Herat is hot as hell. Kabul isn’t exactly balmy but Herat is one of those places where you literally sweat through your clothing but don’t have the energy to care. You begin to sweat while you are drying off from a shower. You covet the circulation of rancid air by dingy fans. But most of all you question why a two day workshop for fifty women, all of whom wear a considerable amount of clothing, would be held in a basement.
As the women arrived at the conference, many in burka, it was clear that our turnout was going to be good. The workshop, targeted at leading activists, lawyers, educators and direct service providers had two main goals: 1) to identify the major obstacles in advancing the social and legal rights of women and, 2) to devise a technical strategy for networking the participants’ skills and contacts so as to begin to take action. Part two, on day two was all me. My section was aimed at deciding if, or how, the women could join forces, network their skills and maximize their messages.
The first day was heavy on background information. It was conducted in Dari and while my translator was more than able to keep up, it was wholly exhausting to listen to her whisper in one ear while the sounds of incomprehensible debates raged in the other. It felt like I was reading Dostoyevsky with my ears.
Irrespective of the language barrier it was clear that these were women who came together for a purpose. They were there to debate the big ideas. They were there to come up with solutions. They were there to strengthen their organizations. They were ready for results. There is something contagious about being in a room with decision-makers. There is something awesome about being surrounded by people who are so committed to their issues and so sure of their goals that they fight with the very energy that keeps them alive.
I gave them homework at the end of day one to prep for day two. I asked them to think about the pros and cons of combining organizations. I asked them to define a social network. I asked them about their expectations for collaboration. The funders of the conference – Christian Aid (CA) -were wary about the homework. They warned me to be careful about imposing my norms – such as homework – on a group of women from a different culture. They warned me of the dangers of western women projecting their values on Afghan women. They warned me to keep in mind the importance of the women coming up with their own plans, in their own words. Most of all I was told to keep my opinions to myself.
After a brief ice-breaker involving string as a metaphor for interconnectedness (let it go, my mom is an elementary school teacher) I walked up to the white board and began to timidly ask open-ended questions.
I gently re-directed those questions asked of me back to the participants. I kept emphasizing my desire to hear what others thought. About ten minutes into this performance a woman named Soriya (who runs the most successful domestic violence organization in the country) raised her hand and asked me why I was leading the discussion. She wanted to know why I was standing before them, claiming to help them work through crucial issues, when I had no opinions or advice to offer. She asked me to respect the women in the room. She asked me to trust them with my thoughts and honor them with my experience. I looked around the room as she spoke and saw fifty women nodding their heads. Finally Soriya looked at me and asked me why I thought a network of organizations is important to the advancement of women’s rights.
So I told them that I believe the power of the collective outweighs the power of the individual. I told them that while issues, definitions, laws, solutions and rituals may vary from culture to culture, violence and discrimination against women must not be tolerated. I told them that the fight for women’s rights is unpopular from America to Afghanistan and unless the movement is strong – in voice and number – their rights will be happily ignored. I told them that I believe they, as prominent national and local women, have a moral and social obligation to put their voices together for change.
No one missed a beat. No one wanted to talk about my soliloquy. My words were not inspiration, they were entree. It is very strange to feel trust happen. It usually creeps up on you, grows over time and makes itself known in the most subdued of ways. But time is different here. Urgency is palpable. From the moment I called on the first person the discussion that would last for the next five hours began. They challenged me on everything I said. They pushed me to go deeper than I was prepared to dig on any number of topics.
After the meeting Soriya approached me and said she understood why I was reluctant to inject my own opinions but Afghanistan isn’t the place for passive observers. She said that if you truly believe in the women you are working with then you must truly believe in their ability to make their own decisions. You must believe that they have the ability to reject you.
Posted By Erica Isaac (Afghanistan)
Posted Jun 28th, 2006