Kabul Days (6)


Kabul Days (6)
by Hossein Shahidi

PARTS: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38

‘Next to Cinema Zeynab’

Saturday, 1 March 2003
Saturday, the beginning of the week for some here and the continuation of an ongoing journey for others, was an exciting day. We went in to the office half an hour earlier than usual because of the stream of meetings and other activities – yes, related to 8 March. I did manage to compile a respectable media kit, with literature on UNIFEM and women’s rights, for media representatives.

I then went to the Ministry of Women’s Affairs to deliver some material we had prepared for their newspaper’s special 8 March edition, and to attend the Minister’s news conference. Before the news conference I popped into the library which has more than 2,000 books - all new and most of them printed in Iran - mostly about women, but also on medicine (including Avicenna’s fantastic Qanoun), literature, politics, as well as collections of the Iranian daily, Zan (Woman), the monthly Zanan (Women) and other newspapers, as well as lots of books for children.

The young librarian told me the books had been donated by Mr Makhmalbaf, who has been living and working in Kabul making films and training Afghan movie-makers. He has also given some films to the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and one of them is due be shown on TV on the occasion of 8 March. The librarian said they had spent $2,000 on a relatively small number of books, but when Parvin [Dr Parvin Paidar, the founding Director of UNIFEM-Afghanistan] visited them, she said they had to get more from Iran. She then arranged for Mr Makhmalbaf to contact the library. He asked for some information about the type of books they wanted and had 2,000 books brought over from Iran in three days.

[Dr Parvin Paidar, my friend, manager and mentor, was a leading Iranian feminist scholar. Her book, Women and the Political Process in Twentieth-Century Iran, (Cambridge University Press, 1997) is not only enlightening on its core issue of women’s rights, but is also one of the best accounts of modern Iranian history. Parvin was a founding editor of the excellent feminist, academic quarterly, Nimeh-ye Digar (The Other Half). She worked with refugees’ and children’s support organizations in Britain, Central Asia and Pakistan before founding UNIFEM’s office in Kabul in 2002. Born in 1949, Parvin passed away in 2005. For more about Parvin, please read her obituary.]

The Minister’s news conference was very informative for me. She gave a good overview of women’s conditions in Afghanistan, what was being done by the government and what needed to be done. She then answered questions for more than half an hour, very calm and collected, clear and firm, but very friendly, even to reporters who had come in late and were asking questions which she had already answered. There were about twenty reporters, two of them men. The questions were varied, but well put and the reporters followed the debate with perseverance.

Sunday, 2 March 2003
Spring has arrived and there are three signs to prove it. Firstly, grass is growing all around us, though it is patchy. Secondly, there are horse-drawn carts around Kabul carrying turf. Thirdly, spring cleaning has begun at our office. Our delightful office assistant, Del-Agha (Mr Heart) has opened the windows, cleaned the glass and wiped the windowsills which were covered in a thick skin of dust. It was so pleasant to have the windows open, feel the fresh air, and see cleanliness take over. Outside, the courtyard of the compound has also been cleaned and tidied up so much that today, even after overnight rain, it was possible not to walk in mud.

Another major move today was the beginning of our Women’s Day events, with a meeting of about 50 women representing more than 40 organisations to discuss various aspects of women’s rights, including Afghan women’s participation in the preparation of the new constitution, the importance of 8 March, and women and trade.

The meeting was held in a wedding hall in East Kabul. Part of the hall was tastefully curtained off for the meeting. We covered the day with a team of five: three young trainee journalists, two of them women, a photographer and the senior journalist who will be training the team on the job and compiling their reports at the end of the fortnight. One of the young women, Nahid Farid, told me she had decided to become a journalist after watching Lyse Doucet on BBC television.

I was so excited about this that I asked for, and got, her permission to write to Lyse about it. At the end of the day, the team came back with three good reports, with interesting differences in approach and perspective, especially between the two women, who wrote mostly about the details of the discussions, and the young man who put in more history and politics.

