Afghanistan

I was a female expatriate worker in Afghanistan

Source
Posted
Originally published
Origin
View original
Sian Hawkins spent six years in Afghanistan. She reveals what it was like to be a female expatriate worker there while the Taliban were in control.

I lived and worked in Afghanistan from January 1999 to January 2005.

My very first impression of Afghanistan was of its beauty.

The people who got to know us were generous, kind and hospitable. Those who didn't get to know us were anxious and wary of us and tended to treat us with suspicion.

However, because the Taliban were then in power, there was an almost tangible air of oppression. People were afraid.

I was in Herat for four years, working with a mental health project, and in Kabul for two years with a disaster management project.

The project in Herat was initially a counselling group, started by a Swiss physiotherapist, to help women who were self-harming - setting themselves alight, for example - and suffering stress and bereavement problems.

The Taliban, uncomfortable with the dynamic of women getting together for that purpose, insisted that the project rid itself of its local female staff.

The project evolved into a psychiatric clinic, run by two women - an expatriate and a local - which focused on identification of people with potential mental health problems, awareness-raising and on community training for village elders, including the local mullah, in mental health identification in all community members.

I designed, implemented and managed the project with the help of two expatriate colleagues.

The Disaster Management Programme focused on enabling communities to return to their homes after the fighting, and helping them to be less vulnerable to hazards such as floods, drought or earthquake. It involved some physical building and a lot of community training for men and women.

I was Deputy Programme Manager for the programme, but oversaw the Three Grain Food project, undertook staff training, project design, fund-raising, donor liaison and oversaw the women's community training. While the Programme Manager was away, I covered for him.

I'd gone hoping to have a lot of contact with local women through my work but the authorities frowned upon that as undesirable, so initially I had no direct contact with women.

That meant my working mainly with men in a very male-dominated society and although I developed good relationships with my male colleagues, I missed having local female friends.

Male/female relations were tightly ordered and structured.

I had to stand in for the Regional Manager when she was absent. I also had to negotiate with the Ministry of Health and that of Foreign Affairs. Much of whether those negotiations proved relatively smooth, tough or very tough depended on the individual characters of the Ministers involved.

It was difficult as an expatriate and not simply because of the assumption that you must be preaching the Gospel on street corners - not just if you were a Christian; any Westerner is assumed to be a Christian and therefore intent on proselytism.

It was also because you were seen, to an extent justifiably, as extolling a Western way of life and Western values by arguing and promoting equality and inclusion of women and people with learning disabilities - concepts that are not traditionally Afghan ones.

Such promotion and praxis is testimony to a different way of being. That is viewed as being at the expense of Afghan culture and the traditional way of life.

You have to understand the centrality to the Afghan mind-set of the concepts of 'honour' and 'shame'.

Honour is seen as being held in women and is, therefore, inherently vulnerable because family or community honour can be lost if a woman is seen as having behaved shamefully (for example, showing her face or talking to men).

This is the most powerful concept in Afghan tradition, and it is for this reason that women are not encouraged to take an active part in life - not because they are inherently inferior but because the honour of the family can be lost.

A woman doesn't have to do anything wrong to lose the family honour; it can be taken from them by someone else.

I wore baggy trousers and, on top of them, a dress or a skirt, which had to be culturally acceptable - it needed to have no slits and be of sufficient length. The top had to have long sleeves. I also wore a very big headscarf, so long that, when wrapped around your head, it would sometimes trail on the ground behind you.

You appreciated such clothing in winter when it was effective at keeping you warm but in mid-summer, when it might be 45°C, you would broil.

I could drive a car but couldn't ride a motorbike, except around a compound. Some female expatriates rode bicycles.

In the UN or Red Cross compounds you could play some sport. I had a kick bag in the garden to do karate, etc, but, again, that was only viable in a compound.

Ironically, in terms of risk, security was so much better when the Taliban were in control. There were fewer robberies and no kidnappings.

It was only toward the end of 2004/the beginning of 2005, when I was about to leave, that bombings in cities and kidnappings became more common.

Because contact with local people was at such a premium and a prime aspiration of some expatriate workers, people like me might walk to work and use local shops and the bazaar. UN workers wouldn't risk walks like that.

In terms of advising a woman who was considering service in Afghanistan today, I would have to admit that the reality of the situation doesn't communicate.

I was given lots of advice before I went out to Afghanistan but there was a sense in which one believed that "God has called me and he will protect me while I am there". The reality was very difficult but being pre-warned doesn't necessarily prepare you for the reality.

Once there, the impact of it strikes home - things such as not laughing out loud in public because that's viewed as provocative in women, and not walking home alone after dark - as to the latter, I confess that I occasionally chose to ignore the advice I'd been given.

One of the striking things about Afghanistan was the fact that local people didn't tell each other of their fears and anxieties because they didn't trust each other at all, but they'd talk to expatriates about their concerns.

Another was the truth that some people positively liked the Taliban because they had brought stability and security, whereas the Northern Alliance had continued fighting and had looted and robbed dwellings. It was a shock to find that people supported them.

As to the reason given by the Taliban for shooting Gayle Williams, the accusation of her allegedly "spreading Christian propaganda", that claim is quite likely to be a post-hoc justification of the killing.

Afghans have a looser definition of what "spreading Christian propaganda" might entail; for them it can simply cover working in a local community and being among local people.

Gayle Williams was on her way to the French Bakery - a common hangout for foreigners. The Taliban just needed to hang around long enough and they would have found a foreigner visiting it. It could have been anyone who was shot. It's highly unlikely that it was that targeted specifically at her.

When you read news about aid workers such as Gayle being killed in Afghanistan, remember, many good and kind Afghan people will be devastated that the support that they might be receiving from such aid workers and such a project has been damaged and thwarted.

Also, aid workers' families there currently will be obliged to leave the country as a result of such deaths. It will be devastating for them. Afghanistan is their home.