23 May I Have a Dream
Working in Afghanistan has been a great learning experience for me, one that has changed some of my most basic assumptions of Afghan women. As each day of fieldwork brings me closer to the reality of their daily lives, it is their remarkable strength, and not their widely presumed weakness, that stands out time after time.
We met a woman whose husband is equally involved in childcare and owes the respect he has in the community to his wife. We met women who had become local heroes of the jihad, patrolling around their homes with RPGs to protect them from the enemy. And time and again, we met women who know how to play the rules of the game and deal with the limitations they face, bargaining intelligently to push the boundaries of patriarchy without jeopardising their status within their family and in the community. Each one of these women can be a natural leader in their village, a role model for other women, living examples of possible change and opportunities.
However, few opportunities exist for women to magnify their individual courage through collective action—action that could help them overcome some of the serious structural inequalities they currently face. Especially in rural areas, women have little opportunity to have access to social spaces outside their kinship network or qawm. While these networks are an extremely important way to maintain support in times of need, they can also be fraught with hierarchies, power struggles and competition. Women within the same kinship system often end up sacrificing their group interest to secure individual support from its male members—the sole providers and sources of power.
Many women in our research have expressed deep satisfaction with new spaces that allow them to come together as a group, whether in the form of loan groups or Community Development Councils (CDCs). However, these spaces lack consistency and sustainability. Where they exist, they are often treated as spaces to socialise with little shared goal or direction. In some cases, the very nature of the space can render them detrimental to solidarity. For instance, group loans that serve as social collateral for timely payment can place each member (and especially the head of the group) in the awkward position of acting as watchdogs for the other members—though obviously how far this occurs will depends on context and who the members are.
For me, the pathway of women’s empowerment in Afghanistan passes through creation of solidarity and “sisterhood,” forging groups that exist beyond the bounds of kinship among women with shared experience of gender norms within their community. These spaces could be invited spaces that aim towards a shared goal, such as saving to cover the cost of seyali wa shariki, an important form of social obligation in which a woman buys presents and visits relatives’ or neighbours’ houses on important occassions. These new networks can be very empowering and help women address their own issues with the help of natural leaders in their community.
Ultimately, they could help plant the seeds of a grassroots women’s movement in Afghanistan. These groups will certainly face a range of predictable and unpredictable challenges in both their own formation (such as the potential emergence of gatekeepers), and in how they interact with their wider communities. Nevertheless, examples from other parts of the world such as the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) in India show that regardless of Afghanistan’s unique set of issues, such a change is more than achievable.
A vibrant, nationwide women’s grassroots movement is my dream for Afghanistan. The women I have met here give me every hope that I will live to see it happen.