- my black veil kept on getting caught in its barbs as a strong wind, like a burning hair dryer, was blowing continuously. The ambiance is very Dino Buzatti ‘Desert of the Tartars’, on permanent alert, as if expecting an imminent attack. Huge Marines in combat uniform parade about, even a surprising young female military all blonde hair and dimples. Totally surreal.
We finally located a possible building- I insisted that it had to be in the local style, with ‘gumbazi’, earth cupolas that absorb the heat. The architecture here is truly beautiful- the soft round pregnant shapes of the gumbazi providing a welcome contrast to the jaggedness of the rocks all round. Yet the population yearns for cement palaces in the gaudy Pakistani style which is what drug barons are building in the midst of the desert. The house we found is brick and earth, newly redecorated, with four well appointed rooms, a well and a series of rooms round the garden. The asking price is about $ 50 000 and we are hoping for solar energy, which the PRT said they were interested in. It is obvious that this would be an ideal solution for energy in this part of the world, where electricity is mainly (and sporadically) available through private generators which means that most people are deprived of it. We also want to provide the furniture, computers and a steady supply of appropriate books, which means another $30 000 on top of that. This is destined to become the municipal library, geared towards the youth of the city- after all, they would be the only ones in fact truly interested by such a project. English classes for girls need to be part of it, but they would have to be free, because otherwise families would be reluctant to invest even the tiniest sum for their daughters, even if they might do so for their sons. What a challenge! In the meantime, we are housing the library in temporary premises nearby to launch the project, and we indeed need all the help we can get

In conclusion

This trip was a high intensity adventure- to say the least. I’ll need some time to recover. All the more after a harrowing trip which had me sitting about in Kabul Airport in a filthy and uncomfortable lounge for ten hours, not knowing if this or any plane would ever take off again. The Afghan company, Ariana Airways is blacklisted and they hire a different carrier company each week- this time round the stewards needed training and Frankfurt airport was reticent to OK the landing of this particular plane - which is why my flight out, officially due the previous day had been cancelled. With a few other women, I ended up curling on a bit of carpet on the airport lounge floor normally reserved to prayer. Coming took home three days instead of one. I also damaged my ear-drums by flying in too many ramshackle, badly pressurized planes.

All in all I must admit that I got more than bargained for. In these circumstances, I could simply rely on Malalai’s safety schemes and pray to whatever deity might be presiding. But in view of all the killings, suicide bombs and Taliban attacks, no arrangement is really foolproof. Accidents happen, I realize how lucky I have been. Afghanistan has once more become war zone - not that it has ever ceased to be one in the last quarter of a century. Women remain the victims of patriarchal tradition and fundamentalism- but men, in their own way toil under the consequences: enforced marriages, the obligation to submit to (and hand over earnings) to paternal authority all their lives and the continuous pressure of extended families contribute to frustration and rage. So the suffering and misery remain intense everywhere in a context of increasing insecurity. Yet whereas I chose to challenge fate by coming here, they are landed with daily violence and hardship they have n’t asked for. One woman in a remote village said to me Thank-you for coming, you’re kinder than our own people: you left your family in a distant land to come and help us, that’s really something. On that scorching day the sun beating down on my shroud-like black tchador namaz, having gone through a rocky desert track preyed upon, as I found out later, by notorious highway killers, in a mud village that felt like walking into Old Testament times, those words went straight to my heart.

Why fight on under such difficult circumstances? The intensity of the voyage reminded me of my initiatory trip to wartime Sarajevo in the summer of 1994, I had encountered, for the first time this particular mixture of despair and hope. With Azra, an amazing woman from the city who had reorganized the education system in her neighbourhood, we dreamt of rebuilding their school. In those days, the siege felt interminable and the return to a normal life seemed beyond the scope of imagination. But somehow it happened and the Skender Kulenovic school in Dobrinja is the most beautiful one in the Balkans- see Likewise, the seemingly improbable library project remains emblematic of a future for the new generation of Afghans as well as our own kids. Their fates are intertwined: what affects women in Afghanistan ends up having consequences in our own world, as the rise of reactionary politics all over the world ominously demonstrates. Sharing literacy, literature and games, creating a common set of references through dreams and ideals may create bonds that wars and politics might have otherwise irretrievably destroyed. The fight goes on, for them, for us.

If you wish to donate for the library project, you can use Paypal on the home page

If you want to send books (from the US) please contact me, but bear in mind that they should be illustrated, non-controversial (geography, geology, basic biology etc) designed for a youth public that does not read English. We are also looking for books in Persian and Pashto : the latter is difficult to find and really essential.

Carol Mann

June 2006

Femaid report on Afghanistan and Pakistan, March-April 2005

This report was started in an antique Tupolev flying from Kabul to Baku, crossing the rugged mountain landscape so typical of Afghanistan as I was emerging from what may rank as one of the most intense and adventurous trips of my life, just after that first epic visit to wartime Sarajevo in 1994.
I had visited Afghan refugee camps on the Pakistani border several times over the past three and a half years, but this time I needed to understand the other perspective, the one coming from the capital city. So for the first time, I went to Afghanistan, invited to stay with a wonderful family I had met in the days when they were refugees in Pakistan. The journey included visits to Kabul, Peshawar, Islamabad, a lot in between including two refugee camps and at the end a couple of obligatory nights in Baku which would be worth a trip in tiself
The continuation of FemAid projects with RAWA- the orphanage, sponsorship of students and a midwife training project were on the agenda as well as my ongoing anthropological research on female refugees. I also arrived with about 50 kilos of baby clothes and medical equipment, for which Azerbaidjan Airlines uncharitably forced me to pay a fortune in surplus weight and then proceeded to crush one of my suitcases driving the luggage to the plane after the stop-over in Baku, claiming wind as a force majeure (their term). You now know what route and flight-company to avoid.

Impressions of Kabul
Perhaps the problem is that I arrived when it was cold and raining after an unnaturally freezing winter which had killed thousands in rural areas. It certainly did not prepare me to think positively about what I was seeing, wading through the mud and the filth in a largely unpaved city. All I can say is that the warm welcome I received and the sheer generosity of the people is equivalent in intensity to the dismal and despairing aspect of their city, as if to compensate for its daily agony. Where else in the world does the security person at the airport who has just frisked you invite you to have a cup of green tea and a chat with her ? Fahimas husband had been killed by the Taliban and she was bringing her three children up in a single room, but managed to be cheerful and interested in my life in Paris. Where else in the world do people, when you leave them, wish you find to flowers on your road through life ? Where else do women and boys alike spontaneously break into verse, at full moon in a dismal refugee camp or huddling in a musty room in a wrecked Kabuli building ?

Everyone appears to think that conditions in Kabul are much improved since the time after the Taliban : at least thats what they claim. At this point of my life and in my middle years as a writer and novelist, and therefore a professional in the exercise of my imagination, words fail me. I cannot begin to conjure anything more sordid than what I have seen, especially in the suburb of Khairkhana where I stayed. The first images one receives (or rather are hurled at you) on the potted road from the airport, are ruins and more ruins, rusting tanks from Soviet times, followed by mounds of rotting rubbish with children rumaging for anything recyclable and therefore resaleable. Women in burqas stand in the middle of the highway begging, their babies at their feet as cars and carts whizz by. Admittedly, some construction work is going on. There are a small number of would-be modern building sites in the centre, looking utterly irrelevant, some sort of botched cut-and-paste job, including an unlikely bluish glass structure going up next to open drains and throngs of beggars tugging at your sleeve. In the smarter streets (Wazir Akhbar Khan), the beggars in the know ask for Panch (five) dollars/Panch Afghanis alternately. On Chicken Street, a generally over-priced haven for aging hippy shoppers, these get particularly virulent, presumably encouraged by the pudgy GIS descending from their armoured vehicles in flack-jackets, sweeping the urchins away like flies. It seems that Claude Lelouch, the French film-maker admiring the newly rebuilt Ariana cinema showing recent, if not the latest, French films praised the quality of Kabul reborn. Had nt anyone told him that women were not admitted to this abode of Gallic culture unless they attend family viewing at 8 am ? Obviously Ive missed out on the progressive aspects of the city, picking my way through its refuse which stands around in stinking heaps everywhere. I did choose to avoid the expat community alltogether, its Intercontinental breakfast parties and embassy gatherings, where journalists and aid officials from the larger agencies throng. It seems that someone in the US compound fortified like a bunker and causing daily massive traffic diversions has had a tee-shirt printed with Welcome to the most gated community in the world.Indeed there seems to be little communication between the post-colonial humanitarian occupation and the local population, outisde their immediate staff .
I was lucky enough to stay with my adorable Pashtun family, far from the paved streets in the city centre. This is indeed a most traditional patriarchal family, where the married brothers live with their wives as well as single siblings and young cousins. Togetherness and loneliness operate simultaneously, women work very hard at daily chores, but the warmth and love is there. My contribution has mainly consisted of making French-style cakes, kneading dough on the ground and using a bread oven. Frugal Pashtun habits do not allow for sugar, but my productions were more than politely appreciated and Djevad, the youngest boy of the famiily has now taken over as the family pastry chef!
In Khairkhana, typical of most of Kabul, when the rain stops and the sun comes out, the stench is overpowering- but that is the case in every shanty town on the subcontinent, and Kabul appears to be a post-modern combination of a shanty town, a medieval bazaar after a Genghis Khan stampede, crossed with a rambling refugee camp and at its centre a latter-day version of Kafkas Castle where politics and money are generated. The mud roads are filled with every form of transport known to humanity since the beginning of time, carts pulled by sturdy weather-beaten men who hire themselves out as cart-horses, military vehicles, donkeys, horses, clapped-out Ladas, 4 X4 Toyotas and mainly some kind of cubist-collages on wheels, not to mention a few goats and roosters. Not a single traffic light, but less hooting and systematic shoving off the road than in Pakistan.Nobody in either country appears to have a driving license and about twelve appears to be the right age to put a kid behind the wheel- boys, that is, not girls.
Much of the population lives in the sprawl of mud houses that circle the city. I thought that these were just characteristic of rural areas and camps, having seen this kind of structure in profusion in the NWFP. Little did I know that this was also typical of capital city urban living. Perhaps the boundaries of rural/urban tend to be looser here, but the truth is that the NGOs have grossly inflated the real estate market and the rents are astronomical. The inhbitants of Kabul simply cannot afford their own city. A widow I met lives with her four children in a tiny room paying 8000 Afghanis monthly ($160) and the house my family rents in their unsavoury suburb costs them over $20 000 a year whereas the average salary is between 3000 and 5000 Afghanis (50 Afghanis to the US$), unless you work for farangi. NGOs who naturally pay far higher rents for less-than- clean and/or modern facilities. You end up wondering what the hell some of these are doing here : at least the effects on the general well-being of the population are not immediately visible, For a certain educated middle-class, just as in post-war Sarajevo, there are a number of rather well-paid jobs. So instead of teaching in schools and universities, the brains of the country find themselves as interpreters or drivers at the service of bemused expats, civilian or military making sure that the natives feel suitably grateful for all the benefits they are apparently pouring on them. One hears at least two contradictory assesments but which work together. First, that things would have been better if the Soviets had stayed (which is obvious after just one hour in any ex-Soviet republic like Azerbaidjan) and secondly, that if the Americans pull out, civil war is unavoidable. Nevetheless, this would be the result of the explosive political situation which the US has so carefully constructed and somewhat repeated in Irak. A self- destructing configuration dependent on Washington, dressed up up as democracy, President Karza, however, is immesely popular and is seen as doing the best he can in appaling circumstances.
A propos the stench of the gutters. One realises that this is when a veil turns out to be useful, you just lift it gracefully to your nose (though never as gracefully as Afghan girls). Nevertheless, this hardly explains the ubiquitous burqa. In the city-centre, female faces are certainly visible on the street, usually wrapped in a dark scarf, topping loose clothing and high stacked heels, but they are the exception. Those who claim the contrary must keep on running into the same girls and/or have never left the two or three central streets of the city. Everywhere else, burqas abound ; the difference since the fall of the Taliban is that they are not shadowed by an obligatory male escort-cum-jailer, the mahram, usually a close relative as opposed to an unrelated therefore (Allah-forbid) seducable man. The locals at Khairkhana must have wondered what yours truly was doing walking down the road with a succession of handsome mahrams obviously unrelated to her stumbling, sternly beshawled person.
Shrouded in the comforting albeit cumbersome anonymity of the burqa, women nowadays go about on their business alone, especially to shops and markets where modernity comes in the form of brittle plastic consumer novelties made in China and also exorbitantly highly priced vegetables (nearly 1 US$ for a kilo of tomatoes or apples, the same for a big bottle of Pepsi) : multiply by ten to get the Western price equivalent.
The middle-class often find themselves donning the blue nylon burqa--shroud, under the pressure of conservative mother-in-laws with whom they have to live, as a girl always moves in with her husbands family in order to serve and wait on his parents. This is the case of a university professor who arrives to her classes in her burqa, sheds it for her classes and pulls it back one once she leaves work. Things only change if the money factor comes in- which leaves the women out. Access to education which certainly is a plus of these post-Taliban times, does not bring wealth, unlike shady entrepreneurship, so typical of a post-war economy where war profiteers rule and allow themselves a degree of freedom in terms of business and social practices as well, sometimes,life-style. The traditional regulation through patriarchal family structures and the typical Afghan frugality are beginning to disappear in these circles as far as men are concerned even if restrictions continue to operate for women. Another thing, once the burqa drops, surprises abound even in the refugee camps where I went after a week in Kabul. The wearer often turns out to be a carefully made-up woman wearing fancy clothes and flashy jewellery ; one twenty-year old I met in an otherwise pro- Taliban refugee camp actually had multiple piercing in her earlobes with silver hoops and a CK scarf. Thanks to the media- mostly Bollywood and Islam-friendly Western clips permitted on Afghan and Pakistani TV, these girls are in the know and not just for fashion. Yasmin, my brilliant Afghan daughter who has been interviewing young girls all around the country reports that through the radio, they have become aware of their rights and are indeed clamouring for what the government has promised them. Naturally, this heightened awareness does not help for easing their conditions within the traditional family set-up. This is exactly where the zone of friction is setting in : womens new expectations clash with those of their males who have not had to rethink their authority and see these changes as an attack on their privileges. This new-found awareness is often the result of having been exposed to alternatives from abroad, as refugees in Pakistan and Iran, corroborated by the new democracy- speak spouting from the media. Just by the way women walk, you can immeidately tell where she has spent the last few years. This goes a long way in explaining the wave of suicides of Afghan girls, who could be termed as first-generation literate especially those who have received some education and vocational training and cannot bear to be married off and condemned to be ruled over by domineering and largely illiterate husbands and mother-in-laws.

