If Cairo Came to Kabul

david swansonBefore Tahrir Square happened almost nobody predicted that President Hosni Mubarak would be forced out of office by a movement that didn’t pick up a gun. Had President Barack Obama expected that outcome, he might have publicly backed Mubarak’s departure before, rather than after, Mubarak stepped down.

Obama can be seen as overcompensating for that performance in Libya,but there he is placing faith in weapons. Anybody can do that. Egypt still has a long way to go on its path to a just society. But the question of whether Tunisian-Egyptian movements will find success elsewhere is the question of whether people can take the far more challenging step of placing trust in nonviolence.

Those who believed a nonviolent movement, one that would involve youth and women, could gain power in Egypt, worked for years to make it happen. Those saying it couldn’t be done were not permitted to get in the way of those doing it. Nonviolent strategists like American Gene Sharp advised the organizers of a force that developed completely beneath the U.S. media’s radar. What burst forth earlier this year appeared to be spontaneous. It was not.

It will come as a surprise to most Americans, and indeed to most Afghans, that a dedicated group of Afghan youth has begun building a principled and disciplined nonviolent movement for peace, independence, and unity in Afghanistan. By independence, the Afghan youth mean independence from the United States and NATO, but also from Pakistan and Iran and all other outside control, as well as independence from rule by the Taliban, warlords, and oligarchs of all stripes. By unity, they mean national Afghan unity inclusive of all ethnicities.

Bringing Cairo to Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, will not be achieved by occupying a central square this week and gradually increasing the crowd size for months and years as Afghans come to appreciate the value of the movement. Taking over the streets of the capital, if that tactic is employed, will not happen until a great deal of groundwork has been laid. That groundwork will likely involve several steps that have been identified by those working on this project.

Ethnic Unity

First, ethnic divisions will have to be healed. Afghanistan is 42% Pashtun, 27% Tajik, 9% Hazara, 9% Uzbek, and smaller percentages of several other ethnic groups. As long as these groups are rivals, it will be more difficult for the people as a whole to challenge corrupt oligarchs. A newspaper editor in Kabul told me he believed that even legitimate, credible elections — something Afghanistan has not had — would not produce a just and stable representative government, because any president would be from one ethnic group and not the others.

Afghans should be so lucky as to have that problem! The reality is that until the ethnic groups unite, and other progress is achieved, Afghans are unlikely to be able to compel their government to hold open and verifiable elections.

Ramazan Bashardost, a member of the Afghan Parliament, finished third in the official count of the 2009 presidential election. He is Hazara, and the first and second-place finishers were Pashtun and Tajik respectively. But Bashardost told me that he received more support from outside his ethnic group than from within it. Bashardost is a proponent of Gandhian nonviolence, ethnic unity, and national independence. He employs no security guards, cruises around town in a beat-up old car, and holds court in a tent in an empty lot in a particularly poor neighborhood.

Bashardost favors political reforms that would empower the legislature and disempower the president as well as political parties, thus allowing greater representation of minority groups. Bashardost is a powerful voice on the inside of the Afghan government for peace and nonviolence. Here is video of an interview I conducted with him. But Bashardost is not an activist or an organizer. He is a unifying figure, but he is a politician.

Teck Young Wee is another story. He is a medical doctor and a native of Singapore who began working with Afghan refugees in Pakistan 9 years ago and moved to Bamiyan Province in Afghanistan seven years ago. He was taken in by an Afghan family and given the name Hakim. Bamiyan is relatively free of U.S. forces and therefore something of a success story in terms of suffering low levels of violence.

Hakim has been mentoring youth in Bamiyan and elsewhere. The Bamiyan youth, primarily Hazara and Tajik, primarily boys and young men, but including girls and young women and other ethnic groups as well, have established the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers (AYPV). Peace is a radical idea, and apparently frightening to some. Hakim received threats from unidentified sources, and the people of Bamiyan created a warning system to protect him that involved plans to put their own bodies in the path of any violence. The threat has faded.

AYPV have taken steps toward ethnic unity, controversially arranging for college students from every ethnic group to room together. A similar approach of using housing rental policies to integrate the country on a larger scale is something I’ve heard advocated by professors in Kabul.

Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers from Bamiyan in the north have made particular efforts to reach out to Pashtun youth in the south. Peace volunteers hand made cell phone cases from second-hand leather and hand sewed the word ‘Peace’ in the Dari language on them. They sent these to Pashtun youth in Kandahar along with a video message. Then they phoned Pashtun youth leaders to say they had done this out of love and a desire for reconciliation. A Pashtun leader, in Hakim’s words (here’s video), “said this is impossible – he couldn’t believe it.” He said “this is a love you have shown us and we will never forget it.” That’s a powerful statement in a country where the things you most commonly hear people say they will never forget are acts of violence.

Hakim stresses that part of eliminating ethnic divisions will have to be recognizing and addressing the forces that strengthen them, namely the violence of warlords backed by the United States and NATO. Here, as elsewhere, is a chicken-and-egg dilemma. Unity is needed to drive out the occupiers, but the occupiers are a barrier to unity. Yet, this is always the way, and such traps have been opened before.

Women Behind the Wheel

A second part of the groundwork that is probably needed is the empowerment of women. A nonviolent peace movement stands a far greater chance of success, experts say, when it includes women and embraces a movement for women’s liberation.

An Afghan film director Sahraa Karimi has produced an engaging and illuminating documentary called “Afghan Women Behind the Wheel“. When she told me the title with a bit of an accent, I thought the last word was “Veil.” It could almost as well have been. The film is about the limited rights and options of women in a country that is not just poor and war-ravaged, but in which many men passionately believe women to be inferior.

The movie has great footage for anyone wondering what life in Kabul looks like, and it tells the stories of a number of women who learn to drive. In a scene that drew laughs from all the Afghans watching it with me, a driving instructor tells them “Another important thing is traffic lights, even though we don’t have any.” He goes on to explain what red, yellow, and green mean. I’m told there are a few traffic lights, but I haven’t seen them.

Something else you won’t see much of is women drivers. The women in the movie are violating a taboo. When they begin driving, vicious rumors are spread about them, including that they are working!

It’s actually very hard for anyone to find a job in Afghanistan, and driving lessons cost a good percentage of the average annual income. Some of the women in the movie are in fact working, one in a health clinic, one in a school, and one decides to become a taxi driver. She describes an unloved childhood and a forced marriage to a man 18 years her senior, a man who abused her. She enjoys the sport of Kabul driving, not a skill easily learned by anyone. Her story resembles the others’ — fathers prefer sons, sons inherit property, marriages are forced.

The taxi driver sees driving as the one thing she is able to do, and she is terrified of not being able to afford the gasoline to continue doing it. She dreams that cars might run on water. The same woman builds a house herself and loves it, but is afraid that her stepfather next door might hurt her or her children, and so lives in an apartment. Better times and changes come into her life, which is quite touching and revealing.

I certainly hope to see many more women driving in Afghanistan. If women are going to lead a movement, as they must, to reject both the U.S. occupation and the Taliban, they cannot remain in the position of children always asking for a ride.  continue to page 2

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