In the midst of the election/re-run turmoil, far from Kabul, I began to  realize how little this meant in provincial Afghanistan, in the province of Farah where I spent the best part of a week, with Zala to work on our Women and Children’s Centre. This extremely remote province is set in a harsh desert. The PRT call it the Wild West of Afghanistan, Fort Apache.120 km away from the Iranian border, it is the third poppy producer of the country, after Kandahar, and 50 % of the region is still under Taliban control- all of which is said to represent considerable progress in recent years. Which is to say that it has been worse, indeed much worse, especially in the regional capital known as Farah-City, reputedly pacified, according to the local authorities. The energetic local Education Ministry representative was very proud that by now 8 % of girls could now read, whilst I was alarmed by the 92 % tht could n’t.
In the first round of elections on August 20th, there was a considerable turn-out, not because of the president, but because of the voting of Provincial Council members which was taking place on the same day. The seven coucillors form the most representative local body as the Governor is an outsider nominated in Kabul without any proven aptitude for the job or even affinity with the local population. The present Governor, a jovial man called M. Roohula Amin explained to me that had previously worked in an NGO in Peshawar in Pakistan, he is a staunch Pushtoon nationalist, and explained to me at length that Afghan culture had absolutely nothing to do with nearby Iran… A debatable point, it seems to me, but I did n’t want to get into any form of discussion in his office, even if I was sipping delicious Iranian peach juice, shrouded in my black Iranian-style veil, whilst he was knocking back Red Bull which has appeared on the upscale Afghan market. Will M. Rohulla Amin fare better than his predecessors ? In six years, there have been seven governors in this unruly province, most of them ousted by an exceptionally angry population, usually tolerant of corruption and favouritism. In the country, it is ‘normal’ to pay for a job, a favour of any kind, including stuffing a four-wheel drive with opium. Rapists and murderers buy themselves out of jail, and no-one bats an eyelids, save the unfortunate victims or their representatives who have brave enough to drag them to court. The deputy Head of Women’s Affairs in Kabul told me that their biggest problem was indeed the Justice Ministry and especially the bribe-happy judges

Anyway, the president (Karzai or Abdullah, it would have been the same) in the eyes of the voters, merely represents he who nominates the top dignitaries according to their degree of allegiance. The latter, in turn will favour, their own set of cronies and the whole system of reciprocity is replicated right down the social scale. The situation has to be seen as the a perfected form of feudalism, where a inherently weak suzerain gives out fiefs to governors and various rewards to assorted vassals in exchange of military help, in this case against the Taliban as this is the basis of the deal with the West. Not that moral considerations come into this. Take the sanguinary warlord, Ismael Khan, once governor of Herat and now Ministry for Energy. As leader of Jamat-e-Islami, his views on women and human rights generally are practically identical to those of the Taliban. His fight against them is purely on opportunistic grounds, to humour his suzerain, the president who gave him such a lovely job instead of having him sent over to be tried at The Hague where many of the ministers and other local potentates belong. Obdurate opacity is the true form of Afghan transparency.

Take the issue of ballot-stuffing : it’s far more complex and varied than one imagines. The example of Porchaman a remote North-Eastern district , some 420 km from Farah city is telling. Bilquis Roshan of the provincial Council described the situation in detail. It is ruled by local tyrant, Salim Mubaraz, who has made up his own set of laws, based on different forms of extortion. Taxes have to be paid on every occasion : birth of a child, weddings, bird-hunting etc. A believer in capital punishment, he has offenders routinely executed without reference to courts or authorities. He obviously had a field-day during the recent elections. Some 32 000 election cards were given out to those citizens eligible to vote, but they were press-ganged, threatened and bullied to give them directly to their ruler or otherwise forced to pay a penalty of 1000 afghanis ($20), a small fortune in this area. As a result, Karzai was awarded no less than 29 000 votes, and 3 000 for Abdullah to appear ‘democratic’. Did the authorities above protest ? No way ! Karzai was delighted- a vote is a vote, whatever the source. What about the US and Allied forces ? Ditto, as M. Mubaraz has kept his part of the bargain by pushing the Taliban out his district. In exchange of undiluted power. This is but a modest version of what goes on a colossal level all over the country.

Where’s the enemy ?

In general, the peasant anger against the Taliban is based on the fact that they exact money, help and food from them when they rule a province. The coalition forces don’t, so that’s a reason to prefer them. I asked several people to name the authorities that they disliked the most. The answer was 1) the Government 2) the Taliban 3) the Americans (all foreigners are seen to be American). According to Farah’s governor M. Roohulla Amin, the reason that the Taliban get the support they get is that people expect the US/Coalition forces to pull out, so they want to be sure they’re backing those who, in their opinion, will take over

Would it have been any different if another candidate would have got in ? Of course not, the entire system is rotten to the core. “It could have been even worse, because the government would have been totally tribal based” says my brilliant friend Aarya, on her way to a Fullbright scholarship at Harvard.

