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article imageInterview: Women's Rights, Progress, Aid, Military, and Issues in Afghanistan

By Stephen Dohnberg     Nov 17, 2008 in Politics
Homemakers Magazine editor-in-chief Kathy Ullyott reveals the complex situation the progress of women's rights are in the face of the presence of Western countries, Afghani politics, and nation rebuilding. This is the second of a three-part interview.
Pt 2 of 3
Homemakers Magazine editor in chief Kathy Ullyott speaks with reporter Stephen Dohnberg about the struggle of women and what she witnessed during her visit to Kabul, Afghanistan The conversation reveals what a complex situation the Western presence in Afghanistan is by any measure.
Invited by C.A.R.E. Canada, in May Kathy Ullyott, made her way to the city of Kabul for a week-long look at the work and commitment of an NGO such as C.A.R.E., who have been an early presence since 1996, assisting widows with food aid. Even an issue of basic aid is fraught with concerns that span the range of issues from western presence to cultural mores. Although we initially planned to discuss the ascent of women’s rights in Afghanistan, the intersection of so many other disparate concerns clearly illustrates that no single issue will resolve itself independent of others.
In the intervening week since Part 1 was posted, the CBC’s Melissa Fung was released as a hostage, a USAID worker was shot near the NW border of Pakistan, and 15 schoolgirls and teachers were doused with a scalding acid compound that kept girls away from school for days.
We continue where we left off last week.
inside kabul 1
Inside kabul.
kathy ullyott
SD: So she (the Member of Parliament) had the perspective that the western presence was a good thing - did you speak to anyone that though it was counterproductive or a bad thing?
KU: I didn't. I certainly didn't come across anyone who thought westerners there was a bad thing - there was more dissension around the role of westerners - for example, the role of the military involvement. Some people thought it was a good thing, some people did not. and the difficulty come, of course, when you have - for the people involved in the relief organizations their view is that: say you're there representing a Canadian relief organization and Canadian troops are also there who are seen by some people as hostile - that puts you as the relief person on "their side" as far as the locals are concerned . They feel that having a military presence there is counterproductive as far as relief efforts. However, the view of the military strategists is that the Taliban and other like insurgents are creating so much instability and so much danger and they have such an agenda of putting down women and the local population that it would be impossible for the relief people to be working there if the military was not there providing stability - which is also a good argument.
SD: Yeah - and it's a catch 22 - you need the logistical support.
KU: Exactly
SD: You need the protection or else you couldn't go on fact finding missions, deal with warlords, and insurgents...
KU: Exactly - so it's a very complicated question.
SD: One other component I found frustrating , especially having been aware of this for such a long time and being reminded of what you see statistically is that the United States - and the Western World, was aware of what was going on for such a long period of time and the 'tipping point' was 9-11, and that's when all the rhetoric and jingoism started to emerge about 'democratization' and al Qaeda and human rights, whereas before the western world was functioning with oil interests, resource interests - I think at this point it's well established that Hamid Karzai was an agent for Unocal before he worked for the CIA before he was a Taliban supporter - so politically, I was wondering how people felt things were ...did it have to be the war that brought the world's attention to what was going on? Rwanda is another example that comes to mind, Kosovo...
KU: You know, I don't know if I could fairly answer that. I think obviously it was 9/11 and the western world, particularly the United States who identified as al Qeada as needing to be dealt with and it happened to be using those regions on the Pakistani - Afghan border for its training facilities and it's hideouts and the Taliban was very enabling of that, so it became clear to them that they had to get rid of the Taliban and root out al Qaeda and I think - personally - and I'm not an expert, but i think all the rest of this stuff about human rights, women's rights, democracy - that was all secondary. Their main object was to disable Al Qaeda through the Taliban but I don't think - had that not ever happened, I wouldn't have been there.
SD: Can you tell us about Capt Renee Point?
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KU: She was a remarkable person who is a career army officer who was put in charge of one of the groups in the south in charge of training the local police, which is very key there, the rule of law - you know, you can make as many laws as you want but if you can't enforce them... so the development of the police force is seen as one of the key things westerners can be involved in. And that was her specialty, she had done that in the Golan Heights. When she was to be put in charge of a local police force (in Afghanistan) there was a lot of discussion over whether they would accept a woman. And she found that they were not only accepting of her but the men were fascinated by her and even wanted her to visit their homes to speak to their partners and children because they wanted their partners and children to see her example of what a woman could do. For me, it really sort of drove home for me that a lot of the cultural imperatives that we read about here - they're not that the culture is bad or "evil" , but it's just that's what they're used to. And when you get down to an individual level, they're open to seeing a different way of doing things. Maybe more than we are, you know?
SD: One question that I had for you - I don't know if you can illustrate it or quantify it - but in a war zone, in a place that's been brutalized for some long, obviously there's some resourcefulness that emerges...what were some examples that kind of struck you as ingenuity at work?
