Sunday, June 21, 2009

Women of Afghanistan, Part One

My recent trip to Beirut, a relatively Westernized place by Middle East standards, has thrown into sharp relief the fundamental differences between Islamic culture and the West. This is the first of a series of posts about some of those differences. Most of the distinctions will seem obvious to even a casual observer. Sort of a Duh! kind of reaction is to be expected, but the important element is not the differences themselves, which everyone is aware of, but the effect they have on living and working in Afghanistan.*

*Much of what follows in this post and others in this series is likely to offend the more politically correct among you. To this, I can only say, get over yourselves. Stop reading if you want to. You’ve been warned.

Women. The feminine element. The other half of the species. A social component nearly totally invisible in Islamic society. Of course, they’re around and occasionally one actually sees a few, but they have few roles outside the traditional familial duties. They’re simply not allowed to participate in public society in any meaningful way. Sure, there are some seats in Parliament legally mandated for women, and those lucky few are on TV constantly talking about women’s rights and female educational opportunities.*

*At least, that’s what I think they’re talking about. It’s all in Dari, so they could be debating counter-insurgency tactics or offering recipes for brownies for all I know.

But most women, the vast majority, live sheltered, confined lives, focused on home and family. This is especially true out in the provinces, where traditional cultural/religious rules apply most strictly. In Kabul, one does see a slightly higher level of female participation and engagement, but nothing near the levels of Western society.

Now, it’s obvious (to me, at least) that marginalizing half of the population is not a recipe for success in difficult situations. Forget about the benefits of a “feminine approach” or the supposed value of gender differences in problem solving. Those probably exist, but I’m not enough of a sociologist to determine how much.

I can, however, do basic math, and if there is a problem that requires a solution, and X number of possible solutions are offered by the male half of the population, wouldn’t it be better to include the other half of the population and have 2X possible solutions. In any situation, doubling the brain power in play is going to decrease the time necessary to solve the problem.

This is especially true in a place like Afghanistan, where the problems are myriad and defy easy solution. One might also consider that Afghan men have been trying to “fix” this place for several hundred years and, with the exception of a few good years in the early-mid 20th century, Afghanistan has been a seething sewer of assbackwardness the whole time. Make no mistake, this place was screwed up long before we got here.*

*And it will probably be screwed up long after we leave, but that’s a discussion for another time.

Now I’m not generally a friend to the multitude of NGOs that are engaged in social engineering in Afghanistan.* Generally speaking, they’re trying to change minds and influence public opinion without any of the traditional Afghan implements of persuasion (i.e. automatic weapons, gasoline and rope), so it’s probably a lost cause. However, they do have a point when they attempt to convince the locals that Afghanistan is underutilizing its collective brain power.

*Unless of course they’re paying me a fat monthly fee for PSDs and armored vehicles, in which case we’re buddies.

A quick glance at some statistics on economic well-being, public health and other similar factors demonstrates that those countries that marginalize their women are generally piss-poor, decrepit shitholes. And a disproportionate number of those countries are predominantly Muslim. Think there’s a connection? You bet your ass there is. Culture matters.

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