So what motivates this particular ire ? People expect a suzerain and overlord to deliver and President Karzai has n’t- nor would anyone else in this impossible place. The main complaint is not about corruption (perceived as normal) but the absence of safety and security which the Chief is meant to guarantee in exchange of their allegiance. Which is why, on the ground, ultimately it does n’t matter who provides this, be it the Americans or the Afghans. The Afghan police is notoriously ineffective, the army hardly better. But the problem, I feel, is elsewhere : there simply is no sense of common good, of shared responsibility. I was aghast when a representative of a well-known Afghan women’s organization that is resolutely anti-US claimed that rape prevailed since girls’schools had been built. Perhaps, but is that a valid argument to oppose school building, even by Evil Intruders ? If families want their daughters to go to school, could n’t they organize their own parents’ militia ? The Taliban are as strong as you let them become. An uprising is possible, after all the Afghans did precisely that by opposing the Soviet Army intervening on their own territory. But most rural Afghans are convinced that the foreign troops will leave because of the pressure from home, so they are backing the next source of power, however bad. Opportunism, as usual. How do you build up this notion of a shared, common good and goals, this sense of nation ? Democracy is a lot more than encouraging ‘entrepreneurship” and sipping tooth eroding Afghan Cola. What way out ? The Communists had a few valid ideas about this, albeit crude, cruel and heavy-handed. A compulsory military service would certainly help (Oh my ! Did antimilitarist me really say that ?), so would a real taxation system and hardest of all, a strong judiciary system that could ultimately defeat customary law

IMG_0251 The view behind the burka, travelling overland to Farah: I put the camera under the veil, just behind the netting.

Customary law

If you were to try to identify the root of all evil in this country, it would not be Fundamentalism but Customary Law. The most dominant and strictest version is the terrifying Pushtoonwali, the way of the Pashtuns based on a pre-feudal, egalitarian form of reciprocity. Versions of this basic code are practised in many similar segmentary, previously nomadic societies, such as Bedouins, Nuers or the neighbouring Balutch. During the Soviet intervention and the mass exodus to Pakistan, it turned into a standard applicable to other ethnic groups of refugees which were able to accept Pashtun domination within the refugee camps because it efficiently vouchsafed family honour through systematized control of women. This goes much beyond any kind of tribal law, because these priniples cut through any kind of tribal division and indeed constitute a unifying factor in this otherwise highly divided country.

Its practices have been made more rigid since the rise of Militant Islam which seeks to legitimize the ascending violence, especially against women, through religious texts. However, customary law and privatized violence are precisely what Muhammad sought to ban through Quranic law by introducing spiritual references that went beyond the private domain and instituting a real code of law which gave some rights to women which, however limited, by Western standards, constitute real progress compared to what was there before. But Islam is not what is being practised these days in Afghanistan, even by the Pushtoon Taliban : the West has got this totally wrong and may be fighting (another) wrong battle.

Originally an ancient honour code, the Afghan customary system ensures the domination of the single oldest male chief of any household who sits atop a pyramid, followed by his married sons, sons and grandsons, then his wife and at the bottom the youngest as yet childless (or, more precisely son-less) daughters-in-law, just above the daughters of the family. Male domination is never questioned, indeed it is seen as God-given even by women themselves who perceive the frequent marital brutality as a normal part of marriage, which they deem ordained by the Koran, even though they have never read a line of it

. Girls join their husband’s household upon marriage which is one of the reasons they are badly treated at home. “ Why feed someone else’s property’ is the recurring explanation. When the patriarch dies, the oldest son takes over. I have seen cases in Afghan refugee camp in Pakistan where households were dominated by teenage boys who forbade their sisters to go school or leave their enclosure. Collective decisions (collaborating or not with Taliban, building roads or schools etc) are taken by dominating males in councils called jirgas where all have to be in agreement. Everything else is left to the head of the family’s discretion, no-one will intervene unless it is to reinforce the application of his rights- in the case of stoning a wayward young girl, for instance. The basic male duty is providing for the whole family (parents as well as children, unmarried or widowed sisters) and once again, no limits, moral or legal, are put on this most basic of responsibilities. In this most basic of capitalist units, there are no qualms about opium cultivation or smuggling. In a seminar I conducted last year in the Gender Institute at Kabul, I pointed out to the male students that the lack of women’s rights meant that they would never be able to become rock-stars or poets but that they had to earn as fast as possible to keep their numerous dependents. They saw the point that if such responsibilities could be shared between the genders, (and state pensions instituted), greater freedom and more satisfying lives would be enjoyed by all.