KU: One thing I was really amazed to see was the carpentry workshop that the women were running - with some help from CARE Canada - these women are learning a trade and the CARE people are teaching them lots of trades that would associate with women, like food services and baking, but there also also teaching them non-traditional trades and trades that even not very many women here - how many women carpenters do you know? And these women were learning how to make buildings and office equipment in this workshop that was really just a great big tent, and there were these great big saws and lathes and they were making window frames and door frames in this sort of uncanny place with these gigantic tools - and for the water they were drawing water from a well that looked almost biblical. they use the same well water for cooling off the tools as they do for making tea...
inside kabul 2
inside kabul 2
kathy ullyott
SD: As you were saying, you didn't get a chance to get out of Kabul, but did you still see examples of gender apartheid, the application of Taliban law, where people might still have been in fear of consequences?
KU: Probably. I did see more women in Burkas than I expected to see, a lot of women were not wearing them, a lot of the poorer women did wear them - and I asked about that and I found that you have to be very careful as a westerner - like the Members of Parliament I spoke to, for example, who do not wear burkas were the most vocal that I met terms of women's rights. They also were clear in some cases, they certainly agreed that some women probably wore burkas out of fear - fear that they'd be reprimanded by insurgent elements, that sort of thing, BUT some women wear them out of choice and they should be able to do so...so there's no question - I never personally saw any female police officer - I know they exist but I never personally saw any out patrolling around. On the other hand I met lots of male veterinarians that were helping women achieve some self sufficiency and that was very nice to see...
SD: Like in areas of animal husbandry, and...
KU: Exactly...exactly...so there are lot of men who are committed to women's rights as well.
SD: Actually that was my next question, did there seem to be a contingent of men who realized that this kind of progressivism would benefit them as well - not out of self interest but of an interest in rebuilding the country...?
KU: Definitely, I would definitely say that, and there was also some self interest as well, There were men who were very glad that their wives would be able to contribute to the household income so they were very grateful for these kinds of programs as well - or even who wanted their wives to be literate. I think there was, yes, the self interest, but also just the sense that this was progress and it was good for everybody...
SD: So we know there has been a resurgence of the Taliban...What has been the general feeling - does the city feel like it's in its own enclave or lock down...?
KU: I think people go about their business, I think people there are incredibly resilient . Among some people I talked to their is some feeling of discouragement but there's also a sense of 'we've seen it before, it ebbs and flows, we'll keep on fighting - we'll keep doing what we can do'.
SD: After so many years that would pretty much have to be the mindset
KU: Exactly. Here in the west we talk about "should we remove the troops, should we get our aid people out, and so on - but for the people who are there, they don't have a choice. They are there and - for example the C.A.R.E. organization that is there totals 1000 - 900 of them are from Afghanistan - and they are committed to making life better for other Afghani people.
SD: You bring up a completely interesting point - we've just had an election and one of the questions was our presence - I don't know what your position was before, but what conceptions did you have coming away from it?
KU: I don't think my position has changed - i think it's a good thing that were there if only be/ we promised NATO we'd be part of it and I think that's a good reason to be there and my view before going was, having read a lot of things written by military people on what they were accomplishing there I thought 'well they’re there , they know better' so I was sort of open minded about it - I liked the idea, however - of having a strategy. After being there, I didn't feel significantly different but I had a much greater sense of what a complicated and huge issue it is. I've read a lot of opinions, for example "we can't win this war”, “this isn't a war we could win, or how could we win it?'. After being there, and having done all the research I had to do before I went I really had a sense that we can't talk about winning or not winning in the sense that we might have been able to talk about it, say, in the sense of the 2WW. There will probably never be a point in time when we can say 'Ok we're done here. We won, we can go home now'. What we're doing there is contributing to a long term strategy that will bring some measure of stability to that area I don't know if we'll ever be able to say 'we won' and I don't think we can say 'well we've won when we've imposed out view of civilization and democracy' because they will develop their own and I think if we can provide any help in doing that then I think we should. I'm less certain in my mind as to what form that help should take. It's a complex matrix of military security, relief, and development and the quibbling really comes down to what role you think each of those should play.
SD: Each issue should be dealt with on its own merits rather than a broad spectrum of yes we should be there versus no we shouldn't?
KU: Exactly - and I think it changes as it goes. when I was there in May, in the summer the three aid workers were killed - 2 of them Canadian - and just last week there was another aid worker killed (Oct 21) and I don't think I would go now given those things that have happened and I'm not sure CARE sould have encouraged me to go.
SD: There have been other NGO's that have pulled out, but care clearly has a commitment because they have been there since 1996. Did you come across any other NGO workers?
KU - Tons - especially is because in Kabul most of the headquarters are there. The Red Cross is really big there, the United Nations of course, I think OXFAM is there, the Red Cross/Crescent is there.
Pt 3 continued next week.
Kathy Ullyott’s photo essay can be viewed via www.homemakers.com
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