The following is the text from the speech I gave at the Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service on the evening of 9/11. The night was truly amazing. I didn't realize how important it would be to put my feelings and ideas down on paper. There is so much to think about that so many things simply have no place in my brain. There are so many things to think about I find that until it is absolutely crucial, like needing to have something to say in front of a discerning group, I avoid thinking about the big picture. I think it would be impossible to wake up everyday and do my job if I allowed myself to think of all the possibilities of a given day. Writing this speech gave me the space to begin the process of making the hard connections. It is rough and raw but it is the beginning of something.
May every human life be pure, transparent freedom.
- Simone De Beauvoir
Let me begin by saying thank you to all of the people who made this event possible. It is hard enough to pull an evening like this together in just a few months but indescribably more difficult when you are forced to coordinate with people living in Afghanistan. Between the time difference and our less than reliable work conditions (no power, no internet) tonight’s organizers – Elizabeth Norman, Heather Malin, Jason Sunshine, Katty Jones, Lisa Taylor and Professor John Gershman – are a testament to dedication. I would also like to thank Carrie Hasselback, Craig Berkenpas and Tom Purekal for being here tonight. Carrie is on her way back to Afghanistan, Craig on his way home from Afghanistan and Tom, in from DC, returned from Afghanistan about a month ago. Though I rely on each of their wisdom, humor, guidance and support more than I am comfortable with, I take incredible comfort in the knowledge that ten years from now I will be able to relive Afghanistan in each of their eyes. Carrie, this speech is equal parts both of us – thank you having the words and vision when I am off roaming the fields of abstraction with no clarity in sight. Two peas, one pod as we say.
Finally, I would like to acknowledge Dean Schall and the vision of Wagner she has brought to life. A year ago this summer I went to the Wagner orientation. In addition to a humiliating group skit that still haunts me today, we were promised an education, a community and a new way of thinking. At the time I remember thinking the spiel sounded good but I was, as always, skeptical. It wasn’t until I found myself working in Kabul for a local NGO that I realized just how valuable the skills we learn in our Wagner classrooms – from stats (yes, I said it, stats) to log frames – really are. It wasn’t until I found myself working half way around the world that I realized just how far the promise of community and support and endorsement really goes.
Wagner is one of the only schools in the country with the words public service – rather than affairs – in its name. I think it is essential to learn how to serve. I think it is essential to learn how to be professional, efficient and effective – not just dedicated and passionate – when working on behalf of cause-based organizations. Working as a public servant affords you the honor of speaking about, and often for, whole segments of the population that have no voice. Wagner prepares you to do this with the integrity and expertise that is fitting for such an enormous task.
Coming up with my remarks for tonight’s event was far more difficult than I imagined. For some reason I pictured it being easier to pull my thoughts together from home, from NYC. I imagined that distance would bring me clarity, would make it easier for me to tie together the many threads of the many experiences I have lived over last few months. However, being home has forced me to put words and feelings to things I simply don’t think about in my day to day life in Afghanistan. Hands down, the single biggest question posed to me is if I feel unsafe in Kabul. If I am fearful and worried and preoccupied by bombs or guns or threats of violence. Without thinking my answer is always no. My answer is always that the Afghanistan I live in is not the Afghanistan that you see on the news. The Afghanistan that I live in is not marred by constant violence and does not paralyze me with fear. Rather than giving me the distance I expected, writing about Afghanistan from New York City has forced me to see my Afghanistan through the eyes of my parents, my husband and my friends and family. Has forced me to really think about where I live and where I work. Has forced me to realize the power that comes with being an outsider living on the inside.
Since I have been home a bomb was detonated outside of the US embassy, 100 yards from where Craig works six days a week. Since I have been home two politically significant suicide bombs were detonated in Kandahar. Since I have been home a rocket landed in the middle of the only operational international airport in the country. As I watched these events on CNN I was struck with the realization that fieldwork leaves each of us with an indescribable privilege. Fieldwork allows us to live, even if just for a short time, in two worlds. While I can see what all of you see and read what all of you read, I can also see past the images of conflict to an Afghanistan that is bigger than suicide bombs, ISAF tanks and coalition forces gone awry.
For me there are two Afghanistans, each of which I have come to understand and respect while knowing they will, for a very long time, remain at odds. One is an Afghanistan of powerful Muslim women, grassroots activists, shelters, schools, shopping, laughter and the intense intimacy shared by women working for a cause. It is a country of eggplant, mantoo, bulani, naan and my dreaded cherry juice. It is a country that has wrapped me in its headscarves and hospitality. It is a country of reciprocity, one as willing to share its story as it is to read from my books. It is an Afghanistan committed to freedom and the pursuit of their own democracy. It is an Afghanistan that believes in education and health and justice and wants more than anything to witness a future free from violence. It is an Afghanistan that has embraced my foreignness with more love and acceptance than we Americans show our brothers and sisters who look and sound different than that which we know.