At the same meeting, I met an Afghan gentleman who had been a journalist and had been persecuted for an article he wrote about ten years ago, but now manages a relief organisation with activities that include projects to help poor women and children who beg on the streets. After chatting for a while, it turned out that he was a great fan of the Iranian scholar, Dr Changuiz Pahlavan, had longed to see him for years, and had finally met him in Kabul last year. I am writing to Dr Pahlavan about this. It’s great to see such appreciation for good work. Dr Pahlavan is one of the few prominent Iranian scholars to have spent a lot of time campaigning for Afghanistan.

On the way back, we passed by a hill with a fort on top of it, and a shade of grass beginning to cover its slopes. Our driver, Hamed, said that in the past the fort had been used as a prison. People would be kidnapped and kept there until their relatives paid the ransom. The fort is old and imposing, with thick brick walls and turrets on all corners. Although it’s tempting to climb up the hill, this can only be done with the permission of the Afghan military who are stationed in the fort, and with guidance to avoid the mines that still litter the slopes.

Further along the road, we passed through a district that in the mid-90s had been divided into two parts ruled by rival Mojahedin factions and still had bullet holes on its walls. But that effect was overshadowed by the movement of people on the streets, meat hanging from hooks in butchers’ shops, fruits and vegetables on carts, and rows of grocers’ shops, many of them full of Iranian goods. An exhibition of Iranian goods has started in Kabul and I hope to go there on Friday.

All around Kabul, there are also many tailors’ shops specialising in wedding clothes, with signs showing men in tuxedos of different colours and women in white bridal gowns. I have seen a couple of ‘bride’s cars’, as we call them in Iran, with flower and ribbon decorations. I do not expect the bride herself to appear in public in a white dress, but I have seen wedding ceremony pictures which show how elaborate the bride’s costume and make-up can be. Under thick layers of dust, debris and destruction, life goes on in full colour.

Afghanistan is wonderful. I noticed today that the address of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs simply reads: Next to Cinema Zeynab.

Monday, 3 March 2003
Once again, we went in early. My first assignment was with our group of reporters. To my surprise and delight, all three had re-written their reports, two of them substantially. It is obvious that they are interested and keen. We spent some time looking at basic journalistic skills – looking and listening; counting and measuring; and assessing what one has seen and heard.

We then looked at a selection of great pictures taken by Manoocher Deghati during last year’s Loya Jirga (Grand Assembly) in Afghanistan which endorsed the current administration. The pictures, about twenty that I had chosen out of some one hundred, were mostly of women taking part in the political debate and in the voting – some of them fully covered in the burqa’. This year’s Women’s Day meeting will be held at the same place as the Loya Jirga and it will be interesting to see how this audience compares to last year’s.

Having asked several people for the names and addresses of the media professionals in Kabul, we now have a list of about 50 organisations, the most important newspapers as well as the international media. To these we are sending invitations for the 8 March celebration – although as journalists they should know about it already – as well as some information about UNIFEM and women’s rights. The aim is to focus their minds on the subject and perhaps raise questions that they would like to take up in their coverage.

In the evening, just before going home, we learned that today was our Filipina colleague Ermie’s birthday. [Ermelita (Ermie) Valdeavilla, one of the most cheerful people I have met, was received equally cheerfully by all who met her. She worked as an advisor to the Minister of Women’s Affairs, Dr Habiba Sarabi, and is now with UN Women in the Philippines.]  On the way home, I went to the Flower Street, which is next to Chicken Street, to get Ermie a bouquet of flowers. The shop was nearly full of artificial bouquets, plus a few buckets full of fresh roses and gladiolas from Pakistan.

I wanted to go and have a look at some other shops, but the young florist said I would find exactly the same thing everywhere, because there was only one flower wholesaler around. I stayed and bought a bouquet from him. He had spent a year in Tehran working at a florist’s, and said although the Iranian florists were very good, the Afghans too could be good, if they had the resources. Judging by the way he arranged our flowers, I would agree.

Driving around downtown Kabul in the evening is a very interesting experience. After a few weeks spent almost entirely in the UN guest house, the UN compound and the UN vehicle, it is nice to see people moving about, shopping or going to restaurants lit up with fluorescent lights. Given a few years and a lot of support, Kabul could easily look like many other big cities in Asia. There will still be lots of poverty, but the city will have a less beaten and anxious feel about it.

