The National Archives are located in a stately mansion and organized chronologically.  Many fading photographs of emirs and dignitaries provide a chronological overview of the history of Afghanistan.  It was quite interesting, but I certainly could not recall the details after just one visit.  The museum is divided into two sections:  historical documents and photographs and a section on art and manuscripts mainly featuring copies.

One thing is strikingly obvious: Afghanistan has been a country full of struggles, invasions, intrigues, and power wrestling ever since its conception, and if this teaches us anything – the likelihood that this will ever change is slim.  Mubin and I spent a good two hours at the museum to take it all in.

Our stop after lunch was not on the itinerary, but since that one had gone out of the window for the most part anyhow, and since I was the only person left on the trip, I had requested it:  the Ministry of Women’s Affairs.  I had seen it from the car a few times as we were driving through Kabul.  I wanted to find out more what was happening there, especially in lieu of talking to “real” women on the street.  As much as I had wanted that, it was obviously not happening.

As any secured compound typical for official building in Kabul, you enter it in a zig-zag fashion, get patted down and you have to leave your data with a receptionist.  This time, my father’s name was of no interest.

We walked through a garden, which could have been pleasant had it not been obstructed by a series of concrete wall segments.  Multi-storied buildings were full of offices – where to go?  We found an office with an English-speaking man and a woman in their forties who were willing to take time, talk and answer my numerous questions.  They did not even seem surprised that I had come out of nowhere and was not affiliated with any NGO or organization.

Here is in a nutshell what I found out:

Funding for this agency comes from various international donors and organizations; none of them from the Afghani government, e.g., tax-payers.  If you ask me that is a problem.  Handouts, handouts, handouts!  Yes, Afghanistan needs international help.  But that the indigenous government is not giving a single penny for this cause is shameful and speaks volumes.  The two officials, who after all were in charge of linking donors and various programs, were not willing to disclose their budget.  About 400 people work in the ministry; about 60 percent of them are women.  Almost all leading positions are held by women.

The majority of cases that come in are related to sexual abuse or domestic violence.  The agency provides legal aid for the affected women and follows up on their cases afterwards.  Another large group of cases deal with divorce, child- and/or forced marriages.  Again, focus is on free legal advice.

But the agency also provides education for women.  For example do they have courses in teaching women how to drive!  I have to suspect that these courses are not very popular since I have not seen a single woman behind the wheel in two weeks.  But I was nonetheless impressed that they existed at all.

And finally, the agency links women with other appropriate institutions or humanitarian aid organizations such as the ministry of health, or institutions dealing with human-rights violation.  It all sounded quite wonderful.   But as we know, the full spectrum of women’s affairs in Afghanistan is not quite that rosy.  Either the ministry is not reaching far enough, or they are kidding themselves and others.

I asked about how the ministry gets news about its existence and services into the farthest corners of the country and into the minds and hearts of completely uneducated women.   The usual channels were mentioned, from billboards to TV.  And then one unexpected channel surfaced:  the local imams in the mosques.  Imams as women rights’ activists?  I was skeptical, but the woman in this office insisted that these imams are educated, enlightened, concerned and very effective.  Since they have clout in the community they are also effective instruments in following up on issues concerning both women and men.  According to her, local men respect their judgment.  I am still skeptical…

To my surprise I heard that men, too, may involve the services of the ministry.  The officer explained that really they are the office for gender affairs.  Ah, what about issues of homosexuality?  Do they exist?  Does the ministry help people who are persecuted or are victims of hate crimes?  I should have known better.  What stupid and corrupted questions these were!  Of course, the ministry is not dealing with homosexuality.  These issues do not exist and are not there to be dealt with.  They are forbidden and if they are found out, they are duly punished according to (sharia) law like any other crime.  I get it.  Thanks for the clarification.




6 comments so far

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  1. Don’t forget that the official name of Afghanistan is “The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan”; and its constitution prohibits any legislation which violates Islamic sharia law or the principles of Islam. Therefore, the government cannot possibly give women equal rights because the Koran explicitly says that men are superior to women and that women must obey their men. And, there are many other passages in the Koran which prohibit gender equality.The issue of gender equality is, ultimately, the Achilles’ Heel of Islam because, if any concession is made on this issue which violates the Koran, there is no reason to uphold anything in the Koran anymore. Once the fundamental premise of Islam is wilfully violated that the Koran is perfect, then the whole thing comes crashing down.