The second is an Afghanistan struggling to accept progress and modernity and all of the shifts that come with social change. It is a country terrified of losing its culture, losing its religion, losing its identity. It is a country of men terrified of losing their place in society, terrified of seeing their children leave a life that has been part of their family for centuries, terrified of the very real influences that come from participating in a world with no boundaries and limitless access. This is an Afghanistan where gender based violence, self-immolation, honor killing, suicide, illiteracy and incarceration are the realities that women and girls face everyday. This is an Afghanistan that is unforgiving and unjust but it is also an Afghanistan that can be understood and can be addressed and must be confronted.
Without a doubt the single most important thing I have learned is that in order to support the first Afghanistan and heal the second, the most crucial development strategy we can employ is patience. I have learned that the single biggest element required for lasting change and enduring freedom is time. I have learned that if you want permanent advancement you can’t enter a country and tell its people what they need. I have learned that people are resilient and forgiving and generous if you offer them respect and honor their history. I have learned that change, no matter how welcome its terms, means forever losing part of what you know.
Time is free and easy to come by but is one of the hardest things to offer. Time is all developing nations have – their greatest natural resource – but it is the one thing the industrialized western world has taken off the table. We demand change NOW. We expect results NOW. More time means more terrorism, more insecurity, more instability and more uncertainty. We want to feel safe NOW. We want to know our efforts are changing lives NOW. We want the effects of war to be washed away NOW. We want the horrors of past atrocities forgotten NOW. Yet, for all of our money and all of our planning and all of our strategizing we simply can’t buy time. It isn’t for sale. We cannot buy or rush the results that come from doing steady, bottom up development work. We can’t expect a country that has been at war for decades and has lost two generations of women to repressive regimes to be literate or healthy or empowered in five years. We can’t undo what has, for some, been a lifetime of isolation, violence and darkness with elections and quotas and the ratifying of constitutions and international treaties. We simply cannot expect lasting social change when we aren’t willing to making lasting investments.
For the sake of the world we need to figure out how to defend peace, how to maintain development momentum and how to stand by our brothers and sisters when they need us most. For the sake of the world we need to figure out to stand up and stay put and buckle down when the citizens of the world are being threatened by war and violence. But how? Is it fair to ask governments or NGOs or the UN community to provide continuous financial support and unlimited ground power when their efforts and workers are being threatened by war? Is it reasonable to ask for more schools and more training and more security when the efforts to destroy these things are stronger than the efforts to safeguard them? Is it acceptable to stay on the ground supporting human rights and development when it is needed most – when it is being threatened by war and violence?
I don’t know what is fair. I don’t know what the word reasonable means and I have lost all ability to determine what is acceptable. What I do know is that the things we are doing are not working and the people doing them have lost the vision and integrity required to lead. People are dying, violence around the world is escalating, women’s health declining, nation building failing and poverty is swallowing entire countries whole. The things we are doing are not working. It doesn’t matter what any of us think is right or wrong, good or bad. It doesn’t matter who any of us think falls where on the ‘Axis of Evil’. Sitting here tonight I ask everyone to move beyond talking about peace as an ideal rather than a goal. I ask everyone here to stop debating whether we should have invaded Iraq or boiling everything down to oil or money or religion or culture. I ask everyone to take action, to be, as Ghandi asked, “the change you wish to see in the world.” There are very real problems destroying this very real world. We need new diplomacy and new strategies and I believe these will come from new players and new voices. It is time to re-invent the wheel. It is time to find the next great idea.
I believe that working on the local level, with grassroots activists and community organizers, is the best place to look for new ideas and build new relationships. Working for and with the people who can’t leave when things get rough – who can’t pull out when it is dangerous – who are the last providers of services and advocacy and education when the world goes dark. Working to strengthen and solidify the networks and organizations that are for the people and of the people. Lending our skills to their agenda, helping them to organize and collaborate and strengthen whatever voice and whatever movement best serves their mission. It means not taking an international salary, not living in a double walled compound and not having the safety net of armored cars and helicopters and expense accounts and evacuation measures. Just as money can’t buy time, big cars and caravans and fancy conference rooms can’t buy the trust and access that is essential to building a lasting, sustainable women’s rights movement.
Working on a local level has given me the privilege of participating in one of the most important and exciting women’s rights movements in the world. It has brought me into living rooms and training centers and, most recently, a women’s prison that had not been visited by NGO workers in about a decade. It has given me access to women and girls whose stories and details don’t make it into the press or onto the UNDP agenda.