Afghan Politics for the Western Sympathiser
What can any Western sympathiser hope to achieve in such a set-up ? I think the first thing is to help to set the picture straight. Keep a critical mind in front of the images of carefully orchestrated propaganda that serves to legitimate what the West has deemed appropriate for Afghanistan, namely a religion-based government made up of the crew that originally brought bloody civil war to the country after the Soviet retreat, so much so that the Taliban were greeted as liberators.
Part of the Western production includes the by-now iconic image of Ahmad Shah Massoud, plastered all over the city, down to the ramshackle booths of stalls on the road to Pakistan. The Lion of Panshir comes in all shapes and sizes, as post-cards, giant posters (even on the facade of the airport, next to Karza) leaflets, or wall-hangings or carpets : at least you can stand on his face, which may have been the secret intention of the local weavers.. If the current logic prevails,, doubtless tee-shirts, mugs and, why not, thongs will follow to be sold to US and allied soldiers and embassy staff, Even if the French, for reasons that remain their own, invented this national hero who happened to be fluent in their language, the Kabulis themselves dont mince their words when it comes to describing the atrocities he committed on the civilian population. Why not ask the Afghans themselves to chose their national hero and write their own history ? They would have voted for King Amanullah. After all , unlike Massoud he was a true progressive who believed in womens rights- and got killed for his attempts at modernisation in the 1920s.

So there is the absurd, indeed obscene worship of Massoud ; the presence of Fundamentalist warlords and like-minded affiliates in the government- such as Barhuddin Rabbani or the Chief Justice Shinwari whose sympathies lie close to the Taliban. He has named judges in the highest posts in the country who have absolutely no formal education outside limited Coranic studies. The maintenance of Afghanistan as an Islamic republic like Saudi Arabia or Pakistan makes sure that the strictest form of Sharia, religious law is here to stay. Why, if religion is an obligation,, cant the country be allowed to be simply a Muslim country like Morocco or Tunisia or most of the rest of the Muslim world.? It is more than slightly sinister to ponder that the present bigot US president and opponent of modern human rights has chosen to ally himself with the most reactionary (and anti-women) Muslim nations. Fundamentalists of the world unite, your time is nigh! . Nevertheless, I do think the Afghans themselves have to do something about it as well. As I told many of the more academically-orientated RAWA members and supporters, they need to reconsider their own history and counter the propaganda. A courageous group has started a weekly called Rozgaran which systematically denounces the routine abuses committed by the government, relating it to recent history. I really hope that someone starts to rewrite the history of the past 25 years ; the war-lords and Fundamentalist Mudjhaddins (Massoud included) styled themselves into the sole opponents of heathen Communism, with the logistical blessing of the US- (watch Rambo in case youve forgotten). Now there were other modes of secular opposition ranging from intellectuals such as the poet Majrooh, various shades of committed socialists and one-time Maoists who found the pro-Soviet manner to be ineffective within the Afghan context.- this is where the figure of Meena the founder of RAWA has her place The leaders of these groups were nearly all murdered, usually by the most sanguinary of all warlords, Gulbedddin Hekmatyar. The memory of the socialist, non-Soviet secular alternative has been obliterated as anti-Islamic but it seems to me that today, the only people with whom a dialogue is truly possible are representatives of a secular alternative, admittedly few and far between. The outspoken parliamentary and one-time presidential candidate Malalai Joya in Farah is one such person. And there are others, these need to be sought out and encouraged by thinking intellectuals in the West. Despite keeping a low profile and concentrating on vital humanitarian issues, RAWA also needs to develop an open political platform. With religion as the moral norm creeping back into the daily fabric of todays world at a frightening rate (viz. the media frenzy over the demise of senile, AIDS -promoting Pope John Paul), secularism needs to be defended and fought over by each and everyone of us- what is happening in Afghanistan and Iraq is bound to have sinister consequences in the entire Western world

Travels to Pakistan
I am happy to say that I travelled over the legendary Khyber Pass overland twice inside a week. The road from Kabul to Peshawar, complete with gorges, precipices, camels against a mountain backdrop, orange groves, Kutchi shepherds- and brightly clad shepherdesses, goats and sheep holding up the traffic, enormous rocks thrown by a giant hand on the hillside, turbaned warriors of every kind (including Taliban) ancient caravenserail stops where locals dream their opiate dreams and the rest of us eat delicious pilaw- surely the trip of a life-time which doubtless your embassy will advise against, for all kinds of perfectly logical, completely pragmatic reasons I chose the madcap romantic alternative and loved every minute.
The first time, I did nt really know how illegal it was to cross the notoriously lawless Tribal Areas in Pakistan without a permit, the second time, on the way back, I did, and had to resort to hiding under a heavy shawl and ducking each time a soldier turned up tapping at the bus window. Just as well Im not a slim young blonde after all. Thats when I fully realized what a sinister package deal the whole veil is : it is truly a system (in the Baudrillard sense), not an element of partisan costume, as veiling supporters in France (and elsewhere)would have you believe. Cover your head and your face and you discover that you may not show your hands or your feet, you have to keep your arms close to your body, walk in tiny steps, always look down, never stroll about, gape, wonder or take photographs, at best hurry from one place to another. Sitting motionless is just as hard, (my gorgeous Afghan son and travel companion-cum-bodyguard warned me : And stop saying Wow every minute otherwise well really be in trouble ). For good measure, I removed my glasses as thats a dead give-away in a country with about 90% rate of female illiteracy ; after all its at school that you find out you cant see on the blackboard and need glasses
When I was in Peshawar, there was rioting in this Fundamentalist stronghold held by the Taliban-friendly MMA coalition, stones had been thrown at windows and passing vehicles. This sinister party has just won a major victory by enforcing the stating of religion in Pakistani passports, thereby ensuring possible discrimination against the non-Muslim population. On advertisements and movie posters, female faces have been blackened-out, music is forbidden and women are rapidly disappearing from public space. The thinking, educated population is increasingly alarmed, but the reaction is to flee the area as far as possible.

Back to the refugee camp
In previous reports (see below) the camp where RAWA and FemAid have been particularly active has been described in great detail. Here, I would like to say that the refugee question is still of vital importance. Nancy Hatch Dupree, the grande (and merveilleuse) dame of Afghan studies whom I met in Peshawar informed me there were still 1.8 million refugees in the area and strongly deplored UNHCR s policy of pushing them out of the country at full speed. She knows- what I had discovered myself, that many such returnees have been shivering in makeshift tents for two and a half-years in Kabul simply because there is nowhere for them to go.
Nevertheless, in our camp, the atmosphere has definitely changed. People are on the move, they no longer truly relate to this uniquely experimental settlement which has become what all camps set out to be : temporary shelters for those waiting to go back to their frequently devastated homes. Many of those waiting have been doing all their brief lives.
I had come here to put in place an educational programme for untrained and uneducated birth-attendants. The fact that Afghanistan holds the worlds record in maternal mortality has made this FemAids top priority from 2005 onwards. For a variety of logistical reasons, we decided to launch the first programme in the refugee camp, where women need to develop skills to prepare their return to Afghanistan. Although there are a few doyas, recognized midwives in every community, women help each other to give birth, using their experience as a guideline. This is not the first time we have attempted this: in 2003, FemAid was involved in putting on one such project in RAWAs dispensary in Quetta, now closed.
Whereas it is naturally impossible to imagine training according to Western standards, it is possible to improve conditions through a series of simple measures and basic education in hygiene and anatomy, which are totally lacking here. After all, one hundred and sixty years ago the Hungarian doctor Ignaz Semmelweiss made a landmark discovery when he proved that babies were saved when doctors attending birthing mothers simply washed their hands We are here light years away from any such conceptions, because traditional notions of impurity, decency and honour need to be considered and woven into this project. I conducted research with these women and medical staff in order to work on the anthropological input lacking in existing programmes.
The report of this particular research will be published at a later date, but in the meantime, I discovered that most women (especially those living in urbanized conditions) at their first pregnancy did not know where the baby would emerge from their bodies. None knew anything at all about sex on their wedding night. One woman reported that despite giving birth in hospital she did not know what was happening I was distraught with fear, I did not understand what was going on, I just wanted to be rid of the pain ; I thought the doctor was operating in my crotch . Why the doctor had nt explained anything remains to be seen. For many, the connexion between sex and pregnancy is not clear and all think that they are personally responsible for bringing girls into the world and therefore inviting punishment from their males. A mother of seven said I still dont know where exactly the baby sits in my stomach when Im expecting. Another mother of five cant figure out why a pregnant belly was high in the beginning and then low at the end. When asked why they thought maternal and infant mortality was so catastrophic in their country, amongst many reasons most blamed malnutrition for women and marital violence, nobody ever mentioning hygiene : My sisters baby had ribs broken because her husband hit her so much reported one participant whilst others nodded, remembering similar tales.However, .I hope we will be able to recognize and include any positive aspects of traditional practices and remedies, as these can maintain confidence amongst women attending this course who will be able to find some kind of continuity amongst different ways of tackling the situations they are confronted with.

If this project takes off by weaving in such considerations in this way, it will be truly innovative.

RAWA will be responsible for recruiting the staff. If the Malalai Hospital in Rawalpindi has to be closed for lack of funds, it will shift to the camp, especially as the clinic, funded up to now by IMF, has been closed. Otherwise, they will provide a midwife and nurse to run this programme and we shall be working together on the contents of the course. We have agreed that these women afterwards have to promise to share some of the knowledge that they have acquired with their entourage, especially their daughters. The latter may be the hardest part to enforce, as it is shameful to speak about sex and childbirth to your own daughters, but it is certainly the most vital as far as the future of the women of their country is concerned

FemAid projects for 2005

The birth-attendant-training programme henceforth will be our main priority. We are launching it for one year and hope to be able to train a maximum amount of women in two camps, which ideally could concern a few hundred women. The idea is to offer a full 3 months programme covering main issues linked to anatomy, pregnancy, ante and post- natal care, pain, as well as birth control. We plan to have a few sessions for men as well. This should be a forum for active discussion. At the end of the course, women will be given a small kit containing basic disinfectants and presented with some kind of diploma. In Peshawar I met with UNHCR and IMF and hope to get them on board as well. If this works, out I should like to involve specialists from the West.

The orphanage

RAWA has informed us that they now have a sponsor who is able to foot all the bills concerning the running of the Sitara orphanage.
However, we will continue to pay for educational and vocational programmes, especially as we have developed such a close link to the children. First of all there will be English classes and the setting up of a little library of English language books and films.
The sewing and carpentry classes have been a great success. As planned, the first five girls who returned to Afghanistan took their manual sewing-machine with them to their village, which will ensure them a livelihood. We are going to launch the same course in another RAWA orphanage in Peshawar.The other ten will go when each girls who has completed the course leaves to go home- something which may not happen immediately. In the meantime, they have been making shalwar-kamiz, the traditional tunic and trouser outfits for all the other children and staff in the orphanage and have also learn how to embroider. They henceforth take orders! The boys have made miniature pieces of furniture and are working on larger examples and all are enjoying their work..

Sponsorship of specific students
In Afghanistan, through RAWA, we are sponsoring four gifted teenage girls in order to help them with their studies. Their photos and stories of Najia, Feryal, Salima and Mashkan will be appearing on the site soon
In Pakistan,, we are also helping a particularly brilliant student to complete his A level studies. Despite being a charity which makes helping women its priority, it is impossible to do so without working with the men they live with. In such an ultra-patriarchal society, it is far harder to change male mentalities..
We are continuing to sponsor three Christian girls in the Hatoon-e-Fatima School in Islamabad, as we have been doing for the past three and a half years because the Christian community is the poorest in Pakistan.

For the time being, we are dropping the Burns Unit project. It is impossible to even consider such an enormously ambitious project without firm and active commitment from a Pakistani womens organization prepared to work hard at this. And for the time being, none has been forthcoming despite the urgency of the problem. We have met with prominent activist Shahnaz Bokhari in Islamabad and hope one day to be able to work with her

Well, funds are somewhat low at this present time and, more than ever, we need your help and assistance to carry out these projects. We are commiting as far as our finances allow us and are not making promises we cant keep. As you know, much of our money comes from individual dedicated donors and also sales of scarves and handicrafts- if interested, please contact us. We are now equipped to receive donations via Paypal- any donation can be sent with one click directly from our site.

FemAid, 33 rue Guy Moquet 92240 Malakoff, France (note new adddress)
Tel: 33 6 10 30 71 05


You will find four mission reports, starting by the latest.
For a more complete analysis of the whole situation, we suggest you read all four...

