'Men use Islam to do whatever they want'

For her, there’s no doubt about it: women in Afghanistan are treated as second-class citizens. That certainty is a continuous source of pain, anger and motivation to keep working, because she is convinced that another world for women is possible. Razia Arefi coordinates the activities of Mothers for Peace in Afghanistan.

We meet each other for the first time in Kabul, 2011. Razia Arefi brings me to the waiting room of a neighbourhood health centre, where women and children wait their turn to visit the female doctor on duty, or where they cling to Razia because they didn’t get a number. Noeria, for example, walked for a couple of hours to get here, but she arrived too late. The government imposes a maximum of fifty consultations per day and unfortunately Razia Arefi has to follow this rule.

In the conversations with these women, the repression of the late nineties and the Taliban years recurs like a nightmare of which the memory doesn’t fade away. They dream of a better life for their daughters and education plays a key role in this.

Exactly two years later I ask Razia what she dreams of. She has everything the women in the Kabul neighbourhood of Dast-e-Barchi and in the women’s centre of Istalif lack: she is well educated, has a challenging job, lots of freedom and a good marriage. “Peace”, she says without much hesitation. “A definitive end to the nightmare of the Taliban violence. When there is peace, women can work out their own future plans.” When I insist on a more personal dream, she simply says seriously: “I hope to be able to continue working for women in an honest and sincere way.”

Studying

Razia Arefi was born in December 1980. Tens of thousands of Soviet soldiers had been present in Afghanistan for nearly a year to sustain a communist regime that was barely supported by its own population. Her parents fled and she grew up in Teheran, far away from the violence, insecurity and privation of the wars that destroyed the economy and culture of Afghanistan, and changed the old fragile relations between ethnic, religious and linguistic communities into complex enmities.

Millions of Afghans survived the years of war as refugees in Pakistan or Iran. Both countries offered education and healthcare without much support from the international community. “We didn’t live in a traditional Afghan way, but like Iranians”, says Razia. “Iran gives girls and women many possibilities. You can’t choose the way you dress on the street, but that doesn’t matter to me. You could study there, and that is what’s important.”

Her parents also valued education for their seven children, boys and girls. When her father chose a husband for Razia this was an important criterion: it had to be someone who studied and who would let his bride do the same. She was fifteen, he was thirty.

“If I’m standing where I am today, then it’s thanks to my husband”, Razia Arefi says. He encouraged her to finish her studies, to learn English, to work outside the home. Yet their first years of marriage weren’t carefree. When after four years there was still no baby, her husband’s family started insisting on a second marriage to secure posterity. “The birth of my first child, a son, was therefore the happiest day of my life. An enormous burden fell from my shoulders.”

And what day was the most painful in her young life? To that question the answer comes arduously. “There is no one moment that stands out. Life in Afghanistan is a series of hard moments. Every time I hear how men treat their wives I get upset.” She tells the story of a woman who was repeatedly pregnant with girls. Every time she was snubbed, humiliated and sometimes even abused. When she was pregnant again her husband threatened her: “If it’s a girl again, I’ll kill you and the child.” ‘How is that possible?’ Razia asks indignantly.

Taliban are modern

The biggest problem in Afghanistan is the insecurity, that’s obvious to her. The second problem she calls “the tradition”: ‘Men use Islam to do what they want. Yet Islam says women have equal rights to education and respect as men, and that a man should ask permission from his first wife before he marries a another woman. But it is very difficult to go against the mullahs. People trust their word and insight. The problem is that Islam and the Quran are exclusively explained by men. It’s time that women do these sorts of studies too, so that they can read and interpret the texts themselves.’

The Afghan cocktail of tribal traditions and very conservative Islam entrenched in a patriarchal system is mostly perceived in the West as medieval. The misogynistic and repressive ideology in its extremist form embodied by the Taliban but to a certain extent applied everywhere in Afghanistan, is in fact a modern phenomenon. The Taliban ideology, many experts say, is a reflection of a warped world, starting in Pakistani refugee camps, where the usual communication between men and women was replaced – at least for boys – with a regimented world of the madrasas where the Quran was studied and women were totally absent – except in the fire and brimstone sermons where they where portrayed as sources of seduction and sin.

In that context, Afghan traditions became rigid, dogmatic doctrines imposed with violence on women, the poor and anyone who couldn’t defend themselves. It is that “tradition” that filled the cities with people abandoning the countryside that was destroyed by gunshots. Kabul was a city of 500,000 residents in 2001, today estimations point to four million or more inhabitants.

Her own family and that of her husband didn’t belong to the circles that stayed faithful to the traditions of the countryside, nor those that were essentially forced to go along with the recent Islamist reinventions of those traditions. Their roots lay more in the vanished urban history of the middle class that lived with a view on the West in the twenties of the past century. The reform plans launched by King Amanollah in 1928 resembled the modernising projects of Kemal Atatürk in Turkey and Reza sjah Pahlavi in Iran.

