As soon as I began HKS I was overwhelmed with critiques of Afghanistan. Classes, seminars, lectures, informal discussions – Afghanistan was inescapable. I enjoyed it. I’m interested in national security, and Kennedy proved an ideal venue to engage in the push and pull of policy debate on the region. I heard the spectrum of viewpoints – from the “minimalist” perspective – a 20K troop presence over several decades, to the (almost) maximalist perspective – breaking the momentum of the insurgency with a short-term surge in troop levels, and then moving forward with moderated nation-building aspirations. I decided to withhold support for any of these views. I didn’t think the knowledge I was infused with through the abstracted lens of Kennedy was sufficient to support any claims on what should or should not be. Three months certainly won’t give me enough of what I need or want to know. But, after all I’d learned I figured it was imperative that I see Afghanistan myself.
I’m not new to working for women’s rights in an insecure environment. After I graduated from Brown, I headed to Jamaica on a Fulbright Grant to co-direct street theater with a (phenomenal) women’s rights organization – the Sistren Theatre Collective. Through street theatre we fostered inter-communal dialogue in Kingston’s warring ghettos. The latter months of my year coincided with election season, and, during those months, Kingston’s ghettos erupted. Shootouts occurred daily, and many were killed.
Bamyan, where I plan to spend some of the summer (although I will visit my organization’s other field offices) will actually be safer than Kingston. It’s in central Afghanistan (in a region known as Hazarajat), is the site of the desecrated Buddha statues, and is populated by Hazaras — a minority, Shiite tribe in Afghanistan. It’s now one of the most stable provinces in Afghanistan – with all of one failed IED in 2009, and no insurgency.
I suppose the more pressing question is why I chose to work for women’s rights, specifically. I come from an Indian Muslim family, and have been perpetually conflicted about the rights of women in Islam. I don’t believe that oppression of women is implicit in Islam. I believe in context. I believe that strict adherence to some of the more antiquated tenets of Islam paves the way for the radicalization that results in oppression of women. I am, therefore, especially angered by acts of oppression and violence committed against women in the name of Islam. Because I don’t believe it’s inherent to the religion itself.
Women’s rights issues have to be addressed at a grassroots level (not first via gender policy) – with local organizations. That’s why I’m so excited to work with Shuhada – an Afghan women’s rights NGO that’s been operating for 30 years out of central and northern Afghanistan. I’ll be assisting Shuhada in their ongoing research projects and their program outreach. I’ll also be interviewing program participants in Shuhada’s field offices in central and northern Afghanistan. I’d like to ask program participants whether Shuhada’s initiatives have contributed to community security.
I know that when it comes to Afghanistan, I need to cautiously tread the line between optimism and cynicism. Against my better instincts, though, I’m faulting on the side of hope.