Today I saw, for the third time in the past month, one of the most vital members of our little guest-house community – Latifa, the lady who cleans the house and does the laundry. Latifa comes in after we’ve gone, cleans the place spotlessly, does the laundry and leaves well before we reach home, to see our washed clothes either hanging neatly to dry, or ironed and neatly folded.

Like all the people I have met, there is an air of dignity about Latifa, a mixture of self-respect and modesty. She has a very kind and gentle appearance and the great care that she takes with her work indicates something more than someone who’s just doing a job.

Tuesday, 4 March 2003
Women’s events, meetings, exhibitions and celebrations are now well underway. One aid agency has organised a sale of Afghan handicrafts with a big, colourful billboard on the square at the edge of our neighbourhood, where the Siemens billboard used to stand for several weeks, before it was replaced by one encouraging the use of polio vaccines.

Today our team of three reporters, two photographers and a senior journalist covered six events and came back with lots of notes that had much more detail than yesterday’s, and pictures that had a lot more movement and colour. The reporters were a bit tired, but still very enthusiastic. Young Nahid was pleased to hear Lyse Doucet’s regards and wishes for her success, from Cairo where Lyse is covering the Arab League summit.

We put together UNIFEM information packs for some fifty journalists, with invitations to various events and, of course, a copy of our glorious flyer. We now have an impressive list of about twenty of Afghanistan’s best women journalists, although there are many more in Kabul and the provinces whom we need to reach as soon as possible.

I had two meetings with visitors today. First with a French aid worker from a group who publish one magazine and distribute about ten more. They get young children who would otherwise be begging to sell newspapers, very cheaply, rather like the Big Issue in Britain, which is sold by adults. The group have encouraged stationers to sell newspapers, and have also provided the paper boys with orange coloured carts which they pedal around, in Kabul and a number of other cities.

The French group would like to expand their activities by publishing a women’s magazine with lots of pictures and images, so it would appeal to the semi-literate, or perhaps even the illiterate. They’ll be giving it away for free, as a supplement with their general publication, for a few months, hoping that the men will give it to their womenfolk. Once it is established, they hope, they would start charging for it. This is a great idea, considering that the illiteracy rate in Afghanistan is estimated at 80% for men and 90% for women. What they would like us to do is to support them during some of their free distribution months.

The second meeting was with a group of three men from the central province of Ghor who gave a detailed account of their own district, La’l wa Sarjangal (Ruby and Forest Head), about 350 kilometres from Kabul.

[La’l wa Sarjangal is mountainous and has a very cold dry weather (almost a five-month winter). According to the ‘District Profile’ published by the United Nations High Commissoner for Refugees (UNCH), 21 October 2002, ‘Most of the returnee population live in destroyed houses or are hosted by relatives/families … There is no clean drinking water in the whole area of the district except Safidab village in Sarjangal.  Women and children collect water, four –five rounds a day according to their needs.  In some areas families travel up to 4 km. to collect water …Large number of unemployed youth travel to Iran or Kabul for work opportunities in the period of spring up to autumn …

[Few women are employed in the district. Often women and children assist the male family members in the fields.  All marriages are arranged. According to the villagers the average age of marriage for girls is 11.  In most areas women participate in religious ceremonies.

[Children:  Most of the children who do not attend school assist their families in the field activities during the day, and the children attending school help their families after class. Children help in collecting the harvest, collecting bushes for firewood/heating, pasturing livestock and collecting water for the family.’ Information on the district in Persian is available here.]

The group included the district governor, a former teacher who had returned from Iran, and a man in his seventies who was introduced as a former doctor. The old man had a fascinating face, small, lined, with bright almond eyes behind thick glasses, a thin grey goatee, and a turban. The glasses aside, he looked like the pictures of men in the miniatures, especially those that used to illustrate Khayyam’s Rubai’yat. He is now one of the village elders who make a range of decisions, including the building of roads and schools.

The old man, who was referred to as ‘Haji Doctor’, a doctor who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca, later explained that he had learned medicine while helping doctors as an assistant many years ago. During the war years, because of the shortage of medical staff, he had had to treat patients and perform operations, including one on a man who had had ‘his intestines blown out of his stomach’ – though not completely – and ‘had walked in the mountains in that state for four days’. The ‘Haji Doctor’ had stitched up the man’s wounds and kept him on intravenous infusion for twenty-five days, and he was now fine. Altogether, ‘the doctor’ said, he had operated on one-thousand people in the mountains.