The progressive family environment should not be understood as including complete equality between women and men, Razia Arefi says. That is not even a goal. She does the housekeeping. There’s no discussion about that, even when she has a full-time job. On the other hand she has more freedom than many European women, partly because of the fact that her husband is currently on a diplomatic mission in Islamabad, Pakistan. One month she lives with him, the other she lives alone in Kabul.

How exceptional is a man who supports and trusts his wife that way? ‘Very exceptional’, Razia says. ‘Maybe he is unique.’ And that she says with more of a sociologist than a romantic tone. During a meeting in Ieper, where Mothers for Peace arranged an internship for three Afghan gynaecologists, it appeared that two of the three female doctors had an exceptional man as well. The third didn’t take the risk: she would rather stay single.

The status of the man

Men. In their own minds they are the centre of civilisation, but they also dominate the stories that Razia, her doctors and her co-workers in the field tell. They are not interested in the well being of their women or daughters, but in their own status in the community. They are the source of violence, oppression and subordination. They form an almost insurmountable barrier to progress. Almost. Because ‘even men today think differently to ten years ago’. Right after the overthrow of the Taliban regime, Mothers for Peace set up a women’s house in the rural area of Istalif, about 25 kilometres northwest of Kabul. The local village council, the sjura, didn’t trust it. Did those European women come to turn their women’s heads?

The distrust disappeared when men understood that literacy is a necessary skill for economic projects that could benefit the whole family. At the same time the fact that they could read, write and count gave the women a bigger say in the family and in the outside world. The fact that women could contribute to the family income thanks to needlework, chicken breeding or other activities made an enormous contribution to emancipation, Razia Arefi says.

Not everyone agrees. Sippi Azarbaijani-Moghadam, a British-Iranian development expert who has worked in Afghanistan since the nineties: ‘The development plans of the government and the international donors all speak highly of the participation of women, but it is not operative enough. To really have an effect, you don’t need to teach women how to sew or make jam – that often actually adds extra work pressure and conflicts about income – but you need to make men think about their masculinity.’

Razia agrees with the need to deal with men and let them think about their own position and identity. But that’s not something Mothers for Peace has time for: ‘We don’t go head-on against the prevailing ruling habits because that would deprive women of the chance to come together, to talk and learn new things. We don’t want to endanger those small freedoms by waving Western slogans about equality and freedom.’

Intimidation

The careful handling of traditions, habits and religious regulations is not only necessary to convince men, because ‘not only men are responsible for the violence against women or for the barriers to their development and freedom of movement. Women – mothers and sisters-in-law – also reinforce traditional obligations and prohibitions. Often it is not a case of repeating what those women went through themselves: when your mother-in-law delivered a baby home, she will probably insist that her daughter-in-law does the same.’ Change is innovation and thus threatening. In an environment that has known no rest or security for 35 years, those anchor points from the past are essential to help deal with the present and the future.

Yet Razia slowly sees cracks appearing in the armour of patriarchal securities. You don’t change a culture in three or ten years, but it is also not impossible, she says. ‘In Shakardara the governmental head of education didn’t believe in the feasibility of our literacy project, but when the first class finished her program and he saw what they learned that year, he suspended his disbelief and apologised. In the second year he sent his daughters too.’

Still it continues, twelve years after the arrival of Western troops and development workers, it is life-threatening to be a strong, independent woman. Around the New Year, a young woman who worked in the media disappeared. She was later found murdered. Two other girls left their job in the media. Intimidation and terror are often very effective in the short term, even when you’re not completely sure from which corner the cold wind blows.

How does Razia deal with the fear in her life? ‘I accept the dangers’, she answers. ‘I make no space in my thoughts for the threat, even when it is sometimes very real.’ And that threat doesn’t always come from the muzzle of a gun. According to the United Nations, 460 mothers die per 100,000 births, and only 5.8 percent of girls finish high school, compared to 34 percent of boys. Among 148 countries that were assessed on gender equality, Afghanistan ranks 147th.

‘Before, no one complained about violence against women, particularly not in rural areas. But now that people realise things can be different, the discussion is growing, no matter how slow that is.’ That was the conclusion of a conversation I had with Razia Arefi in the women’s centre of Istalif. In that rural municipality with around 40,000 residents, there lives someone from Mothers for Peace who regularly attends the village council or sjura, and now there’s even a woman’s sjura installed. That’s not the result of an aggressive, imported feminism, but of a patient investment in making women able to voice their concerns and contribute to the development of the entire community. Razia claims it is not the goal to change the culture, but that is what is happening precisely by not emphasizing it.

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