The most recurring word ‘Badal’ signifies transgenerational vendetta-type vengeance, but some variations such as ‘Adal-Badal’ means exchange of brides within the same family. The preferred partner is the first cousin on the father’s side in order to keep any wealth within the family. Has anybody ever wondered why it is that some of the most violent and unpredictable countries (Afghanistan, Pakistan) are precisely those where first cousins systematically marry and reproduce ? Think of what happened to the Habsburgs and multiply that by hundreds of millions over generations….Or is that proto-fascist eugenic thinking on my behalf ?

To get back to customary law. Every act of male daily life is integrated in a form of reciprocity , so nothing, so to speak, comes for free. Melmastia, the basic tenet of hospitality means ‘I will put you up if you ask me to, even you ‘re a murderer on the run, but in exchange, you fight my battles’.  Which is how so many of President Karzai’s cronies remain in place. And also why Bin Laden was ensured safety in the Afghan hinterland when he married one of Mullah Omar’s daughters. Women are excluded from this as they are merely bartered objects : they are literally sold upon marriage (the father is paid money for the labour and reproductive rights he has fathered, the word for this litterally means « the price of milk »)) and under this contract, men do as they please with the female body they have purchased, whatever her age. The younger, the more expensive, and marriage in the provinces especially is routinely consummated even on pre-pubescent bodies. The mother-in-law, that is to say the husband’s mother makes sure that her son’s rights are respected, and often the dreaded ‘khushu’ is feared even more than the husband. Female solidarity is therefore nipped in the bud in conservative households.

Yet women have some kind of value, not as human beings, but as symbols. The honour of the family is its principal ‘cultural capital’ to quote Bourdieu and this is ensured by women never getting a chance to show any trace of independence which could show up male failings (and/or criminal doings) and therefore tarnish collective respectability. Which means that they have to be strictly secluded, made invisible as they are personally responsible for the desire they potentially might ignite amongst the men they could meet in such dubious places as schools, hospitals, parks or markets, all considered public places. Hence the all covering burqa, a portable enclosure. As every female simultaneously carries her father and her husband’s honour, she will stoically and passively submit to all forms of violence committed in its name. Going to the law courts is practically unheard of as it would mean denouncing unacceptable family practices. From the male’s point of view, resorting to outside police or judicial intervention by going to the police or suing would signify being unable to fight one’s own battles, in brief admitting defeat and castration. As violence is strictly a private matter, relinquishing justice to state institutions is unacceptable humiliation. Charlton Heston could have been a true Pushtoon hero and the First Amendment could be enshrined in the Afghan constitution.

Yet times are changing. An awareness of alternatives is seeping through the media, however limited.. But even with three TV channels in the provinces (compared to at least twenty in Kabul)- one local, two national and therefore a highly censored and restricted world view, Iranian films and the much loved Indian serials, not to mention the occasional American eighties family productions, influence expectations. Add to that the experience of having lived abroad as refugees in Pakistan and Iran. Girls know that there are other options to being sacrificed to a now-unacceptable way of life. This is especially the case for those who have been to Iran, living in a totally Muslim environment that allowed for freedom to study and work. Forced into early marriages in brutal surroundings, many- especially those returnees from Iran- have resorted to self-immolation as the ultimate, agonizing way out. I once met an old lady in a village in the Farah region who explained:: « When we were young, our life was dreadful- in my case, I had four children, a husband who spent all his time in Kabul and a cruel mother-in-law whose slave I was. All women around me led similar lives, we thought it was normal. But today girls know it does n’t have to be that way but they still can’t do much about it, so they can’t take it anymore and kill themselves »

The worst part is that male violence is actually on the increase as men are equally destabilized by these new icons of modernity- they “naturally” take it out on the wives, sisters, daughters and daughters-in-law. Many men have resorted to heroin addiction, especially in the Western part of the country. Customary law and new expectations create contradictions that are simply impossible to negotiate for women and men, in turn no longer find their place.


Self-portrait with burkaP1000218

This 9 year-old is an expert electrician. He and his 7 year old brother are looking after their father’s shop on Friday when there is no school and theoretically all are meant to be resting and/or praying- except the kids and also the slick businessman outside (not in photo) getting out of his four-wheel drive. This gent was accompanied by half a dozen heavily armed private guards who were looking after the boss as he was about to buy batteries and electrical equipment in the store