One Size Doesn’t Fit All: Addressing Diversity in the Needs and Development Capacities of Afghan Women, Short and Long-Term

As Barnett Rubin has persuasively argued elsewhere on this website, human security is the key issue linking Afghanistan’s on-going institutional melt-down, amidst the entanglements of exploitative geopolitics, with Americans’ and Europeans’ own intensified focus on safety and economic security in the aftermath of Sept. 11. Also on this site, Saba Gul Khattak has represented how directly Afghan refugee women experience and articulate the problem of security for home and family. Indeed, the Taliban consolidated power over large areas of the country in 1994 and 1995 with little opposition, on the simple promise of disarmament of competing local militias and a restoration of personal security on moral (i.e., religious) principles. What followed, however, was a complete failure to reconstruct national infrastructure, technical or human, which resulted ultimately in a return of physical insecurity even in urban areas under Taliban control, in the inability to redevelop a viable economy amidst the most difficult physical conditions (a now four-year drought), and a new round of dependence, by this regime like previous ones, on transfer payments and personnel supplied by interested outside powers to prop up military authority.

Beyond meeting the immediate needs of a drought-starved and war-displaced population, any longer-term solution from this point forward must address the pervasive and primary need for building or rebuilding human capital, including female human capital, in the process of rebuilding the national (and regional) rule of law and physical and economic security. “Significant” participation of women in future governance is promoted, to the extent its authority permits, by the UN-sponsored Bonn Agreement, in both the current, short-term Interim Authority and the emergency Loya Jirga (a national legislative assembly soon to be organized by the Special Independent Commission, independent of the Interim Authority). Yet it is manifest from their prior behavior and stated positions that different groups represented in the Bonn negotiations have very different notions of “appropriate” or “significant” female participation in public affairs, even including such basics as remunerative work outside the home.

As Woodward (this website) observes, “no economic strategy yet exists for the specific stage of peace building between relief and development.” Economic strategy must also emerge from and jibe with cultural strategies designed in coalition by groups whose immediate cultural goals are not identical, dramatically not so in gender matters. The transition from humanitarian aid to national institutional reconstruction has been conspicuous by its absence, not only in Afghanistan, but across the gamut of humanitarian/security crises in which the United Nations, military coalitions and small armies of non-governmental aid agencies of varied agenda have sought to intervene. A centrally (i.e., nationally) coordinated approach not only to humanitarian intervention but to investment in Afghanistan’s infrastructure is both necessary to the success of such effort, and part and parcel for the rebuilding of an effective Afghan government. As critical to this process as a prompt yet judicious infusion of economic capital, will be the uncertain availability of Afghan men and women technically competent and politically situated to design and execute the rebuilding process.

The yet-uncharted transition from emergency intervention to reconstruction, avoiding long-term aid-dependency while preventing the further intensification or exploitation of local and regional power imbalances, is the temporal half of the conundrum. Its indeterminacy is in part due to the other half of the conundrum, which is synchronic: the playing field for Afghan redevelopment, while pretty well flattened, is by no means level. This problem, while shared by both men and women, can be illustrated by a discussion of girls’ and women’s different needs and capacities under conditions prevailing prior to the Taliban take-over, which this writer had some chance to observe, and developments since then. Rubin’s “Measures of Human Security” table (reprinted in this website) estimates an overall pre-Taliban (1993) literacy rate of 28%, with men at 45% literate and women at 14%. This estimate may be generous for both groups, if based on a very minimal standard of inclusion, e.g., the ability to identify letters of the alphabet, to recognize and articulate (but not read analytically or translate directly) some verses of the Qur’an, or to trace one’s own name. During the Taliban’s five years, the school system has been for the most part closed (especially for girls), and education professionals (and others) have continued to emigrate. What “literacy” means for different providers and users, its ideological qualities as well as what skills are being delivered (Street 1984:1-128), is a key question of which the Taliban themselves, opposed to western-style general education, were very aware. Traditionally (in madrasah-style schooling), differentiated literacy skills were recognized; reading and writing themselves were regarded and taught as two different skills, with initial emphasis on reading selected Qur’an verses correctly. Marginally literate adult males interviewed by this writer in the mid-1970′s would claim some reading skills while denying any ability to write. Thus it is important to bear in mind that reading and writing are not all one thing, but many, as further discussed below. Consolidated figures may misrepresent the real distribution of usable skills. Quite likely the total female population capable of carrying out literacy-dependent work, or directly using written materials (e.g., for family health information, for legal or political participation, for supporting their children’s school homework) is in the single digits at this time, while the male population competent at these levels is likely to be about three times higher, as the general figures suggest. Literacy in cities is likely some percentage points higher, perhaps even twice as high as for rural areas in both categories. One aspect of women’s differential needs is both access to education, and access to opportunities for its use.