The delegation had come to UNIFEM to get help for a women’s association they have started.  The above summary of the state of their district explains why no women had made the journey – although a member of the women’s association had come to Kabul a few weeks ago, and had been interviewed by a newspaper, but she had not known about UNIFEM. Now, the male delegation had been informed by my friend, Dr Mousavi, that they could approach UNIFEM for help. I did point out that once they had thought through their projects and wanted to present them for aid, they would need to let the women speak for themselves. They agreed and said they would do so – once they have been back to the district, which they cannot reach at the moment, the roads being closed because of winter.

The district has a population of 154,000, with a 90% illiteracy rate among women, two schools for women, and plans to set up eight more in the next twelve months. The governor said although women had suffered most during the war, they were completely unaware of their rights. They are confined to their homes, without the chance to work and earn an income.

Recently, the governor had given a speech in support of women’s rights. A woman who had liked the speech had said so to her husband, only to be told that if she had liked the speech so much, she should go and marry the speaker. The governor said he had been disappointed to hear that his speech had caused problems in a household. I thought the episode showed that such speeches worked, and the husband’s anger was to be expected.

The province used to rely on farming and animal husbandry. Four years of drought have destroyed 80% of agriculture. Lack of fodder to keep the cows and sheep and the need to buy food for the people had led to the sale of 95% of the cattle. Last year, the province had received food donations from the Red Cross. Although no one had died of starvation, last spring there had been up to 70 deaths due to eating grass.

The entire province has only three clinics, one for TB and leprosy, another for outpatient treatment, and the third, and most important, a mother-and-child clinic. Most deaths in Afghanistan are related to child birth, putting the country at the top of a sad list. The governor told us the story of a man whose wife and their 4 or 5 year old daughter had been ill and he had decided to take the mother to the clinic, leaving the girl behind in the care of other family members.

He puts his wife on a donkey for the 9-hour journey to the district capital. They receive medication at the hospital, but are forced to spend the night in the district capital because of the woman’s poor health. On their way back to the village the next day, the donkey drops out and they have to walk the rest of the distance. At home, they find that their daughter has died – because of lack of treatment and malnutrition, the cause of most deaths among children under the age of ten in Afghanistan.

In addition to help with the women’s association, the delegation also needed help to arrange the repatriation of educated Afghan women from Iran. The former teacher said that in Iran, he had arranged for male Afghan high-school graduates to go to university in Russia - from where they had now gone to the West – and for women to join universities in Iran – 65 in Isfahan and 70 in the eastern city of  Birjand – where they had studied mid-wifery and were now ready to work.

About twenty of these women could be returned to Afghanistan with support from the International Organization for Migration, IOM, provided another organisation, such as UNIFEM, undertook to invite them to Afghanistan. The IOM would give them $600 for their travel costs and $200 a month as their salary for a period of six months to one year. The district had invited more than 400 Afghan professionals to return. The costs involved are minimal, and a reflection of the state of the economy in Afghanistan, rather than the level of the Afghan professionals’ skills. Still, given a chance – which really means peace and security, especially for women – their return could help bring about substantial and sustainable recovery.

La’l wa Sarjangal is one of more than 300 districts in Afghanistan, most of them in pretty much the same condition as La’l. You already have some idea of food, transport, health and education in the district. To give you a fuller picture of life there, all I need to tell you is the range of needs cited by the delegation: literacy classes in villages; help with crafts and agriculture; courses in weaving; and other skills for women.

This has not been a cheerful letter, but such is a big part of life in Afghanistan.



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Azadeh Azad

Thank you, Mr. Shahidi

by Azadeh Azad on

Your journal of Afghanistan is most informative and educational. Thank you so much for your positive endeavours regarding Afghan women.

I was not aware of Parvin Paydar's passing. That's very sad. I wrote many articles for Nimeye-Digar. Parvin and Afsaneh's initiative was indeed vitally needed after the 1979 Uprising.

Thanks again,