Femaids latest fact-finding trip to Pakistan - a rambling report
October 23rd- November 2nd 2003
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The aim of this trip was a dual one: first to see how our projects are developing and second to pursue my ongoing anthropological research on the subject of Afghan female refugees in camps. I travelled to Islamabad and Rawalpindi to visit RAWAs Malalai Hospital, and the Hewat school, to Peshawar to the Sitara orphanage and then to spend some time in the refugee camp where RAWA is prominent. Whilst in Islamabad, I also met Saadia of NAWA the Pakistani group we are also working with in the Gilgit Hunza area, Although Afghan refugees and work with RAWA remain our priority, we have felt that in a country crushed by overwhelming poverty which has been hosting the refugee population for a quarter of a century, it is only fair to contribute to a particularly worthwhile Pakistani project.
Travelling regularly by public transport across the country, one gets a fair idea of how the country is moving along, especially as this is my fourth trip in two years. The further north one goes (in direction of Peshawar, the NWFP and Afghanistan), the more police controls multiply and the hold of the fundamentalist-friendly local government (ruled by the MMA) becomes obvious. As a female, one would be ill-advised to travel wearing anything else than local shalwar-kamiz, concealing ones head in a scarf and the camera in a handbag (or vice-versa). Not a place for indolent tourists or the faint of heart

An unfashionable cause
The cause of Afghan women appears to have been near enough forgotten, overtaken by the events in Irak that have somehow made the cause of Afghan women yesterdays news, except for a few die-hards. A situation which is not helped by the maddening self-congratulatory, border line fraudulent reports and statements issued by UNESCO (such as the one dated October 3rd) about the million girls purportedly returning to school and the supposedly safe conditions in which women are giving birth.
Needless to say, this is wishful thinking at best-because if this were just a tiny percentage of the truth, the refugees I met in refugee camps and slums would have run back to their homeland which they have been dreaming about for a quarter of a century. In rural Afghanistan, that is to say places where Western journalists are too afraid to travel, girlsschools are being torched by fundamentalists and the maternal mortality rate continues to be the highest in the world.
Hardly an enticement to return for these refugees, many of whom are by now second generation, not to say third (in view of the early age at which girls give birth) Statistics show that an important number have indeed gone back, especially the educated minority hailing from cities, but the flow seems to have slowed down dramatically and many in fact do sneak back into Pakistan, unbeknown by the authorities.

Hospitals and Where can i buy zicam nasal swabs
I first travelled to Islamabad and Rawalpindi t to review RAWAs projects, in particular those we are supporting in the area. The Malalai hospital continues to cater for women and children living in mud-huts by the highway or sheds made of sticks and tattered rags. Huddling in their burqas, they walk for hours or else pile up in a rickshaw to get there, clutching painfully thin infants. The diseases are those engendered by poverty and lack of immunization of these people who simply do not exist in any statistics, born and frequently dying in anonymous filth. I have to say that this fate is not just reserved to Afghan refugees but also to the local population who frequently live in equally miserable conditions, but may have access to some vague semblance of official medical aid and recognition. But what can you expect of a country that spends 65% of its budget on armament and 5% in development and social services? Private charity takes over in lieu of coherent policies, in the form of assorted NGOs of variable enthusiasm and efficiency and at the lowest level, by private bouts of zakat, especially in this month of Ramadan: the poor crowd round bakeries so that customers can donate a few loaves which are then distributed- surely the wrong word. In an Afghan slum, bread which yours truly bought for about hundred people sitting in the dirt along the pavement was literally flung at them by the baker wielding a stick, as if feeding pigeons or stray dogs.
RAWA runs the only free clinic for Afghans in Islamabad, the Lexapro pill appearance; this valiant effort has been sponsored up till now by hard-working support groups (especially AWM), but as we all know Irak (or is it Arnold?) seems to have taken precedence over Afghanistan, not to mention the ubiquitous growing personal crisis which justifiably mobilize many peoples resources in these depressed times. As a result, RAWA envisages having to cut down on what they offer if the situation does not improve within a year, turning it into dispensary, open in the mornings only such as the one they run in Quetta, which I visited last January. So what is going to happen to those women who choose to give birth elsewhere than muddy floors, those kids operated from appendicitis, those unremoved gallstones, those unrepaired bones and festering wounds? Theyll just have to go back and die much in the same way as they have hitherto lived, in filth, relentless misery and pain.

On October 23rd, we sent two convoys of mainly medical equipment by plane, one to Pakistan, one to Afghanistan. The first was for RAWAs Malalai hospital and also to the Pakistani group NAWA which works in the Hunza area (for more details see the site). Fourteen large crates are presently sitting, as we speak, in the Islamabad customs whilst someone finds the right person to, shall we say, negotiate with in order to get it all released at, we pray, a not too extortionate price
And we will have to pay a daily fee for the time this convoy is at customs, forcible rent of unwanted space, if you will. The twenty-seven crates of medical instruments and first aid kids along with baby clothes we sent to the Rabia Balkhi maternity hospital in Kabul on the same date are experiencing a similar fate- having been lost for a week between Islamabad to Kabul. It always gets there in the end, but its so nerve-racking!
Thats one of the most maddening aspects about sending aid, the sheer perversity of the complexities of actually getting anything there . I have set myself the task of exploring the various shipping possibilities and rates offered by different ports and clearance points. Ever since I started organizing convoys for Bosnia ten years ago, one of my chief regrets is not having a truck-drivers license!
Such research is all the more important as we are planning to send more medical material and hospital furniture such as gynaecological tables. Such material is available at low cost in France (and elsewhere) simply because hospitals renew their equipment every ten years or so and often get rid of the older one. Same thing with instruments: I brought a couple of dozen metal specula to delighted doctors both in Pakistan and Afghanistan, simply because nowadays gynaecologists in the West use discardable plastic equipment. There is so much surgical equipment around which would really be a boon to other parts of the world. This is something we will be working on in the future, the recycling of medical resources.
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Hewat school and schooling
RAWA has cut down its three schools to one in Rawalpindi, catering for 400 pupils who come for two shifts. We have been paying teachers salaries for the past 2 years for these schools and also the one in the refugee camp. Now there is more staff and various expenses, including a pay-rise, so the expenses will remain the same.
As there is no free education for Afghans, this community relies on this kind of private school of which a number have been established, come and gone by different political and social groups during the past 25 years. RAWAs schools and various facilities, unlike others, are free. The curriculum tries to follow the official Afghan one in order to prepare the children for the schooling they should be going back to once back home. Of course, there is a continuing sense of frustration in receiving an education for a promised land which seems to remain inaccessible, whilst not learning anything (such as Urdu) which might help to integrate more in Pakistan where the vast majority of these kids have been born and brought up. The RAWA school caters to girls as well as boys and offers adult literacy classes for women (adult designating anyone married which could and often means a 13 year old student sitting with women twice or three times her age) . An extra budget has to be sometimes included for those husbands who begrudge their wives attempts at education- they have to be paid off with a few ounces of tea and ghee But as I have realized, by now, the most enthusiastic student in the world is the intelligent previously suppressed adult woman who has belatedly discovers literacy and just cant enough of itSome of the staunchest, most active RAWA militants are precisely admirable women of this kind.
Education provides the only possibility of developing any form of awareness to women locked into the traditional system of self-abnegation and mindless submission. Nevertheless, learning in schools all over the sub-continent is generally done by rote, with kids repeating lessons without much aim at comprehension, just as they chant Koran in Arabic in the madrassas, without understanding a single world. Inter-active learning, criticism and debate do not take place before university. In all RAWA-sponsored schools, debates and discussions are organized, which is all the more important for girls brought up in the traditional way. Nevertheless, the boys are the most vocal in schools, whereas as the girls excel at written work.

Status, Kudos and Education
Education is something valued by the Afghan community as status building and respectable. However not just any education. A traditional curriculum is preferred and anything which will add to their social image, which is why we have been always asked to sponsor computer courses, despite my objections about the practicality and real use of such courses on outdated material and dubious electricity. The point is that they idealize technology as the magic solution to all their problems: countless boys want to be computer engineers not having a clue what it means, just that it sounds Western, powerful and futuristic. Girls dont nurture have such fantasies: at best, those who access education might dream of becoming teachers or doctors, professions that were accessible to women in the 1970s.
The importance of status in educational choices is reflected in other ways.
An enthusiastic FemAid supporter from the US suggested sponsoring a music class, which I also thought was a good idea, for the Sitara orphanage which we help in Peshawar. These are rural children who have all lived in the most miserable refugee camps in the NWFP area, most have begged in the street and collected garbage from day to night, before being saved by RAWA. I suggested it to the orphanage administrator who went to discuss my proposition with the children. Three days later, she came back to me and said that learning music was out of the question for the families, as it was deemed an extremely low-class occupation; The families would be outraged that RAWA is teaching their children music she said.
I should have remembered. The Indian caste system has somehow injected its scale of values all over the subcontinent: musicians, dancers, actors (however successful) are practically on the same level as prostitutes- as they were in Western Europe centuries ago (I may add that mullahs are nt very high on the social ladder either, which is something of a consolation!) All this has to be taken into consideration, even if it seems contradictory to us, coming from families who did not mind their children being rag-pickers. French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu coined the term symbolic capital to explain precisely the paramount importance of what these people are holding on to, having lost everything else. A way of life, some principles, some educational choices continue to define people and make them respectable in the eyes of others, even in extreme circumstances: which is why veiling and purdah are so strong in some of the poorest refugee communities.
To get back to the orphanage, the children apparently suggested a computer course instead. I objected, pointing out the lack of electricity to be expected in rural Afghanistan where they are theoretically all headed, not to mention the improbable availability of computers in the Pukhtun/Hazara/Baluch (etc) hinterland. I do hope I dont sound too patronizing, but standards of progress are far from universal: even if the odd clapped-out computer were available in these areas, it would hardly be entrusted to a mere female cooped up in her backyard surrounded by a dozen children It would land in the reception room reserved to the males in the family, on show, never plugged in, like the antiquated A/C installation which I was made to admire in a refugee camp; it was nt working, but everyone thought it looked stylish.
I suggested a woodwork course for the orphanage, a useful skill that they could use anywhere; even though carpentry is not see as a high class occupation, it is at least honourable. I am trying to get the girls taught as well, but this proposition has raised a few eyebrows. One of the problems is that the traditional crafts (carpet-making, embroidery etc) are no longer a real source of income: countless NGOs have set up such projects and since 9/11, the demand for crafts has plummeted and Persian/Afghan carpets (often the work of nimble little fingers in refugee camps) appear are remaindered in many Western capitals.
I trust RAWA will understand this and see how girls can learn new skills. After all, they have set up boxing, karate and football classes for girls in the refugee camp in which they are particularly active- a total revolution in that part of the world, to say the least. I watched a girls football match one evening and when asked for my opinion, all I could say was that if it had nt been for the ball, I would have thought it was some kind of all -out wrestling match! I just hope that the girls manage to keep a bit of that defensive spirit when confronted by the horrors of the arranged mariage that inevitably awaits them.

The concept of shame, female honour and tribal law
It is during the riotous football match that I could I could appreciate RAWAs sheer genius at evaluating the womens problems here and finding a creative solution, albeit a temporary one. What cannot be pronounced in words can be expressed through the body.
Practically from birth, girls are trained to submission and self-denial to a degree that is quite beyond belief in the Western way of thinking. This is because a girl must feel shame about her body, her very existence and the first thing she learns is to cover her face and hide her shameful body. I have seen toddlers clumsily pull a tattered veil on their tiny heads in the camp; a woman s first gesture upon setting eyes on anyone is to pull down her veil or burq: purdah is a way of life which they have totally integrated without any male being present. Female existence is reduced to being a fragment of life concealed behind a bit fabric, beyond any form of personal will or desire. And a little girl has to learn to submit to escalating brutality, from the blows or kicks of any of her brothers, including the younger ones, to the nameless brutality of the rape which takes place on the wedding night. And generally nobody tells the girls what to expect, except that her husband has the right to do as he pleases with her. As more than one woman in the refugee camps told me: Ofcourse he can beat me, if I disobey him, he is always right. As if by divine right, because women are persuaded that it has been ordained like that since time immemorial, attributing to the will of some fierce God posing as Allah. They may delightedly watch the musicals produced by Bollywood/Lollywood on TV, this is the stuff the dreams are made of for the hundreds of millions of tormented women on the Indian subcontinent, none of them would imagine for one moment that this could have the remotest link with reality.
So to clamour for womens rights on a Western scale of is hardly relevant Women will not be liberated from such endless oppression at the drop of a burqa. In our society, self-fulfillment (indeed self-indulgence) is presented far too often in lieu womens rights, whereas here we are talking about something far more basic: the right to respect, healthcare, education and indeed life.

Because a womans life is not her own property, hardly her own birthright, according to a code of honour linked to tribal law which makes Islam appear benign and indeed benevolent in comparison.
To give an example, I met a woman who had come to Peshawar to bring two of her seven daughters to see a doctor, because they appeared to suffer from strange, incomprehensible diseases. As we were sitting and talking, the elder daughter, age 18, started go into some kind of fit, rolling on the floor, squeezing her hands around her neck trying to strangle herself and shouting. Three people were necessary to restrain her from really harming herself, it was frightening. As she started to calm down, her younger 12 year old sister started whimpering and then sobbing convulsively. The mother showed us some tablets for epilepsy which one doctor had prescribed, and explained that the mollah had suggested that someone had given them the evil eye and had tried fumigating the spirits which apparently possessed them. To no avail. It was obvious that there was some other kind of explanation to this and I began to ask if something had happened in their lives, the mother vigorously denied any contributing factor, until their young cousin who spoke a bit of English whispered to me that the eldest had been engaged (by her family) to a young man she absolutely did not want to marry. Need one say more? I suspect the youngest identified with her older sibling, hence her own fits. This is a society where women are forbidden to express opinions, emotions or even pain: when giving birth, it is dishonourable to howl. The only permissible cries in a girls life is on her wedding night: her screams are seen as an proper acknowledgement of her husbands virility
With great difficulty, I tried to organize some kind of discussion between the mother, the RAWA members and myself. However horrified, they could see that I was trying to invade the most sacred territory of them all, that of family honour of which the mother is the sacred guardian. This could be easily misinterpreted. We talked for a long time, me intervening as the mother of teenagers conversing with another mother about problems we parents have to face, which is generally a good platform for an exchange. It is hard to fathom what will happen in the end. But the real problem is far more deep-seated than a psychosomatic manifestation. I asked the mother how she could cope with the idea that perhaps her daughter might truly die because of some decision she and her husband had taken on her behalf. The mothers initial reaction was ominously clear Let her die, let them both kill themselves, the honour of our family is more important than their lives: we have given our word
And when I asked women in refugee camps what they thought of this story, most of them agreed with the mother Women sometimes also participate in honour killings, they have totally integrated the dominant social values which is why men have to be made part of any kind of attempts at liberation.
I am convinced that Afghanistans main social problem is tribal law, especially the dominant Pushtoon law, based on vendetta-type revenge of the most extreme kind. Women are routinely traded, exchanged, given like commodities between rivals, allies or even enemies one is trying to placate. Until there is a strong central government which makes justice dependent on a balanced set of laws and not private enterprise, the status of women cannot change in anything but a cosmetic manner, and men will never recognize their partners rights.
However, having said all this, when such attitudes are removed and girls can devellop at their own pace in an atmosphere that is truly respectful of human value, the results are really striking: you get young people that are far more sensitive, altruistic and motivated than their Western counterparts. It suffices to compare a teenager brought up through RAWA with any of our self-indulgent, consumer kids to see that on our side, we may have less to teach than hitherto imagined...