Thus one obvious priority for development is the resuscitation and expansion of the school system, driven in no small part by a passionate, highly articulate desire on the part of parents and teachers to restore access to education, which is seen (perhaps optimistically in Afghanistan’s crushed economy) as the key to income- generating work. In two visits to Herat, in 1994 and in 1995 immediately prior to the Taliban’s arrival, I interviewed male and female classroom teachers and visited K-12 boys’ and girls’ school classrooms, as well as about ten different adult literacy classes, male and female, the Teachers’ College and the fledgling University of Herat. The hunger for education at all levels was dramatic: the operating public schools in Herat were all running in three or even four daily shifts, and girls’ school teachers complained that they had had to give over time and space to boys’ classroom teaching, adding to the crowding problem in girls’ classrooms, because of lack of capacity in the boy’s schools to handle the student population. Yet at the same time, I heard criticisms, especially from young adult men, that the public education on offer was not useful as preparation for income-generation. English language training was seen as the great economic prize. Barnett Rubin’s observation (this website) on the brain drain from Afghan government agencies to fill basic staffing needs of NGO’s is mirrored in this expressed attitude. English study was eagerly sought by men to enable work in NGO’s or labor migration, not to staff Afghan government departments. For those women who aspire to national or international government or public sector roles, access to functional foreign language will also be important: given their comparative lack of mobility due to family cultural expectations, women may be more likely to invest their skills in local projects, rather than labor migration, and could be important players in such venues, security conditions permitting, more especially if global economic conditions again come to favor male labor migration. The placement of such able women in government agencies will be crucial to the provision of government services (health, education, legal services, microcredit development schemes) for all women. For the foreseeable future, Afghan women service providers will have substantially better access to potential women clients than will men or even foreign women.

The head of the Herat Teacher’s College, who had served continuously before and through the Marxist era, described how the College had run with full enrollments, predominantly female (in the non-presence of young men due to the government’s aggressive military draft and male participation in the jihad). The enrollment pattern by the mid-90′s was again beginning to favor men. The trained women teachers, not obviously Marxist in their orientation, were now in demand for the overcrowded schools, but the government wage, already heavily hit by inflation, was so unattractive (even then less than $10 per month, perhaps sufficient to feed a family of four for two or three days) that qualified males who could find other work were avoiding the call to staff schools. Thus female teachers were in demand but severely underpaid. Yet families were so in need of any income at all that there was a strong pull on trained women into the education workforce. Teaching (like health care) will be one of the major avenues for women to enter public-sphere participation as the education system re-opens. The Taliban’s shutting down of the struggling public school system, especially of girls’ schools, is well known, but boys’ education capacity was also heavily affected by the forced withdrawal of female teachers from the work force and truncation of the curriculum. How to furnish a living wage for teachers (and other civil servants) in the middle and long run, a pressing problem already in pre-Taliban Afghanistan, will be a major concern for both education development and female employment.

Yet “schooling” understood as a global connector and general good begs some crucial questions: schooling for what? For purposes of implementation, this must be an ethnographic, not a rhetorical or polemical question. The operative answers must be those held by the potential clients, not only the would-be purveyors (Afghan or foreign). The adult learners I interviewed in Herat articulated two different sets of goals, one set for their children, and a slightly different set for themselves. For their school-going children, they hoped for skills that would lead to secure and better-paid employment, and in the case of girls, to better marriages (an educated husband) and resulting better home life. Yet these expected outcomes are not automatic. Two adult women, married as young girls in the 1960′s and 1970′s respectively and by 1995 in the latter stages of marriage, both strongly criticized their husbands and husband’s family for refusing to allow them to continue their education after engagement or marriage. It is not clear, in that generation, that male education always enabled girls to stay in school, though this correlation may be strengthening. Two traditional points of concern in negotiating marriage must be taken into account: one, that marriages do better when the individuals’ families are of about equal status in such matters as education, profession, economic condition, and secondly, that marriages do not do well when the male is not clearly in authority (e.g., when the groom in an arranged marriage is substantially younger than the bride, or when the bride is visibly more educated than he.)

