Afghanistan: a nation of victims where women suffer the most

Review Asia

March 26, 2006|By DOUG BIRCH | DOUG BIRCH,SUN REPORTER

Kabul in Winter: Life Without Peace in Afghanistan

Ann Jones

Metropolitan Books / 336 pages / $24

Ann Jones arrived at Kabul airport in the early winter of 2002 and stepped into a thick, gray pall of wood smoke, diesel exhaust and desert dust. It was about a year after the Sept. 11 attacks, and the American author, best known, perhaps, for her book Women Who Kill, was anguished by reports of civilians killed and injured in the American bombing campaign against the Taliban.

So she came to spend three winter seasons as a foreigner, or kharaji, trying to make amends and help the people of one of the poorest, sickest and most disorganized nations on earth.

Kabul in Winter is her account of those years. It is part muckraking political tract, part sardonic travelogue. She profiles Afghanistan's barely functioning institutions: its courts, jails, hospitals and schools. She excoriates foreign aid programs, especially those funded by the American government, with their short-term focus and their heavy reliance on lavishly paid contractors and consultants.

Woven into the journalism, though, is a more personal story, that of a committed Western feminist who finds herself immersed in the patriarchal customs of a tribal culture.

In postwar Afghanistan, women are no longer threatened, as they were by the Taliban, with having their fingers cut off if they use nail polish. But arranged marriages are still the rule rather than the shocking exception for girls as young as 9. Women trapped in loveless or brutal unions, Jones finds, often commit suicide by self-immolation - which is likely more painful than a gun or a knife but avoids the shame of spilling female blood.

Jones and her translator, Nazifa, met with three female lawyers at the Ministry of Women's Affairs in Kabul to talk about inmates of the women's wing of the Welayat, a squalid prison in the heart of the capital. As hard as she tries, she can't persuade the lawyers that their clients are not criminals but the victims of a culture blind to the suffering of women:

"`You see, all these women are the victims of domestic violence,' I said.

"`What is that?'

"I tried to explain in simple terms through Nazifa, but we kept stumbling on words and phrases (like marital rape) that had no equivalent in the Dari language, much less in the Afghan law.

"`In my country, it is against the law for a husband to force his wife to have sex when she doesn't want to.'

"The lawyers seemed embarrassed by the topic, but they hurriedly discussed it; and then the chief lawyer, who knew a little English, replied: `In Afghan not.'

"`In my country it is against the law for a husband to hit his wife.'

"Another hurried sotto voce discussion. `In Afghanistan not.'

"`In my country it is against the law to force a young girl to marry an old man she doesn't want to marry.'

"`In Afghanistan not. In my country is custom.'"

The author encouraged Afghan women to stand up for themselves and assert their human rights. But most treat one another as they are treated by men, as something less than human. Nooria, an Afghan-German gynecologist, told Jones that three midwives at a difficult delivery in a Kabul hospital tried to expedite the woman's labor by beating her. "They slap her face and pound on her belly and shout at her: `Push, you s - - faced dog.'"

We are shocked by these attitudes, but our outrage raises some knotty issues. Democracy and human rights, we like to think, are not cultural but universal values. In tribal societies such as Afghanistan's, custom and tradition take precedence over individual rights. We see efforts to raise the status of Afghan women as liberation. But in much of the Islamic world, these reforms are regarded as cultural imperialism.

Jones is just as critical of America's foreign policy as of the Taliban. She writes scornfully of consultants for government aid organizations who live in $10,000-a-month villas for a short time, drive around in white four-wheel-drive vehicles, write reports and then go home.

Neither does she spare the apparently idealistic foreigners, like herself, who run small-scale aid efforts. One American "humanitarian," she reports, "was obsessed with a slim, handsome (married) Afghan driver. She wrote into her project budget a staggering fee for car and driver, and when a lax donor agency handed her the cash, she bought herself the man of her dreams."

By the end of the book, we recognize that the latest wave of Afghanistan's would-be liberators have much in common with their predecessors - a sense that they are bringing civilization to one of the remote corners of the world.

Like their predecessors, these idealists have found a nation of people who desperately want our help, even as they proudly resist change.

Doug Birch was a Sun foreign correspondent who spent six months reporting from Afghanistan during the past five years.

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