We were able to visit the women’s prison in Jalalabad because of a man named Ghizal. He is the senior trainer for AWN’s Jalalabad office and has, over a period years, worked with the women and girls who have been incarcerated. We were granted access to the prison because of the trust Ghizal has built over the years. We were granted access to the stories and lives of the women because of the trust Ghizal has built over the years. Trust and access, two more things you can’t buy and certainly can’t rush.
The actual prison currently houses twelve women, ten of which have or are pregnant with children. The stories I can tell you about why they are in jail and how they were treated by the Afghan legal system are chilling. Most are incarcerated for running away from home. Homes in which they were being raped, prostituted and beaten by husbands, mothers-in-law and other family members. Most ended up in jail after primitive due process – a rudimentary meeting before a judge in which they were sent to prison for charges that were unnamed and periods of time that were unspecified. They are jailed with their children though the barely formed Afghan legal system and penal code have no provisions to care for children or infants.
After a rather uncomfortable meeting with the highly ceremonial, over adorned police commissioner we were handed off to a female prisoner who led us past the guard tower, down a barbed wire corridor and into the central courtyard of the women’s prisons. The gate closed behind us and we were immediately welcomed by a group of women ranging in age from 81 to 15. AWN Program Director Shukria Kazimi and I sat with the woman as they told us their stories, presented us with decrepit photocopies of fingerprints and other legal documents and cried for the humiliation they felt they brought upon their families and communities. While each of the women expressed feelings of injustice and anger, the common thread in all of their narratives was a certain conviction that prison may be the safest, most free place for them. Living in prison keeps them safe from family and community members who consider them dishonorable and living in prison allows them to keep and raise their children.
Driving home from the prison on the dark, bumpy, dusty mountain road that connects Kabul with Jalalabad and then Pakistan, we sat in the car and talked about our next move. My American fix it NOW syndrome was operating on overdrive. All I could think of was calling the NYTimes and getting my pictures and the women’s stories on every conceivable website. I was blinded by the helplessness and anger that comes from spending a day with the forgotten – with women who are so far off the radar, there is no way their loudest screams will ever be heard.
From the back of the dark car Shukria asked me simple questions. If we get these women released from prison, what do we plan to do with them? Where will they go? They can’t go home – they can’t go back to their communities once they have been jailed for a crime that tarnishes their reputation and calls their morals into question. They will face isolation at best, death at worst. Afghanistan is a country of communities, of tribes, of clans. It isn’t like you can move to Philly and start over after a messy divorce in NY. Exoneration doesn’t exist. Relocation is not a reality for most women. There is no advanced network of social services and government assistance that will help these women pull themselves up by the bootstraps. They aren’t going to get jobs, or learn to read or be welcomed home by a family rejoiced. The problem is far bigger than hiring lawyers and calling the international press.
Shukria gently told me that we had to look at what we could do to for the whole crisis that is women and children in prison. It is a crisis of education, of awareness, of tradition. It is a metaphor for all of the social justice problems and impending solutions effecting women and children across the country. And again, it is a question of time. Provincial councils and local administrators need to be trained on everything from gender to law. Prison officials need to be trained on how to train and recruit and manage a prison and its employees. Women themselves have to be taught about their rights – legal and human alike. Have to be taught they deserve such rights. Communities need to begin a dialogue about equity and protection of women and girls. Training, education, capacity building and the increased willingness to talk about harmful traditions and erroneous beliefs. This is the way forward in Afghanistan for women. This is the way forward for women around the world.
So this is what we did. We put together a one year education and advocacy incentive that targets local government, local NGOs, religious leaders, teachers and the prison officials themselves. We put together a package that isn’t glamorous or dramatic. No women will be released from prison, no children will be sent to school. These things will come in time. At the end of one year we will have conducted needs assessments of the prisons, we will have documented all of the women’s cases and we will have begun the lifelong process of educating men and women about their rights and responsibilities. We will do this in their own language, in their own offices and provinces, with community leaders that are familiar with, and knowledgeable about, far more than the content of the work. It will take time, it won’t be easy to measure success right away and its most critical beneficiaries – the women and children of the future – will not be immediately recognizable.
Organizations like AWN work to reconcile the two Afghanistans. Organizations like AWN represent the thousands of ordinary women around the world doing extraordinary things. The women who work day in and day out and never make headlines. The women who show up everyday, on the front lines, to bring about change in places, and under circumstances, the whole world has written off as hopeless. Women with a sense of equity and justice so innate they stand up and fight when no one is looking, when no one cares and when no one else believes. Ordinary women are the revolutionaries of our time. They are the women I work with, and for, in Afghanistan.