FemAids work goes on
Sometimes, things are despairing, but meeting such forceful young women determined to change things is always encouraging. And RAWA members (female, but also male) remain enthusiastic. Their male supporters and activists are particularly promising, because they represent a truly liberated alternative! All of them plan to return to Afghanistan but are aware that the problems in Pakistan are so overwhelming that their presence is indispensable there. Humanitarian agencies nowadays tend to ignore the refugee plight in Pakistan, concentrating what resources they manage to drum up on Afghanistan itself.
We have therefore decided to continue to support the Hewat school, the girlsschool in the camp and the Sitara orphanage. We will continue to send medical material to RAWA, NAWA and Afghanistan. We will also attempt to sponsor RAWA teachers in Afghanistan. Sadie who runs the Cornwall branch of FemAid, will continue to send toys, and school supplies.
We will continue to sponsor three girls at the Hatoon-e-Fatima school in Islamabad as we have been for the past two years.

Needless, all of this is impossible without your support, as we do not enjoy any kind of help at all from the French government.
Please send donations in any currency (although Euros are prefered to avoid banks charges) to the following adress:
FEMAID, 115 rue Saint-Dominique, 75007 Paris, France

In a fund-raising effort, we are selling finest quality pashmina and cashmere shawls, brought in from Pakistan at prices ranging from 25 Euros to 200 Euros (excluding p & p); please mail us for more details.

FemAid 's report on the muission undertaken January 14-24th 2003

In brief: I went to check on the different projects we have been working
with RAWA (the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan) all
over Pakistan, schools, orphanages and now a clinic for destitute Afghan
refugees. And also the pupil sponsorship for the Pakistani school in
Islamabad we support Mainly zooming round the country in ramshackle buses
and taxis held together with masking tape, I went to Islamabad, Rawalpindi,
Peshawar, Quetta and the camps in the area. You know youre on a Pakistani
highway when the donkeys break into a canter

In Part I: you will find a report on FemAids actions.
In Part 2: a rambling report on the complex local situation.

Now read on


Femaids continuing actions
We have decided to concentrate specifically on the work undertaken by RAWA
within Pakistan but also support financially when possible adult education
within Afghanistan. I have been going to Pakistan every six months in order
to understand the best way FemAid can advise its sponsors.
Once again, I can confirm that working with RAWA is definitely the best
possible course. As usual, I was impressed by their dedication and
efficiency and cannot express my admiration enough for them.

Our aim has always to work continuously on a small number of projects which
we can sustain. Being a tiny organization, we had rather limit ourselves to
what we can handle rather than spreading ourselves too thin.

Over a year ago, we had chosen to support three schools run by RAWA for
Afghan refugees, two in Rawalpindi slums and the third in the refugee camp
known as Jalozai II.
We have decided to go on paying the salaries of the teachers (details on the
It is true that the teacher and student population tends to fluctuate as
families attempt to go back to Afghanistan, but nevertheless, the need for
schooling remains.

We are also supporting the Sitara orphanage in Peshawar, run by RAWA. We
have just funded air conditioning which will be installed in March-April
when temperatures start soaring, inside as well as outside.

The orphans in Peshawar were sent 150 boxes of carefully chosen clothes and
toys by a particularly generous donor, Sadie Brinham from Cornwall. I went
over to distribute them, after endless complications with the Karachi
Customs which were sorted out by our great friend at DHL in Peshawar

The children were blissfully happy, they had never seen anything
like it. The Peshawar daily The Nationrelayed the event.

We brought several boxes of medicines and medical equipment to the
day-hospital in Quetta donated by doctors in France as well as clothes and
toys from various donors. Naturally, the overweight on a aeroplane needs to
be negotiated.We also brought donations collected by our friend Sacha in her New York high school, who runs

And we continue to sponsor three teenage pupils at the Hatoon-Fatima school
in Islamabad, which looks after the children of the notorious French

And I am continuing to research and write about this situation in the
context of my own anthropological research at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes
(EHESS) in Paris.

A note on standards
I cannot stress enough that any humanitarian aid has to be adapted to the
local situation. Standards of education, comfort, social behaviour even
hygiene as we experience them in the West are simply not applicable in
impoverished Asia where open sewers and malnutrition are the norm and
wife-beating are perceived as entirely natural. Heterosexual men hold hands
and express affection openly, but a man will never display the slightest
show of feeling towards any woman, including his wife who will cover her
face in public . The most passionate relationships occur between mothers and
children, especially sons. Only by producing a male is a woman empowered and
respected by her husbands parents with whom she will live all her married
life. On the other hand, Western couples are perceived as being cold and
unloving towards their children and their own parents as they dont usually
live with them.
Despite the popularity of Indian sentimental movies, filled with
tear-jerking love stories, every marriage is arranged between people who
often only meet on their wedding day. By our standards, the ensuing sexual
relations can only be described as rape but this too is perceived as normal.
One man I interviewed in a refugee camp wont let his teenage daughter go
to the camp store to buy vegetables because neighbours might tell that the
vendors hand touched my daughters when giving her the change. So
meanwhile, the girl, covered in a burqa can only walk a couple of yards down
the mud trek in front of their compound. And one is hardly surprised that in
the poorest camps, girls are barefoot in winter as well whilst boys get
outfitted with shoes. After all, they are the only ones to need them as will
have the freedom to run around and play whilst girls just work in the home.
Sending shoes for girls is not the solution, helping educate them into some
form of self-awareness through schooling that is truly relevant and
accessible to them is. RAWA indeed reaches such children.
The fact that children in RAWA orphanage get fruit and meat once a week may
appear shocking to us, but for them its an exceptional luxury reserved only
to the well-off. In the presence of adults, they are quiet even as a group,
which initially I found suspicious until I realized that standards of
acceptable behaviour were so different. Indeed, our kids would appear brazen
to Asian parents, especially amongst the poor as in rich families kids are
indulged and can turn into brats as spoilt as our own.
These are some of the essential considerations- and there are many more.

New projects

The Malalai hospital in Quetta
We have decided to help the day hospital run by RAWA in Quetta (in far-away
Baluchistan, next to the Afghan border). It is situated in a slum in an area
called Brewerywhat they brew there apart from trouble remains a mystery -
doubtless a name left over from the beer-swilling British Raj). It is not
far from Sima Simars clinic, but unlike this clinic well supported by the
US, RAWAs clinic does not charge anything for consultation or medicines
outside a ten rupee registration fee.
The clinic caters to women and children of the area and is open from nine am
to one pm- there are three hospital beds and also a room where women can
give birth, especially as there is a gynaecologist on the premises.
The queue runs all the way into the yard as women wait their turn to be seen
by the doctor and then collect their medicines on the way out.
We would like to keep this clinic open in the afternoon and possibly at
night, so we are looking to pay the fees of an extra team comprising a
doctor, a gynaecologist, a nurse, a receptionist and a guard.
We have discussed the sending of material offered by our friends from the
Catherine Collective in Toronto.

Training of midwives
We have launched an experimental project about training midwives.
Most births take place in the home with at best the help of an experienced
woman, more often than not, just a neighbour or the eldest daughter. As one
woman, cradling her baby, put it: I could be dying and my husband in the
next room, but he wouldnt dream of coming in to help me Because of the
lack of the most basic hygiene, the infant and mother mortality rate in the
Afghan population is amongst the highest in the world.
So the idea is to find ten middle-aged women in the area who have had some
experience in birthing and give them a three months training course three
afternoons a week in the clinic. The doctor, Khaleda and the gynaecologist
Hanifa are very enthusiastic about this. They know the local population and
are trusted by them and will find the way to explain things to these
illiterate women. Just as for other RAWA projects, namely the literacy
classes, we hope that these women will then spread what they have learnt to
others and that this will help to save babies and mothers.

Collecting womens narratives
We are launching a project of collecting womens narratives by a group of
particularly gifted Afghan high-school students in a RAWA hostel who will be
going into some of the camps to record stories. We hope to be able to
publish a book- in local languages, Dari and Pashtun for circulation within

Next time, Afghanistan
I sincerely hope to be going to Afghanistan later on in the year. I am truly
interested in checking out RAWAs much-needed literacy classes which we
continue to support.

For more details about RAWA, the camps and everything else, please look up
the previous reports.

The future of Femaid
Despite their continuing plight, the cause of Afghan women is no longer
Unfortunately, donations have not been flowing of late, so everything
depends on your response. Its up to you now



The advantage of coming to these regions every six or so months, is to be
able to monitor an increasingly complex situation. The last time I visited
the area was in May 2002, where, in the blistering heat, I was confronting a
post 9/11 world full of trepidation and hope for a brighter future in
Afghanistan. Today, just over half a year later, one can only say that the
situation is very bleak indeed.

The improbable return of the Afghan refugees

>From speaking to number of Afghans from all walks of life, in schools,
refugee camps, hospitals, one gets the same message of disillusionment and
dejection regarding their prospects in Afghanistan. Teachers are especially
desperate: many of them working today in unregistered schools in Pakistan
were former professionals employed by government institutions and their aim
has been to go home to a life-style they had previously achieved, even if it
meant enduring some hardship. So most have made some attempt to return to
Afghanistan. But what they were confronted with went well beyond anything
Take the case of Jamil who teaches maths and science in one of the RAWA
schools in a Rawalpindi slum; he is in fact an engineer in his forties and
went back to Kabul to try and get his former job on the water board. He
found himself scorned and rebuffed: The job was taken by some young fellow
who does nt have any experience. But of course, hes well connected. Not
being able to find work to feed his family, he returned to Pakistan, where
he can still eke out some kind of living, even though Pakistani police is
putting enormous pressure on Afghans to leave, proceeding to frequent and
random arrests of refugees.
Nazima, a maths teacher in another RAWA school tells the same story: she was
an architect employed by her city in the Mazaar-el-Sharif area for 15 years.
When her husband was killed by the Taliban and she was ousted from her
employment like all professional women, she fled with her five children to
Pakistan. She could nt wait to get back to Afghanistan. I was really happy
at the prospect of going home so I applied to get my job back: I tried again
and again, but it was rejected Of course, Id love to start my own business
as an architect, but I just dont have the money. So its back to teaching
and embroidering handicrafts which will then be sold the increasingly
rarefied Western travellers.
It s the same story everywhere. Just about everyone I met has tried or has
someone in their family who has attempted a return, but many come back,
distraught. Of course, its very difficult for a formerly well-off middle
class to return to a menial job, especially if they are no longer young. As
a refugee, you can expect a down-sizing of expectations because you perceive
it as temporary, but going back home and experiencing a reduction of status
is extremely hard, especially in an area of the world where class is a
contemporary interpretation of the timeless caste system. I was told of one
former teacher turned fruit seller in Kabul who exhibits his framed diploma
on his cart in the middle of his apples and oranges.
For people coming from rural areas, the return is not so bad if their
villages have not been destroyed. In fact, a number of Pakistans four
million refugees have been returning home every summer for years to escape
the scorching heat and keep and eye on things. This is the case for 55 year
old Muhammad who has lived in Shawarli refugee camp for 18 years. Hes spent
years looking after the water system in the camp- a relatively comfortable
situation, but hes decided to go home with his eight children (from one
wife only). The political situation in his town seems to be stable enough
to warrant his return.

In another camp, the appalling Kababian which sprawls over several
sub-camps, one of the local chiefs has decided to stay: he has ekeed out a
comparatively comfortable life with one cow, four rabbits, two hens, his
own well and a couple of fields which he has appropriated. Despite his
claims to the contrary, his probable business dealings with the local
Pakistani authorities have surely contributed to his situation in this
poorly run camp where the main industry is selling and sorting of garbage
brought in from the city by children who trek to and fro lugging bags of
filthy plastic and paper which then is sold for four rupees a kilo
And even though nobody will ever admit it, drugs and arms are big business
in most camps. Anything and everything is smuggled, even tea and clothes
from Peshawar to Lahore where prices are higher. Buses are being stopped
constantly by Pakistani policemen who briefly prod at the outsize bags most
people (Pakistanis or Afghanis) seem to lug with them from one city to the
next, but there are arrangements to be made with the bus-driver
"Marie-Claude Auger" <>
The problem is endless, its impossible to know where to start tackling it.
The Pakistanis have planned to throw everyone out within the next three
years, and they have started by bulldozing two major camps (Nasir-Bagh and
Kacha-Gali) in the Peshawar area. Naturally these practises are odious: but
their own people are frequently just as miserable as the Afghanis and watch
with disbelief as aid pours in the direction of these much-hated refugees
(even if a lot of it disappears on the way) and little ever goes to their
own poor.

In the meantime, the kids one meets are very excited, especially the boys in
the school yards: Im going home to rebuild my country they all say- but
their parents think different. Saida, a teacher whose husband works in
Sweden (I dont really know what hes doing, but he sends me money) is
worried. The eldest of their six sons has started at Kabul university. Im
so worried about him, theres news of violence every day she sighs. I
cant wait to have him back. Even if it means possible arbitrary arrest by
Pakistani police.

