The Election Is Over, Come Together – But How?
So Election Day passed in the usual flood of contradictory assessments. What else do you expect in a country as complicated and dangerous as Afghanistan?
But I’m not about to discuss whether the elections were a success or failure here. We’ll leave that for another time.
I do however want to talk about a bout of post-election blues. Serious post-election blues.
In the course of covering Afghanistan for many, many years, I’ve made some extremely dear friends – so dear, I consider them my extended Afghan “family”.
So when I get an alarming message from an Afghan “family” member – and from one as imperturbable as Manizha Naderi – it’s disturbing to say the least.
In the interest of full disclosure: Manizha is an old friend from New York days, before she moved to Kabul as executive director of WAW (Women for Afghan Women), an organization that runs women’s shelters in Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif, Jalalabad and Kunduz – among a host of other things.
One cover photograph and the blogosphere explodes
Afghan-born, New York-bred Manizha is no wilting flower. It was Manizha who, earlier this year, picked up a girl with her nose and ears cut off and brought her to the WAW Kabul shelter.
Bibi Aisha was from Uruzgan province, where her Taliban husband had sliced off her ears and nose. Manizha is no stranger to violence against women: thousands of Afghan women – many with the most gut-wrenching stories – have passed through WAW’s shelters and schools.
But even Manizha was shaken by Bibi Aisha’s state.
The 18-year-old girl from Uruzgan went on to grace the Aug. 9 issue of Time magazine, a move that kicked up a storm and riled those calling for a withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan.
Like many Afghan women, Manizha believes that in order to keep Afghan women safe, the country needs international troops until the Afghan army is strong enough to defend the country.
But that’s not something the anti-Afghan war camp want to hear.
Across the world, on the Internet, the blogosphere, the mainstream media and its lunatic fringe, overnight experts on Afghanistan blasted Time magazine for exploiting Aisha’s story for political ends.
It’s not just the patriarchal, extreme-right Islamist conservatives who blast Manizha. In these ideologically acrimonious times, her work makes her fair game for the Left as well.
Rocket attacks and a baby’s corpse
So when Manizha sends out an Election Day dispatch describing the situation, in characteristic understatement, as “not good,” you sit up and pay attention.
Want to know how Election Day passed for average Afghans? Try the experience of WAW staff in Kunduz. With rocket attacks raging all morning, the staff huddled in the office as the house next door got hit. Nobody was hurt – luckily – but the office windows were all blown out. It was one nerve-rattling morning.
In a piece I wrote on the eve of the Afghan parliamentary elections, Martine van Bijlert of the Afghanistan Analysts Network had this to say about the implications of the Sept. 18 vote. Women’s rights advocates, said van Bijlert, were “looking at all the signs: international troops are looking to leave, the moves toward talking with the Taliban. There’s a fear that some of the achievements, some of the spaces that have opened up for women will close.”
A space for women that’s undoubtedly under siege right now is the WAW Family Guidance Center, where I’ve spent many a happy afternoon sipping tea and working on their terrace overlooked by Kabul’s dusty hills.
Like many women’s organizations working in Afghanistan, WAW has to be very careful about how they operate and take security issues very seriously. Their women’s shelter in Kabul is at a secret location because the nature of their work can be dangerous in a conservative Muslim country like Afghanistan.
In contrast, their Family Guidance Center is open to the media and that’s where they interact with representatives of other institutions and government bodies.
But as Manizha’s latest letter from Kabul shows, even their Family Guidance Center is not always safe. Apparently, and I quote the letter, “Someone threw the corpse of a newborn baby behind the mosque in front of our Kabul office. The local residents were shocked by this. Because we're a women’s organization, they assumed the baby was thrown out of our office.”
Angry locals gathered at the building and the police had to be called to clear the crowd. The staff is off until the security alerts are cleared and Manizha has called a meeting with the imam of the mosque opposite the office and other community elders in the neighbourhood.
‘We’re going to keep our doors open’
It’s small incidents like these, incidents that can be misconstrued and seized upon, that make working in Afghanistan a serious challenge.
In a phone conversation this morning, Manizha admitted that the latest incident was the “most serious” she’s faced so far.
And like everyone in Kabul, she’s worried about the larger picture. “This is an absolutely critical time,” she said. “Things are getting worse – security-wise and corruption-wise.”
Manizha is vehemently opposed to the Afghan government’s moves to talk to the Taliban. “They don’t want to negotiate with us,” she said. “Women’s rights are the first thing that will go down the drain.”
The signs are not encouraging. US President Barack Obama has set a summer of 2011 deadline to start the withdrawal of troops. Washington is at pains to reiterate that the international commitment to Afghanistan in not going to abruptly end.
But no one’s reassured. Manizha is prepared for the worst. “We’re going to keep our doors open until the last minute,” she said. “We can’t just let the women out into the streets.”
Enter the ‘Rush Limbaugh of Afghan TV’
For the moment though, her sights are glued on the results of the Sept. 18 parliamentary vote. There are a couple of candidates she does NOT want to see elected, such as Nasto Nadiri, who she calls “the Rush Limbaugh of Afghan TV”. She says Nadiri “accuses shelters of engaging in prostitution and is calling for their closure. His election will not bode well for the work we do or the women we serve.”
Nadiri briefly made the news last year when he was attacked by security forces and detained at his work, prompting organizations such as Reporters Without Borders to issue statements highlighting the dangers journalists in Afghanistan face.
No journalist – or anyone for that matter – should be attacked or arbitrarily detained.
But journalists, or so-called journalists, should also do a professional job.
In his recent show on the private Noorin TV, Nadiri aired an "investigative" piece criticizing women's shelters and suggesting they were centers of trafficking and forced prostitution.
Nadiri however did not visit any one of the 17 shelters officially registered with the Afghan government, but claimed to have received hundreds of inquiries from Afghans concerned that the women in the shelters are "misused sexually."
In a country where women are considered chattel and symbols of the honor of family, tribe and community, prostitution is an old bogey, guaranteed to rouse the crowds. Expect to hear a lot more prostitution allegations in the days to come. The reports won’t be corroborated of course, but the damage will be done.
Like Manizha, I’m waiting to see if Nadiri gets elected to parliament.