September 15, 2010

A Woman's View of Afghanistan

The evening before the ninth anniversary of September 11th,  I attended a talk given by American photojournalist, Paula Lerner, who discussed the lives of Afghan women today. Lerner has collaborated with The Globe and Mail's (an excellent news source) Jessica Leeder to produce a series of multimedia presentations called Behind the Veil, a look into the experience of being a women in Afghanistan.  I highly recommend checking out all the website has to offer: vibrant interviews and on-the-ground knowledge of the current Afghan situation from the view of the women, who I believe are the most affected by the strife currently plaguing a country that has so captivated the Western world.

During her talk, Lerner spoke about her travels to Afghanistan and what it is like to be an American female freelance journalist reporting from one of the most dangerous places in the world.

Things I learned/realized from this talk:
  • Due to Islamic customs, Afghan women are not allowed to be in the presence of men who are not their family members, therefore male journalists cannot report the stories of these women. Therefore, it is only the female journalist who can tell the story of the Afghan woman, which signifies the incredible importance of training intelligent, compassionate female journalists and sending them safely to places such as Afghanistan to tell the underreported stories of groups whose story might be missed due to local laws and mores.
  • Security is at an all-time low in Afghanistan - the epicenter of danger residing in Kandahar. Kabul is relatively safer place, so Lerner has done most of her reporting there. The fact that the Behind the Veil takes place in Kandahar makes it all the more fascinating that a Western female journalist was able to report these stories of women who were brave enough to risk their lives for the interview.
  • Despite the strict Sharia customs, Afghan women have found ways to make a living, mostly by sewing or beekeeping, both of which can be done at home and do not cut into the industries of men. An example of this is Kandahar Treasure, a soon-to-be online marketplace that sells the wares of Afghan women working to support their families. Their income means protection for themselves and also for their daughters. Young girls are married off when their family needs money. Additional income earned by Afghan women mean that Afghan daughters may have more time to be little girls. 
Much of the conversation after Lerner's talk centered around gender issues, and many people decried the chauvinistic, oppressive nature of Afghan men. On this point, I take issue about the often superficial level of criticism. I do not believe that berating the male gender will solve any problem (in fact, it may exacerbate the issue). Most areas in Afghanistan where Sharia law is strictly enforced are controlled by the Taliban, a select group of male extremists who instill fear through display of menace and force. An entire group should not be condemned for the actions of a few members. In fact, many Afghan men support the liberation and rights of women but might be killed if they voiced/showed their opinions too loudly. The situation for Afghan women is not black and white but rather a rare grey color not unlike the veil worn by a Kandahari woman as she discreetly makes her way down the street.

Photo credit: Paula Lerner 

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