The Afghan reality
Whos to blame? The political situation is very difficult. The people I met
generally feel sympathy for Karzai but know that the situation is dominated
by the factions of war-lords who oppose him. And paradoxically, the US
finances both sides.
All tell of the sheer danger of everyday life: violence is rife, women just
dont feel safe on the street; human rights are still non-existent and as
for the promises for womens education, they remain promises. Attempts at
co-ed have been curtailed, girls schools have been burnt down and outside
big cities, schools are inaccessible to girls: no female can walk about
unescorted by a male relative anywhere, the sheer danger on one side, but
also the tradition rife in many areas. Yours truly, however veiled and
shrouded, was unable to walk anywhere on her own- in fact, in
turban-dominated Quetta, she could not even go around with her friend Zorah
from RAWA, having to be chaperoned a male escort-cum-bodyguard
So, until there is a legal constitution which forces families to send their
girls to school, all those projects about building Western-style schools or
anything else, for that matter in Afghanistan had better be rethought in
terms of the local reality.
Education may be free in Afghanistan today, but so many people cant afford
to send their kids to school says Homera. In Asia child labour just remains
an essential part of family income. Its all very well for PC moralists in
the West to campaign against this practise, but the problem is the poverty
and all the politics, national and international which generate it in the

>From Sarajevo to Kabul: a post-war situation
Life seems to be dominated by the simultaneous exactions of war lords and
their minions on a background of tribal tradition and expectation. Add to
this your typical corrupt post-war situation, the which I have watched for
years in Sarajevo. In Kabul, money pour in through the large NGOs which
gradually will become the main employers of the city, draining all the
educated people away from poorly paid jobs in schools.
Nazima, the former architect and teacher in the RAWA school in Rawalpindi is
candid about it: Im going to carry on working here, perfect my English and
take a computer course and then Ill get a job with one of those NGOs in
Kabul. Needless to say, the Afghan intelligenzia who has made it in the
West has no intention of returning and why blame them. And just like in
Sarajevo, job preference is for those who stayed within Afghanistan,
refugees from abroad being perceived as suspicious and even cowards for
having fled the situation. One needs amazing motivation and idealism to
return to a violent country bereft of any kind of health, education and
social services.
Think of Israel in 1948, founded one year after Pakistan, also on a
religion-based constitution. Those Holocaust survivors hardly came to a land
of milk and honey (not to mention all the rest) but somehow were motivated
by a common ideal which helped them face and indeed overcome every hardship.
Whatever one may think of the current political situation in Israel, the
comparison is instructive. In Afghanistan today, there is no common ideal,
its a case of everyone for himself, just like in Pakistan. In fact there is
no ideal whatsoever, which goes a long way in explaining how sectarian
religion has overtaken any form of thinking, against a background of the
wildest capitalist free- forall and the most staggering corruption.
As the poppy culture has once more been allowed, experts (of which there are
many in the region) estimate that the 2003 harvest should be a bonanza. And
the going rate is 40 000rs (circa $780) (!) a kilo of the refined stuff,
albeit often adulterated with plaster: there are laboratories all over the
tribal border areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Business is business,
whilst Bush prefers to hunt for the ever evanescent Osama (whose posters are
no longer on sale in Peshawar or anywhere else, by the way).
And meantime, RAWA attempts to infuse a kind of coherence and future
building in the midst of all this anarchy.

With years of different brands of violent oppression from Russian to Jehadi
to Taliban,the idea of a united civil society has hardly had time to develop
indeed I wonder how any notion of nation building can evolve when tribal
differences are capitalized upon by warlords. I am certainly the last person
on this earth to recommend any form of nationalism, but a minimum form of
patriotic feeling, in the sense of people uniting with a common constructive
goal for the country they live in would certainly help bring about positive
global social policies. I mean, how to you build national, social and
educational standards-and implement them- without believing that everyone in
the country in which you live and (theoretically) pay taxes has the same
basic rights. Despite all the official rhetoric, with the exception of
private laments, no such policy can be found in this part of the world.
A taxi driver told me: In Pakistan, people do not love their country He
pointed to a grass mound at the centre of a roundabout: If you told the
drivers here: you get ten rupees each time you go and drive into that and
demolish it, every body would drive straight in, even in the whole
roundabout is destroyed . The self-same taxi driver then proceeded to tell
me the astonishing story of his sons marriage to a girl from Virginia whom
hes met on Internet and who was now happily living in Pindi with the whole
family There is such potential in this country and so much of it goes to

Of tribes and Talebs
In the meantime, tribal considerations rule. In Pakistan and Afghanistan,
the first thing people, educated or not, do when they meet, be it on a PIA
aeroplane, decrepit bus or street corner is to name the tribe they are from:
Salaam Aleikum, Pashtu Aha, Hazar/Tadjik/Pundjabi etc etc. From there on
you move on to politics/the weather what have you.
And these tribal connections mean border-crossing sympathies, especially
anywhere where Afghanistan and Pakistan meet, because the borders themselves
are completely artificial and were established in an arbitrary manner by the
British- viz. the Duran line dating from 1893.
Thus Pasthuns in Afghanistan (which are the largest ethnic group,
representing 40% of the population) are naturally linked to those Pathans
(name given to them by Pakistanis) in the Pakistani Peshawar area known as
the North Western Frontier Province (NWFR): arranged marriages (as is the
norm in the region) make sure that century-old alliances are maintained,
even though kinsfolk living in a refugee camp are perceived as having lower
status than those living in sometimes even more miserable surroundings in
slums. These complex matrimonial strategies entail not infrequent
age-disproportionate marriages: it is not unusual to hear about a ten year
old being married off to a man three or four (or five or six) times her
senior in families that are not necessarily the most destitute: I have heard
of such cases in the poorest families but also the richest. Such practises
are really linked to the degree of adherence to fundamentalist religious
ethics and simultaneous rejection of values perceived as Western and
therefore Infidel. And these are on the up even if the US think theyve
bombed the Taliban out of existence in Kabul.
The NWFR has recently taken over by the most reactionary religious zealots
who have put orthodox Sharia (Muslim law as definbed by the Coran) on the
agenda and neighbouring Baluchistan is next. On the road to Peshawar where
bus drivers seemingly stoned out of their mind on hashish or sometimes
heroin (according to local sources) run brightly painted clapped-out buses
at break-neck speed, you can see the large madrassas (religious schools) who
helped create the Taliban movement. And theyre flourishing: busloads of
Talebs, draped in their patubrown shawl), with flourishing beards and
massive turbans zoom up and down the battered highway. (One night, yours
truly found herself accidentally in one such bus which had
SadamBuspainted on its side ) The local Pashtun intelligenzia certainly
feel threatened by the sprouting of Fundamentalist)-friendly local
governments and ambiance in dominant Pashtun areas, but they are an alarmed
The result is that in these border regions any attempts at civil society
have taken a blow: women, Western clothes, any kind of Western culture (with
the notable exception of Internet clubs) have just about disappeared from
the street. All you see are beards, male head-gear of every description,
with a very occasional burqa-veiled woman in tow.
Tribal laws dominate in rural areas, all the more in refugee camps. In one
of them, I was told about thieves who broke into a compound and shot a girl
who screamed upon their arrival. Caught by the neighbours, the men were
beaten up till they admitted which of them had killed the girl. The
translator later told me what the otherwise friendly and hospitable
informant had asked him to omit from the translation: the killers family
was asked to replace the murdered girl by a young female from their own
set and no punishment was deemed necessary for the murderer.

The prospects are disheartening. But all this put apart, the Pashtuns keep
up their tradition of hospitality and concern for anyone whom they receive
in their home, be it a mud-hut in forlorn Baluchistan or the office of a
local newspaper in down-town Peshawar. The people I met in the area all
spontaneously poured tea, sweets, pistachios (inordinately expensive in the
area) in the most friendly manner possible and invited me to stay over, even
in a refugee camp known for its Taliban diehards and reportedly ransacked by
the CIA on several occasions. So when choice guests like Mollah Omar,
Bin-Laden and their pals turn up on the doorstep, can you imagine for one
split second that someone would give them in ?
What seems likely in a mid-term process is that the Pashtuns and their
numerous allies in Afghanistan and Pakistan may end up forming their own
country. Goddess help us. Because amongst their allies are the previously
Soviet Muslim republics (viz. immediate neighbours to the North,
Tadjikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, not to mention nearby Chechenya)
great specialists in recycling nuclear debris Whether the rest of Pakistan
will survive or else be engulfed in a more predatory India remains to be

Having said all this, even if tribal traditions are the most rigorous
amongst the Pashtuns, they are far from absent from other communities such
as Tadjik Uzbek, Hazara, Brahui, Nuristani, Baluchi and others. What they
all have in common, and this is the case everywhere on the subcontinent is
their brutally repressive attitude to women. The best girls can expect,
whatever social background they come from is to be married off to a young,
tolerant, outward looking young male, preferably educated in non-religious
school, if possible- dare I say it- in the West or Western schools in
Pakistan. I am well aware of being politically most incorrect, decidedly
anti postmodern in refusing to accept this system on its own terms. But this
is how the West laxist intellectuals have helped fundamentalism in the
Muslim world turn back the clock on any form of social progress, especially
concerning womens rights which have definitely been on the decline as a
result. Post post-modernism could be about enforcing certain standards where
the unacceptable is vigorously condemned, whatever colour or creed.

RAWA continues inexorably to work against the worst odds. Their courage is
staggering, especially when one truly realizes what they are working
against. They are the only ones to seek to separate politics from religion,
a truly radical claim amidst all the ambient fanaticism. Rejected and indeed
persecuted by every Afghan government from the Soviets onwards to the
present one, they have continued to denounce the systematic inequality and
the abuses to women and indeed the whole Afghan population. And each time,
they have been proven right.
RAWA in their schools prohibit any mention of tribal origin: a revolutionary
feat, to say the least. Their whole aim seems to be to extract a real nation
from what could nowardays chiefly be viewed as some kind of geographic,
tribal expression. Which is why they should be the partners of all foreign
peace-makers attempting to help Afghanistan
It is not my aim to work on Afghan politics. However, being committed to
positive humanitarian aid and promoting change, I can only recognize that
the projects they have organized helping the civilian population are really
efficient. And other aid agencies in Pakistan, whether they like RAWAs more
radical politics or not, have always admitted the same.
In previous reports, all on, I have described RAWA and their
dedicated members.
I would like to add here is that their strength is their real knowledge of
the needs of the present situation. What they take from the West for
instance, is just what they need to improve matters locally; unlike many
misguided projects from all over the world, they are not forcing foreign
inapplicable standards to local situations.
I cannot repeat enough that education, comfort, culture even hygiene
standards dont mean the same on the subcontinent as in the West. For
instance, its no use sending paper diapers or sophisticated gear to women
in refugee camps who just would nt know how to use them (something which
was fine in Bosnia during the war) or complex electronics to illiterate
rural populations which hardly have any electricity. There is such a thing
as humanitarian colonialism.
However, responding to needs and building on them is important, which is why
it is so important to have a partner locally who understands these needs and
through whom one can channel aid. The speed at which change can be effected
can only be evaluated by those concerned. For instance, RAWAs literacy
courses for women impart a degree of self-awareness and consciousness that
do indeed empower the recipients, slowly but in a lasting manner. The
future, they claim lies in education. But not just any education. The women,
men and children who have benefitted from RAWAs influence may definitely be
the beginning of a solution not just for their own country, but by their
example, for the rest of the subcontinent.

What future to humanitarian aid?
The first thing I do want to say is that humanitarian aid cannot replace
government action, even if Third World countries have grown to depend on it.
When countries like Pakistan and India spend vast chunks (perhaps even the
greatest part) of their budget on armament and practically nothing on
education and health services (not to mention the billions that get lost
through rampant corruption), foreign aid cannot and should not be expected
to replace a political decision that belongs to the countries concerned.

The second thing I can add is that going around this region is enough to
wither the energy of the most enthusiastic, diehard optimist. Indeed
anywhere you look, you come upon the most desperate situations. Pakistanis
and Afghanis alike are the victims of heartless politics (nationally and
internationally caused) and the most demented bigotry.

The third thing I want to say is that you therefore have two options:
looking away or telling yourself that you may not be able to save the world,
but there are a few things you can do to help some people and therefore
contribute to making the world a better place. For ourselves and those who
will follow us.

I have chosen the latter option.

Carol Mann
January 26th 2003


If you want to support the cause of Afghan women, which is also the cause of
democracy in the world, please fill out the form and send your donations to
the address below Name
I wish to support RAWA and I am contributing: ..
I want to join FemAid for 2003 (30 euros/$30 or more)
I would like more information..
Make out your cheques (Euros or sterling) to FemAid
And send to FemAid, 33 rue Guy Moquet 92240 Malakoff France

Best of all by bank draft in $, Euros or sterling (see accounts below)
We have a US $ account for USA residents
Account n: 85120070101 USD
Branch code: 61101
Bank code: 30588
Cl Rib 44
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Swift: BAARCFR.PP 30588 61101 85120070101 44 (FEMAID ASSOCIATION)
Financial contributions to FemAid will be forwarded to RAWA.

Alternately by Euro bank draft to:
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Account n: 85120070801 78
Branch code: 61101
Bank code: 30588
Swift: BAARCFR.PP 30588 61101 85120070801 78 (FEMAID ASSOCIATION)
We also have a sterling account for residents of U.K.
Account n: 85120070101 GBP
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Bank code: 30588
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Swift: BAARCFR.PP 30588 61101 85120070101 44 (FEMAID ASSOCIATION)

Bank drafts are best as the bank inevitably charges for cheques alas

FemAid 's president Carol Manns trip for FemAid to RAWA in Pakistan
May 14-May 24th 2002

A report written on the plane back

Six months after my last trip (see report below), I decided to go back to Pakistan, with the purpose of seeing how the projects RAWA and FemAid had put together were doing, how the money had been spent and how we could improve and develop . I brought school supplies, various gifts donated by FemAid supporters and medical equipment- the latter was distributed at the recently renovated Malalai Hospital in Rawalpindi, run for Afghan refugees by RAWA with the help of AWM. At the same time, I undertook anthropological field research on the working of Jalozai II refugee camp where RAWA plays a preponderant role- but this will be the subject of a separate report to be presented at the EHESS in Paris.

