Afghanistan’s scars

Working full time as a nuclear physicist in Australia, Dr Salehi did not expect to find herself working a second job in the restaurant kitchen. Nevertheless, the scars serve as an ironic reminder that many Afghan women live out their suffering in the domestic setting, struggling to have their human rights recognised.

The restaurant was established to provide work for Afghan refugees. It was nearly ten years before the restaurant was stable enough for Salehi to move on to other work, a far cry from the originally estimated three. Yet over 20 years later Dr Salehi’s attention is still directed at women in the domestic sphere in Afghanistan. Salehi plans to build a women’s health and vocation centre in Shamoli, north of Kabul. The centre will address some of the main issues that effect women—health and education.

Afghan women will vote for the first time since the fall of the Taliban in the upcoming October presidential elections. Their participation has been shadowed by intimidation and violence, the most horrific example of which was a bomb planted on a bus carrying female election workers. Two women were killed and others were critically injured.

That such incidences have occurred in outlying areas is an indication of the influence of neighbouring countries, Dr Salehi explains. She says that people who commit these crimes are often paid by foreigners. That is why she credits employment, together with health and education, as key issues in the minds of female voters.

‘Poverty brings war’, Dr Salehi says. ‘Working is an escape from war. If a man is unemployed and the Taliban offers to feed his children if he goes to war, what choice does he have?’

Without employment many women feel as though they lack honour. A woman begging on the street explained that though she is permitted to remove the burka she would rather wear it than be recognised and shamed. ‘When I have a job I will remove it’, she told Dr Salehi.

Afghan women may feel a lack of honour, but in the eyes of Dr Salehi, they do not lack courage. She sees honour in their courage, in caring for their children and in maintaining the struggle for life.

‘The women don’t speak much, but when they do … ’ Dr Salehi pauses, shakes her head. ‘We accept death. We don’t own our bodies, we have them for a while. God created us and God will take us one day.’

This cultural acceptance of death sits too easily beside the country’s claim to the highest maternal mortality rate in the world, together with high infant and child mortality rates.

Salehi sees that the role of women following Russia’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 as a critical factor in the subsequent rise to power of the Taliban.

‘Everybody said that Afghanistan’s future was in the hands of its women because so many of the men had died’, she explains. ‘The best way for foreigners to stop Afghanistan’s progress was to stall its education. At that time around 69 per cent of teachers were women—therefore the attacks on women, and the emergence of the Taliban.’

Similarly, Dr Salehi suspects some foreign interests of a desire to keep Afghanistan poor, expressed in ways such as pressure on aid agencies to provide food and medical support rather than education. She notes with frustration that skilled workers from neighbouring states such as Iran and Pakistan refuse to teach the Afghans any skills.

‘Why would they?’ she says. ‘It takes away their work.’

That is why her Australian Afghan Volunteer Organisation supports projects that focus on education, in particular literacy and vocational training. Afghans who had skills prior to the war are already back to work. It is the unskilled and largely illiterate younger generation who need help.

‘We need to train people to be carpenters, dressmakers, aid workers, road workers. People who are educated become open-minded.’

The final key election issue, according to Dr Salehi, is equality. Though interim President Karzai signed a declaration of equality for the women of Afghanistan, and included two women in his Cabinet, outside Kabul the fall of the Taliban has made little difference in the lives of Afghan women. Even within Kabul, where there are some opportunities for women to attend school, work and receive health care, attacks directed towards women mean that many remain indoors.

Salehi first returned to Afghanistan in March 2002, after an absence of over 30 years. Apart from the shock of the altered landscape, the human suffering she witnessed has unsettled her. She recalls one woman and her three children who huddled in a makeshift house made of two car doors stacked against a wall. On a minus ten degree night they had two worn blankets to share between them.
Salehi also carries the memory of a chance encounter at the women’s market in Kabul, where she was stopped by a merchant she did not recognise.

‘Don’t you know me?’ the woman asked, taking Dr Salehi’s hand. ‘I did the dressmaking course.’

The stall behind her displayed a colourful array of clothing, made with skills learned at the dressmaking course funded by Dr Salehi’s Australian Afghan Volunteer Association. 

Encounters such as these motivate Dr Salehi to continue her humanitarian work. The women’s community and health centre will be built on land donated by Dr Salehi’s mother, who asked her daughter to build something for Afghanistan’s women on her family’s traditional land.

‘Every day she asks me how far it is to Afghanistan, how long the flight will be (she forgets by the next day). Every time I tell her [of] new developments she gets very happy, her face lights up with a big smile. I have promised I will take her there when the project is done.’

Until Afghan women have the freedom to dream for themselves, maybe Dr Salehi can dream for them. And the restaurant?

‘It’s a part of me now’, Dr Salehi smiles, and pours another cup of tea.       

Jessica Gadd is the editor of Jesuit Publications’ Australian Catholics.



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