The beginning adult literacy students I interviewed were custodial employees at an NGO-sponsored hospital (male and female) and at a refugee camp (all male), male and female employees at Herat’s then-dormant government cotton-processing factory, plus housewives raising children at home, inmates of the women’s prison and a group of women training for income-generation at an Afghan female-run NGO. All were resident in and around Herat City. For their children, they hoped for better earning power from basic education, but for themselves, some goals were more intangible. Some said, “I want to be able to pray properly.” Two different men in particular addressed patriarchal concerns in families: “It is not right for a father to be less educated than his child.” Very few of these basic literacy learners said that they thought better jobs would be available for themselves with further education. None at all mentioned better management of household needs (children’s health, family economics) as a goal even though this is part of the public rhetoric of adult literacy, nor did they mention better access to knowledge relevant to political or legal empowerment. Better access to religious knowledge was, however, a readily acknowledged goal. This parallels the observations of Bulliet (this website) on the importance of factoring Islam into our models for social process and motivation. I would only add that women and men can share a generalized goal, just as the hadith of the Prophet gracing the Muslim Sisters’ Association literacy posters I saw in Herat offices enjoined that seeking knowledge is a basic religious duty for both men and women. Yet the nature of male and female participation, in workplace or religious life, varies.

What then might be the highest-priority literacy skills for specific purposes in different economic and cultural dimensions of the reconstruction/development effort? Or for different persons participating in it, elite and unprivileged, rural and urban, male and female, high-tech and low, white collar, blue collar skilled and unskilled, rural agricultural, all variously oriented toward religious practice and/or doctrine and with different, to some extent ethnically and regionally distinct expectations for public institutions and governance? Who has such development-relevant knowledge, and what are the optimal classroom-based and non-classroom-based means of propagating it? Are there indigenous structures and sites of traditional education or skills training that can be supported and adapted for the delivery of additional information and skills? These are complicated questions, addressed experimentally in some pre-Taliban NGO projects (e.g., literacy training as a component of various training schemes and sheltered workshops for women and boys, in which income-generating skills such as carpet weaving, male and female tailoring, or motor mechanics were also on offer), but the impacts have not been researched. As has been noted in various national literacy program evaluations elsewhere in the region, however (Mills 1999), the sustainability of literacy, once it is imparted, has much to do with the availability of (and need for) ‘post-literacy’ materials (i.e., written materials which the newly literate encounter and use in their daily lives). Generally speaking, a high failure rate of literacy programs correlates with the lack of post-literacy materials in the society: without use, literacy skills wither.

At the same time, vernacular print literacy is variously theorized to be a major component of nation-building, historically speaking (Anderson 1983). Certain kinds of mass media (especially audio and video cassettes) have played a role in dissemination of information and opinions in the participatory politics of wartime Afghanistan in recent decades (Edwards 1995), bypassing print literacy and potentially, at least, increasing the access to externally-generated information for isolated populations, including home-bound women. Prior to the advent of home-based mass media (radio, then television after 1978), women’s chances at access to public information were much less. Women’s attendance at public events (movies, theater and music performance, public festival events) was a small fraction of men’s. Prior to the Marxist coup of April, 1978, there were at least ten boys in school for every girl outside the metropolitan areas, whereas the ratio of urban school places was somewhat less skewed.

The Marxists made mass education a priority, as a prerequisite and channel for ideological as well as general education and political solidarity. For this, as in Soviet Central Asia in the 1920′s (Massell 1974), adult female education was featured, women being considered a disenfranchised group ready for ideological conversion. This policy then became a point of severe contention with their opponents, who violently objected to adult female education treated as compulsory (overriding family authority) and secularizing, even anti-religious. Government schooling in general, and all schooling on a western model, including that of the prior, non-Marxist government, was blamed by some mujahedin for revolutionary and otherwise westernized Afghans’ “selling the country to foreigners” (vatan forushi; cf., the Iranian Islamic revolutionaries’ critique of gharbzadegi”westoxication” of the westernizing elites). School teachers supporting the Marxist government curriculum were killed or driven out of vulnerable schools by mujahedin, yet many teachers, and many more female teachers than in pre-Marxist times, were trained. The Taliban in turn were notoriously intent on controlling the flow of information antithetical to their cultural and political project by control of media (banning access to broadcast, internet and recordings unless religious in subject) as well as schooling.

If anything, these controls seem to have increased the already-intense Afghan hunger for access both to media (especially entertainment media) and education. In a return to policy in place prior to the Taliban take-over, NGO’s involved in school reconstruction, at the behest of their donors, could now make primary-school co-education a prerequisite for villages or towns asking to receive technical and financial support for rebuilding schools. This should, however, be policy promulgated by the central government, not enforced by individual NGO’s as previously. In communities or at ages when co-presence of girls and boys in schoolrooms is not culturally acceptable, alternatives may be required such as parallel projects to build and staff schools for girls simultaneously with those for boys. In an improvement over conditions prior to the Marxist era, Afghanistan has a relatively good supply of female teachers, eager to work, but these are differentially urban-resident. Female staffing for rural girls’ schools will be more of a problem.