What I had nt realized was that I was travelling to a post 9/11 Asia, where the impact of the tragic events could now be measured.
In December, I had seen orphans who had just arrived in an orphanage in Peshawar, victims of collateral damageand I had experienced a general feeling of disaster and dismay. By now these children have been somehow integrated into the population of Afghan war victims, disasters and calamities superimposed one on top of the other, the whole thing put into the perspective of a relentless war process which certainly is not perceived as having being finished at their end.

Returning to Afghanistan ? Life in Pakistan for refugees

There is one place outside Peshawar, along the motorway, where huge colourful Pakistani trucks line up, stuffed with mattresses, blankets pots and other humble belongings of Afghan families who want to return to the home- country. A UNHCR office on the side hands out $200 for those returning. Water sellers, match vendors scurry around whilst listless children clamber over the trucks, but the ambiance is certainly joyless, no-one knows for sure, and nobody believes for one instant that Karzais Afghanistan is a joyful or even safe place. Women shrouded in their burqas are heaped atop the rolled mattresses - never mind the glib reports on Prime Time about beauty parlours or whatever in Kabul. For one, Afghans have often gone back to Afghanistan in the summer to see their relatives and check out the situation and also escape the unbearable heat in Pakistan. Furthermore, the Pakistani authorities have been extremely tough on Afghans whom they want to get rid of under any conditions. The killing of the French technicians in Karachi on May 8th has been an excuse to round up as many Afghan suspects as possible, of which a handful turned out to be Al Qaida sympathisers including some who were persuadedto turn in information about the horrific murder of Daniel Pearl. However justified such investigations, the police, it seems has used the opportunity to harass and arrest Afghans who, most of the time, have become illegal immigrants as their visas have not been renewed. Bribes get one out of arrests, sometimes 20 or 30 rupees will do, as Pakistani police are paid miserably and depend on bribes to survive.
But this state of things does threaten the humanitarian situation in many ways. One director of a school run by RAWA, Mr Daoud, said that he was seriously considering giving up work as he was afraid of arrests each time he left the house. And then what happens to the school, I asked - admirably run, thanks to his enthusiasm and the devotion of his staff ? He hunched his shoulders in despair.

RAWA takes a calmer look at things. Were not likely to all go back immediately says Huma, Its impossible ; conditions are just not safe, peoples houses and lives have been destroyed, where do you want them to go ?
Everyone awaits the Loya Jirga with trepidation, their trust is touching. Can one really believe those warlords will be stopped and butchers like Dostum et al will lay down their weapons from one day to the next because a meeting in Kabul declares peace ?
In the meantime, RAWA says that schools and orphanages will continue in Pakistan for at least 2 or 3 years. I personally think this will go much beyond, especially in the case of the latter. RAWAs orphanages are nt the same as their Western counterparts in that most of the children living there have lost one parent and in some cases might still have both surviving parents, but these are ill or too poor to look after them. So they might ask RAWA to look after their children for a while, especially as there are probably another half a dozen siblings to feed. Sometimes, they are taken in to avoid being sold. Its as simple and as tragic as that. In the foreseeable future, I predict that a number of families might chose to put their children in safety whilst they themselves attempt to eke out a form of survival in Afghanistan with the hope of reuniting the family members later. This already seems to be a growing tendency.

RAWA after 9/11

Since the events of 9/11 and especially the bombing of Afghanistan by Bush-led troops, it is evident that RAWA has become a financially more successful organisation. The response has been amazing.
And nowhere is it more visible than in the orphanages situated in the slums of Islamabad Rawalpindi, Peshawar and the Jalozai II refugee camp. Everywhere the conditions have improved. Bathrooms have been renewed and improved. Colourful sheets, carpeting even a few toys have made their appearance. Thanks to FemAid, there are TVs, washing machines and deep freezers (I can see the point having spent 10 days in the most sweltering heat- average 45C). Summer courses are planned, picnics take place, cars come and fetch children in the more remote slums to take them to school. RAWA has decided to equip each structure with tables and chairs for meals : before they used to eat on the floor, in the traditional manner. With typical anthropological caution, I wonder aloud about acculturation, Western cultural colonization etc. I ask the children who answer they love it, because it feels like a restaurant, you can talk to someone across the table and somehow theres more to eat. Perhaps the food does nt seem as remote as when its in the middle of a room. In the new Sitara orphanage FemAid specifically looks after, the caretakers talk about the problems theyve had when the children arrive from refugee camps ; They fought relentlessly over each dish, never stopped eating and used to steal food continuously, I was forever finding bread and sugar under the mattress, remembers good natured Hedayat who acts as mother to 50 children. The children will be traumatised for a long time, so much is sure. But the time they spend in these RAWA structures will doubtless make a lasting difference.

FemAid in Pakistan helping Afghan children

On the behalf on FemAid, with the advice of Neda, RAWAs head of the education department, we had decided to purchase learning aids and equipment for schools and orphanages I had brought from France a number of teaching aids- geometrical instruments, school equipments (mainly donated by the Totness group in UK and a primary school near Bordeaux in France). In Islamabad, we also bought books, blackboards (white boards really) and sixty full size educational posters.

For the orphanages, we had devised and financed a weekly ice-cream and a monthly birthday party, both of which will continue. But I had nt realised at the time that many of these children didnt know when they were born nor did their families as most are born at home, (more often than not a tent or a hovel), so the birthday parties are somewhat tentative. So we tried something else : for each orphanage, I bought a large cake or a couple of kilos of petits fours and several kilos of fruit- both of which are incredible luxuries- and all manner of balloons, candles and decorations. And we decided that we were celebrating everybodys birthday. The youngest child everywhere was chosen to blow out the candles and we made a chain whereby each child said Happy Birthdayto the next in Dari or Pashtu, having sung some version of Happy Birthdayin English all together.
Admittedly this kind of humanitarian aid may sound diminutive, but it does make all the difference to the children concerned, especially as it is part of a wider action.

And now a few details about the projects we specifically support

Schools :
We support the following schools : Hewat I, Mariam and the girlsschool at the refugee camp known as Jalozai II (no relation to the notorious one of the same name). With the donations you have been sending, we pay teacherssalaries (on a all year basis), childrens books, exercise books and running costs.
May is a period of school exams which take place in the morning, children leave afterwards. So our visit couldnt interrupt exams and we could only come after the children had left. The directors expressed their thanks to all donators who individually and collectively had contributed to their survival as a school. The salaries of the teachers help whole families to survive.
One new project we would like to sponsor is an English course for the English teachers, as their level is, to say the least variable, and not always wonderful. This will take place in August when RAWA is sure about who will be working in the schools.
Amongst the novelties, is the uniform that RAWA is trying to promote- black and white in some (as in Afghanistan) or blue, similar to Pakistani schools. The aim is not the same as in the West, its a way of giving additional importance to the short time they spend in school (on average 4 hours a day, double shifts), a way of differentiating it from other times of the day, more often than not spent rag-picking and working in the street or at the market.

Linking up with individual teachers:

A number of FemAid supporters have asked if it is possible to correspond with individual teachers. After long discussions with RAWA, we have come to the conclusion that this is not feasible. Apart from obvious communication problems, the teaching population is fluctuating : for instance Rubina a very young English teacher whom one group of FemAid supporters helped in the US, has been forbidden to go and teach English by an migr fundamentalist uncle living in Australia (!) who has promised the family money if the poor girl stays at home- which is what she will be doing. And there is no way out of this kind of situation. The bottom line is that helping one person leads to jealousy and problems within the group and we have chosen to help collectively instead. Some other larger organisations sponsor individuals, but we are not equipped to do so. Which is why I have to say the same to those of you who wanted to sponsor individual girls (the only exception being the help to the Christian Pakistani school of Hatoon-e-Fatima, not a RAWA project, which we describe in the website and is organised that way)

The Sitara orphanage
This is a new project which we have started to sponsor recently. Situated at the north of Peshawar, in a typical slum- a far cry from the majestic crumbling beauty of the old city, the surprisingly spacious house is in a cramped street in something of a residential area. There are seven rooms which house some 50 children aged between 6 and 12 ; 30 boys to 20 girls.
RAWAs orphanages receive children who have lost at least one parent (here ten have actually lost both), or whose parents for reasons of sickness and/or extreme poverty are unable to care for them. There is one child here who narrowly escaped being sold- unlike his unfortunate elder sister whose present whereabouts are now unknown . Another two were brought here after their widowed mother would chain them all day when she went out to work. They still bear the marks of their shackles on their wrists. Parents prefer to ensure safety for their sons than their daughters ; apart from their inferior status as girls, they might bring in money through marriage : according to Muslim law (unlike India where brides have to bring in an ample dowry), the husband has to pay the parents a kind of compensation for removing their work force and transferring her potential fertility to his clan (as if purchasing a heifer) . (For instance, at the Jalozai II camp where RAWA plays an active role, I met a family where the man had paid 30 000rs, an absolute fortune, to marry a second wife from Rawalpindi ; the reason for this was that he thought his wife of 15 years- married at age 10- was barren. It turns out that wife n2 couldnt have children either and that he, in fact, is sterile. A most reactionary Pashtun, he enforces burqa on both and thrashes them regularly)

Back to the Sitara (which means Star) orphanage

A RAWA orphanage is a way of life. Education is at its core, as well as childrens physical and emotional well-being. Here, as the housemother told me, children presented all kinds of war traumatisms. In the beginning, most children fought at meal times over food, would regula rly hide some under the mattress. They would eat as much as they could out of fear that the opportunity might not repeat itself. Many could not sleep in beds and would lie on the floor (something I know Auschwitz survivors did as well for a long time) ; they didnt want to dirty the toilets, so they would go outside in the yard. Nightmares, bed wetting, general anxiety are still part of their life. I saw one ten year old burst into uncontrollable tears because he had suddenly thought of his father, killed by the Taliban. The lady in charge of the cleaning took him in her arms in the most loving, touching way.

In the West, we would call upon psychologists but there cant be that many fluent in Dari and Pashtu, but this kind of therapy is not part of their culture. Here, a regular carefully planned life-style is helping to rebuild these children. All of them are enjoying, for the first time in their life, comforts we would deem elementary but appear to be a luxury in this context. Bunk beds with decorated sheets, a bathroom in every bedroom, three daily meals, light, cleanliness, a place to play and watch TV, classrooms where they are getting enough basic education to start in a Pakistani school in the autumn. They sing songs about Afghanistan and democracy, learn about conflict resolution through discussion and exchange, even gender equality in a very deft and subtle way- all things RAWA has evolved across the years, not through some patronizing internationally sponsored scheme (of which I have seen many fail in war-torn Bosnia) but through working on a grass roots level, tactfully balancing different needs and modern feminist aspirations with the existing culture.
Of course, problems ensue when these children go to visit their families- the upkeep of family ties is encouraged :they return on average once a month to the camp and a room is used by parents on visits. Girls especially have trouble re-adapting, as they have been treated like privileged boys in the orphanage ! There has been the heartbreaking case of a mother visiting her son, only to find herself rejected by the boy who found her too primitive.

What we finance at the Sitara orphanage
We have decided to finance as much as possible of the running costs, including rent, electricity, food, clothing, education etc.
To the existing budget, we have decided to pay for the weekly visit of a doctor, put her /him on the payroll, in fact as soon as he/she has been found . The children are very often ill, with the blinding heat and the staggering Pakistani urban pollution, asthma, dysentery, skin complaints and now malaria are the summers offerings.
We also want to buy games- toys are not part of this culture. In each orphanage, I have seen dolls and soft toys- on display in the shelves, never in childrens arms. (But there again, babies over there are always in someone s arms when theyre not in their cot, so they dont need cuddly substitutes for human warmth.) However, the subcontinent is adept and expert at board games of every kind, including chess and these are the ones we should purchase and encourage.
As with other orphanages, we will sponsor birthday parties and attempt to develop relationships with the children : have their birth dates, keep an eye on their school results. They need to know some people in the world care about them !
photos of the
Metacam buy online

Teaching in Afghanistan
Schooling for girls is now legal in Afghanistan, so government approved schools are slowly opening all over the country. However, there is no obligation to use them, education is not compulsory on the subcontinent and families have to be able to afford the time lost by children not earning any money whilst attending school. Boys being of far greater traditional value than girls, they are the ones who will initially be allowed such a privilege.
RAWA therefore no longer needs to organize underground teaching of girls as in Taliban times, but existing classes continue as this is a more informal structure the families feel comfortable with. More than ever, RAWA continue their literacy classes for adult (i.e. whenever they are married, which can mean 12+) women who have no access to schools. Once they are educated, they will pressurize their families to allow their daughters to go to school, something which I have seen happen in refugee camps and slums where RAWA runs literacy classes. So more than ever, their courses are needed in Afghanistan and we have decided to sponsor some of these and develop a specific project which yours truly hopes to investigate in situ at a later date. As explained above, individual sponsorship is not possible, but money sent for this purpose will be earmarked for Afghanistan.

RAWA would very much like to open a few girlsschools were they would stress awareness-raising, something still far too radical for present day Northern Alliance Afghanistan. Once again, they do this sort of thing in a very softnon-aggressive manner, which does not shock these women brought up in the sternest of Muslim traditions in the Islamic world. But the result is staggering : I have met rural members of RAWA, widows with children, who learnt to read and write when they were past thirty and some have turned into the most virulent militants No wonder that RAWA continues to disturb the most reactionary Afghan political structures, whilst broadening its appeal to moderates more committed to modernity.

By way of conclusion
I just wanted to give you my first impressions, whilst still fresh. There is so much more to say, especially about the satisfaction of working in a positive way with the admirable women of RAWA. All I can say is that I hope to be continuing all these projects for a very long time yet, with your help, encouragement and donations. This is indeed a most worthwhile cause ! As I have written elsewhere, in these reactionary times, the future of the women of Afghanistan is crucial for the future of womens rights world-wide.

