Afghan Women and the Fallacy of Liberation
In 2002, I flew to Afghanistan with $20,000 down my pants. I was 27 years old — enthusiastic, naive, and…terrified.
The journey took 17.5 hours. The money in my pants was funding I had been given to start my work.
When I arrived, Kabul was an exhausted and malnourished city. Twenty-three years of conflict had taken a toll. Occupied by the Taliban in 1996, Kabul was previously the stage for much of the fighting between factions following the Russian withdrawal, and subsequent collapse of the Communist government. Damage to infrastructure was clearly visible, despite the city’s saturation with international agencies and good intentions. Kabul looked brown and parched, like a dusty old mountain man very much in need of a drink.
I was fortunate to find the Mustafa Hotel, a large nondescript structure with white barred windows — a decorating style I later dubbed “asylum chic.” A fossilized bat sat above my door. Bathrooms were at the end of the hall, where a young ex-Talib with an AK-47 leaned on a 3-legged chair and snored.
Once I stepped outside the hotel, chaddari-clad women begged for money. Many were widows, with sad-faced children in tow. They squatted in the gravel on the side of the dirty road, tattered garments wiping the ground. I could see nothing but the deep crevasses in their worn hands, and dirt ground forever in their fingernails.
“I want to tell you about my tragic life,” one woman cried.
“I’ve spent days in hunger, nights in the darkness,” added another. “Maybe you know about the life of an Afghan woman, filled with that much pain and difficulty that I’m not able to express it.”
“Please help me. I have a baby that I can’t feed. There is no milk in my breasts,” a woman called out as she tried to hand me her malnourished child.
The women seemed weathered and war-weary, with whole lives lived in each wrinkle on their young faces. Some of them were hardly 20 years old. I knew nothing of their world. I must have looked like a child to them, uncomfortable with how much power I had.
The story I saw was one of poverty — and of dignity. It was not about the chaddari, the blue garment that falsely came to symbolize oppression for Westerners. Such facile constructions led us to believe that all those in Western clothes are ‘liberated’. Although more Afghan men abandoned salwar kameez for jeans in those early days, denim did little to change their views.
These women needed support to get off the street — and stand on their own feet.
Women for Women International — a dynamic international NGO — had offered me the position of Country Director to establish their Afghanistan presence. I was given one year to set up the office, hire and train staff, establish and implement programs, form partnerships, find funding, and handle everything else — from security threats on the office to repairs of the constantly-malfunctioning toilet. And in my spare time, I should train a senior member of my staff to eventually take my place. In short, I had to work myself out of a job.
When I moved to Afghanistan in 2002, it was considered a ‘post-conflict’ country — it was anything but. The needs for women were overwhelming and I wanted so desperately to get it right — whatever ‘getting it right’ actually meant.
In one year, the office grew to sixty-five Afghan staff supporting over 3000 women. And me. Every day, I engaged with Afghan women — and men — listening and learning as they shared their concerns, experiences, and perspectives with me.
I was in a rare and privileged position, with an obligation to treat it respectfully and use it meaningfully, to benefit women. I became conscious of my responsibility to share the understandings that I had acquired in hopes that we might ‘do better’ for women.
In 2003, I started my PhD at the London School of Economics and Political Science so I could “bitch constructively,” as I called it. What I really wanted was to understand what happened, and how we might do it better. I was still working in Afghanistan at the time, and I remained there until 2006.
In 2007, I moved to Sierra Leone, but continued following — and writing on — Afghanistan. Later that year, I moved to Papua New Guinea, carrying Afghanistan with me. I defended my dissertation and received my Ph.D. on January 14, 2008–14 years ago today.
I dubbed myself an “accidental academic” and published a book Gender and International Aid in Afghanistan: The Politics and Effects of Intervention in 2009 built from my dissertation.
I went on to work in nearly twenty other countries — Haiti, Senegal, Lebanon — but Afghanistan was my first emergency, and she never left me.
Still, I did not imagine that I would find myself writing about the country again. By 2021, I could not stay quiet. Afghanistan was not doing well, and I needed to process my thoughts. My article For Afghan women, the US rhetoric of liberation has fallen short was published on CNN in June 2021 which led to an interview, and then more interviews.
What started as an article lamenting the deterioration and abandonment of the country evolved into another book, written in the month following the Taliban (re)takeover in August 2021, as Afghanistan unraveled.
For Afghan women… I had no words. But I had to find the words.
The words are here, in this book, coming out this spring.