On July 8, Afghanistan’s first female nominee for the country’s supreme court, Anisa Rassouli, failed to win enough votes in parliament, coming up just nine votes short of necessary 97 required for her nomination to pass. One member of Parliament, Qazi Nazeer Hanafi, voiced objection to Rassouli’s nomination on the grounds that menstruating women are considered unclean in Islam, not even being allowed to touch the Qur’an. Hanafi reasoned Rassouli’s nomination should be opposed as judges put their hands on the holy book every day and it’s unrealistic for a judge to take a week off every month.
Afghan women are no strangers to such discrimination. In her first book, “Dispatches from the Kabul Café,” Canadian foreign correspondent Heidi Kingstone recounts stories of life in the final years of ISAF-controlled Kabul from 2007 to 2011. After reading “Dispatches,” I took the opportunity to chat with Kingstone and ask her a few questions about the book, as well as her time in Afghanistan. Her experience covering human rights issues and conflict provides a completely unique insight into the situation of women in Afghanistan.
My first question to her related to motivation. What, I asked, drives a woman to cover stories in some of the most distressed and neglected places on the planet? Apparently, Kingstone has always felt empathy for the underdog. “I suppose that lead to the way I looked at the world and the stories that interested me,” she said, “and the ones I tried to cover, even though they were very often not the most popular ones. I found myself compelled by those stories, by the people and how so many times life is just a lottery.”
The lottery metaphor is extremely fitting when it comes to life in Afghanistan, where simply being born a woman means having few or no rights and minimal education. However, change is not so simple. “Cultures and traditions are different, and sometimes, that is also a very difficult thing to accept,” asserts Kingstone. “We want change for Afghan women so they can be like us, free and independent, but it is hardly straightforward, and change is difficult in all cultures and it takes time, which we didn’t allow for.”
Of course, this different culture is exactly one of the reasons Kingstone felt moved to write “Dispatches”: “I found the situation in Afghanistan completely fascinating and I wanted to preserve, not only my memories but this unique period in time.”And what were her goals and intentions in writing the book?
I wanted people who hadn’t been there to feel that they were experiencing the same things I did by reading the book, which I hope I have done, and to open a window on a part of Afghanistan that wasn’t written about very much.
The topic certainly is a treasure trove, and Kingstone’s book incorporates tales involving “an amazing assortment of people,” including everyone from local Afghans to missionaries to security contractors and military personnel, all of whom were working to rebuild this broken country. For Kingstone, and those like her working in Afghanistan, “it is a place that makes us feel so alive.” She is not surprised by the fact that many – including herself – become addicted to this type of living, because “[r]eal life feels mundane after … living on the edge of someone else’s war, and the excitement and intensity that goes along with that.”
Yet every war has its casualties, and in Afghanistan the largest demographic affected is women and girls. While there is a desire for change, “establishing equal rights for women in Afghanistan has long been a tricky, and not very successful, endeavor,” says Kingstone. “Afghan women are largely illiterate, most live in rural villages, and outside of sub-Saharan Africa, Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world. People need to figure out where their next meal is coming from and how to be safe. Unlike in the West, it’s virtually impossible for women to be independent of their families — and many could not survive on their own without skills or education.” Even now, more than a decade after the Taliban was removed from power, literacy is staggeringly low, with female literacy levels averaging 17%.
Unfortunately, enforceable rights for Afghan women and girls are most likely a long shot. Security is the main concern for the Afghan population, according to Kingstone. Afghans “want a government that provides services to the population around the whole country, not just in Kabul. They want to know if they send their children to school, the children will be safe and not targeted by more extreme elements of society who might kill them or throw acid in their faces.” Without education and economic empowerment women will continue to be second-class citizens in Afghanistan. The only way to facilitate change, however slow it may be, is to keep Afghan women from falling off the radar of public interest, “which is why … international support for women’s education and economic empowerment remains vital.”
“My hope,” says Kingstone, “is that there will be equality and humanity, but that is a long way off. Estimates are that 87% of Afghan women suffer from domestic abuse, an incredible statistic that I find impossible to reconcile.” Many worry that the advances made in the past decade will “be rolled back” even with the election of a new president. If the situation in rural villages is anything to go on, it is a founded fear, as little has changed despite a Constitution preserving women’s rights. Laws have been enacted, though they are rarely enforced. When asked if she sees the treatment and opportunities for education of Afghan women and girls improving, Kingstone replied, “At this point everything is in the balance, and there is no categorical answer. I hope the situation will improve, but you would need a crystal ball to predict the future with much accuracy.”