See photos of the refugee camp and Sitara Orphanage


From December 11 th to 21st, FemAid 's president Carol Mann went on a first fact-finding mission to Pakistan to check out on the projects both organisations had been working on for the past two years.

Right at the end, you fill find a brief report on the appaling state of the Jalozai and Atora Hatak Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan which were also visited. Please circulate.

Do check the report on the RAWA run schools in Pakistan

See photographs/regardez les photographies.

This is her personal report.

For an Italian translation

As you know, I went to visit the RAWA (Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan) team for 10 days and arrived with 75 kg of medical supplies donated by three generous doctors in the Paris area and Caen, records and equipment asked for by RAWA, a large box of kites sent in by Californian supporters, an equally large bag of seeds for vegetables donated by a French primary school, children's drawings and letters from Canada, letters from supporters and cash. Despite having helped support their projects for the past two and a half years via FemAid, I had never actually been there myself, even though several friends and FemAid supporters had gone to check things out.
RAWA was very happy with the letters and photos I bought, it made everything more personal!

The RAWA team
Where does one start, overwhelmed as I am by such a wealth of impressions ? The first lesson was the constant reminder of context and the quasi irrelevance of our own standards when it comes to women in the subcontinent.
First of all, RAWA is made up of a formidable team of exceptionally dedicated young women aged between 18 and 22, ( with, it seems, very few over 40) One has the feeling of meeting a contingent of veritable Amazons, single-minded in their determination to better the situation of women in their own culture. But behind the apparent ease and sophistication, these are nevertheless Oriental women who have no intention of living like their sisters in the West: in public, they are veiled- (but this is designed not to attract attention), nurture a conservative attitude to sex and relationships with men generally (in a society where all marriages, even today, are arranged), and deliberately cultivate traditional modesty bordering austerity, which in their case includes a refusal to wear make-up or bright colours a way of refusing concessions to any kind of stereotype East or West. Though definitely not religious, I doubt whether most of them could really call themselves atheists. These girls, some of rural origin others daughters of doctors and professionals, have often been brought up together in RAWA structures (just as the younger girls are today), as some of their mothers have spent the past years, at the risk of their lives, in and out of Afghanistan running literacy classes for women who have been refused education from one set of fundamentalists to the next. In one boarding-school like structure which I visited, many of the teenage students had not seen their mothers for years. Sometimes, 15 year-old Zoya told me privately in perfect English, we sit there and feel so lonely and so deprived But nobody dwells on such feelings and they are convinced that the sacrifice is worth it in order to bring about a more literate and articulate generation of women who will be able to have their place in the promised land that every single Afghan I have met dreams about, stars in her eyes And all the Afghans I've met seem to support Zahir Shah, at least his capacity to rally apparently honest people around him, but most are afraid of the threat posed by the Alliance and demand proof that this is not a remake of the situation that brought the Taliban to power.

When their schooling is over, most girls do stints in Afghanistan, teaching in remote rural areas.
These RAWA girls are amazing, warm-hearted and determined. Their thinking is exceptionally clear and mature. To think that my students are the same age... light years away, needless to say. And the boys in their support groups- those I met- are the same. One of them in a refugee camp recited French poetry from one of the few books he had been able to salvage in Kabul. Oh dear, I wax sentimental....

The Islamic Pashtun context
One has to understand the context in order to evaluate why the word Revolutionary in their name is so important : this is practically the most conservative brand of Islam imaginable and meeting this fully frontally comes as real shock. And this is not a Taliban invention, simply a Pashtun (i.e. the dominant ethnic group) tradition, which explain that even today in the streets of Peshawar and some of the camps (and Afghanistan itself), women can only go to the market shrouded in their burqas. Even Karachi and downtown Islamabad in comparison feel like L.A. The media have given us the idea that women have simply thrown off their veils and slapped the make-up on with wild abandon, but this in fact is clever media hype to justify Bush's politics. if this is the case in private (in front of TV cameras), it's impossible in public, they would be attacked by males whose attitude has not and cannot be changed overnight (overcentury?). I personally would have felt safer in some places with my own face covered, but as I wear glasses and happen to be tall this poses endless problems...

The much-vaunted burqa is not the real problem, everything else is. There is a Pashtun proverb which goes something like 'Women should be seen either in their houses or their graves'. Basic women's rights have a long way to go, no wonder RAWA's politics (demure by our feminist standards) are perceived as most radical and subversive because they challenge the dominant male paradigm both of Islam and the subcontinent. Women are routinely beaten, girls are underfed, baby girls disappear from the statistics at birth and nobody in the region thinks this abnormal as women themselves have internalised these values. Except a minority of which RAWA is certainly the most vocal. Having said this, women I met were not all totally unhappy: there have evolved coping strategies which does give them some form of satisfaction and pride, generally centered on their family. Apart from that, in Peshawar, I did see a girl in a burqa swaying her hips perched on top of platform shoes...
On a less violent level, the relations between the sexes are conditioned by a notion of shame and indecency, where the physical proximity of women's bodies in a male context is perceived as inappropriate, indeed inconceivable- except in a proprietary context, when a female is considered as first her father's (to a lesser extent brothers') property and then her husband's, and it's up to these males to defend (or cultivate, in the case of the husband) their female 'territory'. Again, girls do not necessarily revolt against this, brought up as they are to submit to men and to be responsible for his happiness and the family equilibrium. There is some sort of vicarious pleasure derived from this, especially if a woman produces a batch of sons. RAWA's self-appointed role is to point out the injustices and abuses against women through the extreme interpretations of local traditions which they want to modernize, not necessarily annihilate. If on a personal level, some of them definitely would n't mind opting out totally, they do not wish to turn Kabul into a Western city

To give you an idea to what extent this is ingrained in the local ways of thinking : I spent a few days in the refugee camp which RAWA helps to run and proposed several ideas to improve the life of the orphans which they have housed in two separate orphanages (co-ed at this rate should appear by the year 3000). The first one was a washing machine as the 40 boys and 40 girls wash their clothing and sheets by hand in basins of freezing water which has to be heated.( Remember this is typical of RAWAs shrewd brand of progressive thinking : the boys have to do their own washing). Everyone insisted on the necessity of 2 machines as it was unthinkable for boys and girls to meet at one or another of the orphanages : after many heated arguments, I got them to agree that we could place one single machine on some neutral ground where specific days would be allotted to each group. I then tried the same with the deep-freeze, but this time I was voted out. In summer, when from May-June onwards, the temperature hits the 50s Celsius, boys (or veiled women) have to go to the nearest bazaar to lug back blocks of ice, so such a purchase is a priority. One freezer for everyone, this would mean constant converging of the sexes throughout the summer, which is deemed totally inapppropriate. So finally each orphanage will be equipped with its very own freezer, as will every other orphanage RAWA runs. With hindsight, I can see that their way of doing is the appropriate one, you cannot transform centuries of codified patterns of behaviour in an over-abrupt manner, we cannot impose our standards and our feminist notions of self- definition and choice on a society which does not remotely recognize the existence of such options. But I have to add that these discussions took place with the male head of the orphanage ( a staunch supporter of RAWA, aged about 23, not the only supportive male) seated next to the RAWA girls, a revolution in itself by local standards : the refugee camp next door run by a die-hard fundamentalist calls them Infidels for this apparently outrageous behaviour- its no good for us to disparage this kind of conduct as being ridiculous because it IS the reality they live in, complete with Kalashnikov wielding fanatics 300 yards away. And RAWA submits to this in a purely pragmatic way, because by keeping a low profile, they are able to continue their exceptional work.

The future of womens education in Afghanistan
In terms of their action, even though I have not been to Afghanistan with them, I understand the importance of continuing literacy classes in the country. Despite the Alliances much vaunted promises to start schooling for girls once more, nothing has begun yet. For one, schools are shut for the long winter holiday, Because of the cold, the winter break is the longest in the school year.Nobody really knows what will really happen in the spring when the new school year starts, but RAWAs courses continue in the meantime and these are essential.

Schools and orphanages for Afghan refugees in Pakistan.
I have seen the RAWA schools in Pakistan : they offer free four hours of daily schooling to Afghan children in city slums who cannot afford to go to Pakistani schools. Nearly all the boys and some of the girls from age seven onwards do some kind of work after class, often until nightfall : rag-picking, collecting paper off rubbish mounds ( one kg for one rupee) , hammering nails into shoes, making metal wire sponges (25 dozen for 10 rupees-sold individually at 8 rupees, $1=60rs) etc. Needless to say, these frail kids look about three years younger than their well-nourished Western counterparts.
The courses are in Farsi, not in Urdu and they learn about Afghanistan. To us this might sound limiting and nationalist but they perceive it as essential in constructing national consciousness to help them rebuild their country. But in Pakistani schools, history like geography appears to be limited to Pakistan as well. Another thing is that RAWA run schools only have one mandatory class on Islam, but one has to remember than in the more religious schools, there are no less than five and in the Muslim world, secular education is unthinkable.. But for this advanced way of teaching, RAWA schools remain extremely private border lining secret as poor areas tend to be run by fundamentalists
Likewise, I visited their orphanages which cater for children who have lost at least one parent, generally their father. .But again, the fact of having been killed by a mudjhaddedin or a Taliban does not entail that the victim was a progressive.. Mothers frequently feel they are too poor to look after their offspring (of which there is a national average of seven). One look at hell-hole camps such as Jalozai and one easily understands why. The RAWA-run orphanages offer a comparatively high standard of education and care- by local standards these kids are far more comfortable than they would be with their families. Impoverished mothers in fact are the ones asking RAWA to let their girls study at the orphanages. In Peshawar however, there is an orphanage filled with six-seven year olds most of whom have lost their parents since the recent American bombings : this place is an a particularly miserable state, and the poor mites were coughing and wheezing away. They come from exceptionally desperate backgrounds as usually the youngest children are absorbed into surviving families . One of them asked me : Do you think we can ever live like children in the West ? So much for collateral damage...
Conditions are to say the least rudimentary by our standards of comfort and hygiene, but RAWA just does not have the money for all its projects and their members are trying to help as many people as possible. But again, one has to think about what exactly is needed in these situations in which none of our kids would survive for more than ten minutes. Which means putting all this in context.. In Pakistan where open sewers are the norm, no-one is shocked to have a hole in the ground as a loo and a cold water tap to wash : and as a result, the children in schools and orphanages are all clean because they and their care-takers know how to cope with such restrictions. In the slums and many of the refugee camps they would have to walk sometimes for miles to get water and in Jalozai, the filth is indescribable. Likewise for the food : in the orphanages, they get regular meal, meat and fruit once a week may spell out vitamin deficiency for us but to them its acceptable as fresh fruit, like meat are perceived as a luxury.

The ethics of humanitarian help
As far as any help and humanitarian aid goes, one can ask oneself about the standards that should be used. I am convinced that you have always to ask the recipients to establish an order of priorities.
For instance, in the orphanages, there are no toys, and the rare dolls are put on shelves by over- zealous adults so that the children dont spoil such precious objects. My first reaction was to have toys sent over- but after a few minutes, it became clear that in a culture that does not value Barbie dolls and Gameboys, such help would be not just useless, but potentially harmful as it would introduce a whole new set of consumer values these children are not equipped to handle.Music classes, the formation of a choir would be far more appreciated, except that musicians are paid four times the salary of an orphanage director.
Here we established a list of short term priorities and long term construction: immediate help for emergencies, long-term budgeted help to pay salaries and establish further projects.

How the money donated to FemAid is being spent
After extensive discussions, we agreed that the money I brought would be spent in the following way, for short-term/immediate needs and long term projects :
Each orphanage would be equipped with one washing-machine, one TV-VCR , one deep-freeze in which I hope to be able to fund a weekly ice-cream for every child during the summer months. Likewise, a monthly collective birthday cake would make life less intolerable for these children. As the Peshawar orphanage does not have any sheets, forty sets will be purchased next week. I hope funding will allow the purchase of new fans for the summer and gradual refurbishing of these premises, including plumbing and improvement of bathrooms. Unlike the avalanche of aid which goes to the large NGOs (and then gets 'lost' via the intermediaries), the money is meted out for precise projects mutually agreed upon
A separate fund has been set up to pay the staff of each orphanage and school in Pakistan for one year, and by mid-January when Euros will finally be accepted by Pakistani banks, this will be possible.

I have to add that I really dont know where the millions the world has donated for the notorious Jalozai camp have actually gone. I was sneaked into the camp under a black veil as journalists and outsiders are no longer permitted to go there : even RAWA has to bring in aid in secret. Hardly surprising as the local authorities dont want the world to see the level of starvation and despair in this appalling place. The same thing for Atora Khatak, another camp which has been in the news: aid dried up, it seems five months ago, except for one distribution of flour for Ramazan. The people in the camp told me that the commander of the camp (a Pakistani, appointed by the local authorities) pockets aid and resells it as well as running a crime and drugs racket with the three local imams (priests). I hope somebody will make a stink about this without discouraging donors

Whilst in Pakistan; I also donated funds for another of our projects, the Khatoun-e-Fatima school in Islamabad which caters for the children living in the slum known as the French colony. Check it out.

Special donations:

I have to add that the kites were very welcome, and this gift from Californian supporters had a symbolic value as well, as Talibans had forbidden them. Kites are national pastime, but generally reserved to boys. But I did donate half of them to an exceptional girls' orphanage and the other a half to a boys' . The seeds went to two larger orphanages in rural surroundings, situated in the camp RAWA look after. Boys and girls will attempt to grow their own vegetables and if this proves successful, we will continue this garden project. The drawings and letters I brought made the children very happy.



Future donations and help
It seems likely that future global humanitarian aid will be showered on Afghanistan and that the refugee camps in Pakistan will gradually forgotten. Nevertheless, the three million refugees in Pakistan will not just return to Afghanistan as they are too poor to go anywhere at all, let alone rebuild their devastated houses.
Money donated to FemAid for help to these refugees in the camps will be sent to RAWA for this specific purpose. We will attempt to continue supporting the schools in the slums and try and establish links with the pupils and teachers.