The Interim Authority has returned women to mass media as news readers and arts performers, as well as contestants on the restored, and formerly wildly popular national TV quiz show, “What Is the Answer?”, which pits teams of three women against three men, drawn from the live studio audience, to answer questions for modest prizes. Opportunities for programming directed at women remain to be explored. The intense popularity of the BBC-sponsored social commentary soap operas available on radio even during the Taliban era clearly identifies radio, and now again television, as channels ripe for airing national social commentary and debate as well as general technical education (e.g., mine awareness, home health care and safety) accessible to literate and non-literate alike. Freedom of communication, preferably multilingual and including broadcasts in minority languages, will be a key development tool if resources can be found to finance local and national programming. Lack of access to television sets might be addressed, especially for women who cannot easily spend time in the male space of public tea houses or other shop-front meeting places, by TV-equipped households formally playing host to groups of women neighbors for group viewing of scheduled educational programming, just as they hosted pre-Taliban neighborhood women’s literacy classes, and more recently, as they have provided for ‘clandestine’ girls’ schools. In any such initiatives, local leadership at the community and neighborhood level will be important to the non-coercive use of any media materials made available by central planning efforts. Female-focused NGO’s have so far occupied a broad spectrum of sociopolitical positions, from secular leftists to the Muslim Sisterhood. One of the government’s challenges will be to organize development efforts in such a way as to limit counter-productive local and organizational competition for resources, while providing for a wider spectrum of ideological investments in services for women, to reach a wider variety of potential beneficiaries.

Access to information through formal and informal education does not address the problem of access to work, where adult mobility outside the home becomes crucial. Customarily, women have had certain kinds of mobility even in highly conservative sectors of the population. These have included trips to visit relatives informally and during festivals and personal rite-of-passage events (Grima 1992, Doubleday 1988), sometimes access to public baths (a potentially important social space for women for, e.g., preliminary inter-family marriage negotiations) and shrine pilgrimage, often quite local but also offering social access to non-relatives (Mernissi 1977). The insecurities of warfare have exacerbated controls on women’s mobility beyond the normal patterns of the pre-war era.

Therefore, due consideration must be given to concerns about security and women’s capacity for self-protection (or lack thereof), avoiding attribution of these concerns to atavistic religious conservatism. Categories of work will be differentially available to differently situated women. The urban educated already lead very different lives from rural farm women. Factories providing sheltered workspace (needed for this generation of women workers at least) have already begun to be developed, e.g., the pre-Taliban employees of the few government cotton factories in major cities, or the women’s bakeries run by NGO’s in Kabul despite Taliban disapproval, but such schemes require some concentration of population in cities or towns. Rural credit unions for women could allow for both local institution-building and home-based income-generation schemes (e.g., carpet-weaving, poultry-raising, dairying, perhaps fruit-processing) to get under way in villages in Afghanistan as they have elsewhere. If the new government pursues a policy of Islamic governance, due consideration must be given to configuring microcredit schemes in ways compatible with shari’a (Islamic law, which forbids the taking of interest on loans but permits joint-stock credit in which both parties are at risk). Local traditional forms of credit (gerau) already do this, but the local sources of capital (lenders, generally landlords with surplus capital) have not favored women as primary participants. The Afghan situation, hanging by a thread between reconstruction and a new descent into partisan chaos, provides a textbook case and challenge to the feminist rubric of the 1970′s, “Think globally, act locally.”


References

Anderson, Benedict, 1983. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.

Betteridge, Anne, 1980. The Controversial Vows of Urban Muslim Women in Iran. In Nancy A. Falk & R. M. Gross, eds., Unspoken Worlds: Women’s Religious Lives in Non-Western Cultures. New York: Harper and Row, 141-155.

Doubleday, Veronica, 1988. Three Women of Herat. London: Jonathan Cape.

Edwards, David B., 1995. Print Islam: Religion, Revolution and the Media in Afghanistan. Anthropological Quarterly 68 (3): 171-184.

Grima, Benedicte, 1992. The Performance of Emotion among Paxtun Women: “The Misfortunes Which Have Befallen Me”, Austin: U. Texas Press.

Massell, Gregory, 1974. The Surrogate Proletariat: Moslem Women and Revolutionary Strategies in Soviet Central Asia: 1919-1929, Princeton, NJ: Princeton U. Press.

Mernissi, Fatima, 1977. Women, Saints and Sanctuaries. SIGNS 3:1, pp. 101-112.

Mills, Margaret A., 1999. Literacy in South Central Asia, in Wagner, Daniel A., Richard L. Venezky and Brian V. Street, eds., Literacy: An International Handbook. Boulder, CO & Oxford, UK: Westview Press. pp. 429-433

Street, Brian, 1984, Literacy in Theory and Practice, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.