  2. O.M.G. as the youngsters say. I never thought that any country would make Iran seem enlightened but I am just remembering all the young women who crowded round to chat to us and be photographed with us in Esphahan; especially the college girl (a Muslim visiting the Christian quarter) who loved Shakespeare and longed to visit England.

    If we had known a bit more at the time we would have made better use of the opportunity to visit with the Afghani girls/women when we went to meet the refugee family in Peshawar, wouldn’t we? I particularly remember the young woman with cropped hair, so neatly turned out in male clothing (and I don’t mean just as a fashion statement). No one seemed to mind but a photograph was not advisable.

    As for the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. A good way of spending foreign investment? A placatory gesture towards visiting politicians? A load of old £$%^&*#? Thanks for taking the trouble to visit and relate the experience.

  3. Hi, Elisabeth! I came late to your blog – I have been quite sick and although I am much better now I have been in hiding and somewhat withdrawn.But I am back in the world and have been spending the afternoon reading. What a roller coaster! I don’t know where to start. Perhaps to say that I am so glad you are alive and – as far as I can tell – undamaged. I am impressed with the “otherness” of this country and the “sameness” of the issues we all care about. Thank you for being so detailed and reflective of all the events passing your way! Anneliese

  4. Whoa**** Heavy Day! I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall when you were asking your homosexuality questions.

  5. Ok, now let’s tackle the topic of homosexuality in Afghanistan. Once one has understood the position of women in that country, it is not difficult to understand homosexual relationships in that country. It is known that Pashtun men commonly have sex with other men, admire other men physically, have sexual relationships with boys and shun women both socially and sexually — yet they completely reject the label of “homosexual.”

    One of the country’s favorite sayings is: “women are for children, boys are for pleasure.”

    I think the bottom line is that of course there would be homosexual relationships among men in Afghanistan…what man would want to have a relationship with a woman who he has been taught from birth is worth so much less than he. That picture you have of two men holding hands on Bird Street…that look from one of the men to the other is NOT the look of one friend to another. Period. Another interesting contradiction in sharia…women are less than men, but homosexuality is “forbidden”…thus Islam presents a confusing and contridictory definition of self-worth…if a man loves a woman he is loving someone beneath him, but a being worthy of his love…well, that is forbidden. Makes my head swim!!!!

    My strong hunch is that there are many loving, sexual relationships between Afghan women…where else can they get love, real affection and understanding except from another woman.

    So what are the marriages like in Afghanistan…again my poor head is swimming!!!! lol

    Read more: http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2010/01/28/afghan-men-struggle-sexual-identity-study-finds/#ixzz1xgGkHvir

  6. Well, you know that this entry has my blood boiling…and thank you for even attempting to find out about the status of women in Afghanistan…a difficult and depressing task.

    In March of this year, Karzai publicly supported a decree by the Ulema Council, a
    government-sponsored group of religious leaders, that said women are worth less than men, should not leave the house without a male escort, or mix with men at school or the workplace. “It is the sharia law of all Muslims and all Afghans,” said Karzai, explaining his support of the decree.

    That, and other things, puts me totally in the skeptical camp…imams with their sharia could not possibly be interested in the advance of the rights of women…for them women are simply worth less than men. With a legal system that punishes women for reporting violent crimes against them like rape and abuse, most women do not even speak up”…so reports the head of Human Rights Watch in Afghanistan.

    You said in one of your opening blogs that one of the criteria you use for “evaluating” a country is their treatment of women. I think the bottom line on how Afghanistan rates in this category is very clear. While misogyny is not and obviously should not be inevitable anyplace in the world, as one of your other blog responders pointed out, it is difficult for me to imagine that a country whose legal system is based on sharia would not inevitably be misogynistic. Period. And clearly it would be the imams who would perpetuate that misogyny..all in the name of allah.

    Yes, it does get me worked up…and it should get every woman in the world worked up. It’s a heck of a lot easier to think about evaluating a country based on its food…lol…and greasy rice and shaved carrots are easier to “swallow” than the treatment of women.