I think we should go on funding teaching projects within Afghanistan as this constitutes one of RAWAs priorities. They are investigating projects in Kabul (including the building of an orphanage and a house for women and children who beg in the streets) which we will be looking into.
But as you can see, I think the best way of working is to be very precise in what we are doing and continue to work on specific projects.

So we will be helping to pay teachers and staff in RAWA schools, litteracy classes and orphanages and try and make their conditions better for the pupils.

Certain kinds of specialised equipments could be sent in future by air freight, but in general it is pointless to send anything as transport (and overweight by plane) are far too expensive. Besides, everything is so much cheaper over there, cash remains the best. Among the things that could be sent could be computers (fully equiped, with appropriate programmes, for schools) subscriptions to medical/health magazines. Research for scholarships for these motivated girls would be marvellous, but bear in mind they are generally undergraduates: ideally, if potential donors could pay for medical studies within Pakistan (far too expensive for any Afghan and most Pakistanis), this could be an excellent project

I am convinced we should go on building projects with RAWA, they are admirable partners for our projects.
Donors will get the satisfaction of knowing they are really helping and that their hard-earned funds are n't being wasted or pocketed on the way...

Last but not least, remember that fighting for Afghan women is about making the world a better place for women globally

Carol Mann

December 23rd 2001

RAWA SCHOOLS in PAKISTAN, notes and recommendations in January 2002

School is not obligatory in Pakistan and besides it is not free. Afghans (and other foreigners) have to pay around 200 rs per month (60rs= $1) and as most families have at least 5 children this means that few can afford such expenditure. At any rate, boys will be given the priority as they are deemed the breadwinners.
The literacy rate in Pakistan is, as a result, very low (25% of the population can read) - but in Taliban Afghanistan it became one of the lowest in the world, down to 5% for the women according to some statistics.

RAWAhas always made education a priority in underground schools for women and girls in Taliban Afghanistan as well as in the poorest areas of Pakistan where Afghan refugees live.

Apart from literacy classes, RAWA runs three schools in the slums of Rawalpindi and three more in Haripoor, Peshawar and a refugee camp in the Peshawar region. These are unregistered as are many private schools in Pakistan.
These are unusual institutions in that they provide
- 4 hours of free schooling for girls and boys
- a mainly Afghan curriculum to prepare for a return to Afghanistan
- Urdu and English as foreign languages
- One class in religious studies ( as opposed to five in fundamentalist run schools of which there are many catering to the refugee population)
- some notions of human rights, especially womens rights
- books, stationery

The schooling provided is very basic and can only equip pupils with the most basic skills- but it is a real alternative to illiteracy and perceived as a privilege. Nevertheless, such a programme is perceived as totally radical and these schools operate with the utmost discretion. There are RAWA posters in the classrooms and gradually discussion take place
This report is based on a visit to the three schools in Rawalpindi as well as the school run by RAWA in Jalozai II camp (which is NOT the notorious Jalozai camp an hour away and has been described in another report on the www.femaid site)

Student background:
The background of the refugees is varied, from an educated professional middle-class to peasants and one-time civil servants. Whatever economies the families possessed have run out fast as life is more expensive in Pakistan than Afghanistan. Poverty is the great leveller, and as a result children of once (relatively) privileged backgrounds generally one-parent families where the men have been killed- find themselves picking rags alongside children who have been brought up to think this normal.

These refugees have fled Soviet (1979) invasion, fundamentalists of every shape (including Talibans), oppression and poverty. Opposition to fundamentalism does not necessarily entail liberal attitudes in this part of the world, except in more educated and progressive backgrounds.
However bad the situation in Pakistan, whatever these people have fled is even worse than what they are experiencing now.And some places are even more terrible than these slums, mainly hell-hole refugee camps like Jalozai . Which is why a growing number of single-parent families try to put their children in orphanages where they know their children will at least eat once a day and may not be obliged to labour.

Schooling may represent different things. To the more educated parents, this may be the beginning of a career, possibly the way to a scholarship into a Pakistani school. It keeps the dream going and family self-respect. Here girls are a little more encouraged than boys.But poverty and pragmatism rapidly overcome their hopes and resources, as no-one can afford the unbelievable fees the Pakistani high schools and universities charge.
To the majority of poor and impoverished people, school may mean a better job for their boys- from sifting through garbage, they may be able to go on working indoors in a shop, counting stock.
Nevertheless, when you ask children : What do you want to do later, they invariable chant doctor, sometimes engineer and teacher for girls in some kind of ideal and never-never land Afghanistan.All of which are impossible in view of the education they are getting, the necessity to bring in money as soon as possible and mainly the fact that they are excluded from any inroad to changing their abject living- conditions.
So, in the meantime boys, from the age of 7 work as rag-pickers, collecting paper from garbage (one kg is paid one rupee), make wire-wool wads for scouring (25 dozen= 1.5 rs per dozen, sold locally 8 rs apiece), make shoes, sell vegetables, carry heavy loads in bazaar, weave carpets. Some work with their fathers, others are farmed out to employers. Girls are expected to help as home, but some work as domestic servants, stitch, embroider. If there are no boys in the family, girls are sometimes disguised as boys, their names changes (I met a Khaleda with shorn hair who had been selling vegetables as Khaled) in order to work.They work on average 8 hours a day and eat one main meal (mainly lentils, bread, tea- meat, fresh fruits are exorbitant luxuries).As a result, children look about three to four years younger than their same-age Western counterparts. I visited during the month of fasting Ramazan: most children, even the youngest, were proud to be fasting- admittedly on their diet, this could not have been very difficult for them which made the situation even more heart-breaking

It must never be forgotten that this is a most conservative society. Despite RAWA (and so-called Internet cafs in some parts of town), most of these girls will be married off in their teens to boys they hardly know and they will submit to their fate because thats how they have been brought up, burqa or no burqa for centuries. RAWA has to negotiate with fathers and then husbands for these girls to be allowed to come to literacy classes and sometimes food bribes are necessary. Widows may sometimes be more amenable as far as their daughters future is concerned. The situation is very hard to imagine in the West but cannot be minimized.

In view of the crushing poverty, families just cannot afford to keep their children away from work.What is a moral question for us is merely one of survival in this part of the world.The problem needs to be tackled from a much broader economic angle, not by further victimising those who are already victims. In fact, the bottom line is that childhood as we know it does not exist for the poor. As soon as an infant can walk, he becomes a diminutive adult who is prepared for the hardships of adult life: scrounging about for survival for boys/men and producing children (future labour force) for girls as soon as their bodies permit them to. Whereas the rural background allowed for some degree of autonomy as far as housing and resources go, in city slums families are crammed into tiny rooms alongside streets with open sewers, no running water (but Internet access in some parts), lead a hand to mouth existence. In the city as well, notions of dignity, identity are completely crushed but mothers hang on to scraps of respectability. All the boys I met wore impeccable white shirts to class:their mothers and sisters wash them painstakingly every day School indeed represents four hours of solace for these children.

Teachers have variable qualifications, but certainly less than their Pakistani counterparts, simply because they themselves have been deprived of education. Many of them have gone through RAWA schools and are passing on their skills to the younger generations. The more privileged ones have benefited from the Pakistani schools where English is taught as a main language. Many young girls dream of going to a Pakistani university- but higher education would cost 5000rs ($83) a month + 100 000 rs ($1 666) inscription fee.
RAWA keeps an eye on the level of the students. Whenever possible, the brightest students are given further education as they sponsor their studies in Pakistani high schools.

Running schools
Afghani teachers are paid far less than Pakistani teachers (average 1 200 rs, a month, $20, a quarter of a Pakistani salary), but thats all RAWA can afford in their global budgets which are being stretched at the moment by the latest crisis. School directors are paid a bit more ( 1 500rs a month, $25) and all have to supplement their income by other work. Whenever possible, they are also paid in kind (especially food)- which is why FemAid has been trying to collect more important sums to finance these teachers. A cleaner, a guard is also on the payroll. In Afghanistan, the teachers are paid more as board, lodging and risk factor have to be taken into account.

The premises are rented from Pakistani authorities and are all too small classes are also held on terraces when necessary which poses a problem during the monsoon. Sometimes an old school is hired (Hewat II), often an apartment (Mariam), where the rent is on average 10 000- 12 000rs per month, and the electricity + bills work out to on average 6000rs, per month but naturally all this is variable.Books and stationery/pencils come to about 60 000rs a year.. One has to remember that books are cheaper in Pakistan and there is a whole industry of photocopied books.
As far as facilities are concerned, toilets (one per establishment) are dank holes in the ground with a pitcher of water nearby, there are no other facilities, no first-aid kits, no snacks available, just rudimentary schooling.

FemAids policy has always been to ask people what they need and want rather than impose and send what we think they should have.
After lengthy conversations, we came to the conclusion that money is needed to finance:
- more books and stationery (children are issued one set to last them all year)
- teaching aids: maps, posters, visual documentation, flash cards (with English , Urdu or Farsi)
- T.V. + VCR for educational films
- Snacks for the break ( a new FemAid project as this is unheard of in other schools: children who walk along way may wait for 4 hours while their siblings have school in the second shift))
- A computer facility
- New courses (music)
- Refurbishing of premises
- Salaries of staff
- Teacher-training (including language courses)

One could send teaching materials such as maps, anatomical charts, and other such material. In which case, one should try and find a humanitarian organisation sending material or else find out through P.I.A. (Pakistani International Airlines) if something can be sent to Islamabad by air freight and at what cost. In Islamabad, I was told the charge was 11 Euros per kilo
Another important feature would be financing badly needed teacher training
Additional courses such as music would be welcome with the idea of having children in schools form a choir. Upon enquiry, it seems that music teachers want to be paid 4000rs a month , $67 which is beyond anything RAWA can afford. But this can be a project for a donor.
I was surprised at the directors asking computers: it seems that the conditions are so squalid that there must be other priorities. Nevertheless, as computers mean modernity to them, this has a strong symbolic value- and presumably some practical one as well. But programmes have to be sent with the computers and in working order.
However in one school I saw unused toys carefully displayed on an otherwise empty shelf, probably given by a well-meaning donor: this culture has no need for Western-style toys and consumership.
These countries do not have a tradition of having a visiting doctor/nurse but could be something we could think about

RAWA does not run a vast amount of schools and orphanages but is trying to be efficient in each situation. FemAid has decided to sponsor specific needs such as paying salaries to keep these places going and enable RAWA to open further schools. Donors who get involved in our schemes can donate very specifically and know that their gifts and donations will really be used.

Three schools visited in Rawalpindi (near Islamabad)

Mrs Okala principal + 15 teachers (female)+cleaner and guard
350 children aged 6-19 (boys generally up to age of 12, the older students being the girls who often start their schooling as young teenagers, on RAWAs insistence)
Provides primary education: children of different ages in a same class because most of the girls go to school later than boys and are generally keep back.
4 hours of schooling a day (and an average of 6-8 hours outside work for most) in two shifts
Also a literacy class for women of 14-29
No heater- it gets cold in winter and a diminutive fan for summer (temperature soaring to 40-50C in the summer); lighting is a neon strip which often goes on and off due to uncertain electrical supplies
7 small, dank classrooms, ill-lit with nothing (or nearly) on the walls. Geography is taught from a tiny world map

Mrs Rahimi (principal) and 12 teachers )+cleaner and guard
200 children 6-17 (boys generally up to age of 12, the older students being the girls who often start their schooling as young teenagers, on RAWAs insistence)
Provides primary education: children of different ages in a same class because most of the girls go to school later than boys and are generally keep back.There are no girls studying maths past the 7th class
4 hours of schooling a day (and an average of 6-8 hours outside work for most) in two shifts
No heater- it gets cold in winter and a diminutive fan for summer (temperature soaring to 40-50C in the summer); lighting is a neon strip which often goes on and off due to uncertain electrical supplies
This is a ground floor apartment with cubicles, some do not have windows. But it has just been painted a bright yellow.
The daughter of the director, Rubina, 17 graduated from a Pakistani school last year and teaches English basics in this school as well as Hewat II. She needs teaching aids of every kind (flash cards, charts, to help her work)

Mrs Abida, (principal) 8 teachers+cleaner and guard
130 children 6-15 (boys generally up to age of 12, the older students being the girls who often start their schooling as young teenagers, on RAWAs insistence)
One literacy course for women between 15-35
Provides primary education: from 1-3rd class, but age groups here are a bit more coherent than in other schools
4 hours of schooling a day (and an average of 6-8 hours outside work for most) in two shifts.
Premises are too small: one class in held outdoors on the terrace- presumably cancelled during the monsoon.
No heater- it gets cold in winter and a diminutive fan for summer (temperature soaring to 40-50C in the summer); lighting is a neon strip which often goes on and off due to uncertain electrical supplies.
Despite the extreme poverty of this squalid neighbourhood (open sewers, rubbish tips where kids rummage), a number of the children come from families where parents had some education as civil servants, teachers and engineers. The directors story is typical. Ages 31, she was a teacher in Afghanistan and teaches Pashtun, history and maths. Her husband, once a radio journalist and teacher now sells vegetables from a vegetable cart, helped by his sons. They have 7 children and Mrs Abida is distressed that she cant let their oldest daughter go to school as she has to look after the youngest children whilst their mother is away at work.

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Donations can be sent by cheque, made out to FemAid

33 rue Guy Moquet 92240 Malakoff

or by bank draft (preferably in Euros) to:

BARCLAYS BANK, PARIS, 183 avenue Daumesnil 75575 Paris Cedex 12 France

Account n: 85120070801 78

Branch code: 61101

Bank code: 30588

Swift: BAARCFR.PP 30588 61101 85120070801 78 (FEMAID ASSOCIATION)

We also have a sterling account for residents of U.K.

Account n: 85120070801 78

Branch code: 61101

Bank code: 30588

Cl Rib 44

R.I.B: 30588 61101 85120070801 44 (FEMAID ASSOCIATION)

Financial contributions to FemAid will be forwarded to RAWA.

All correspondance and in-kind
gifts should be mailed direct to RAWA, not FemAid.

Short statement about the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan

Whilst on a fact-finding mission to Pakistan with RAWA, I was tak