Changing Perceptions in Afghanistan

I felt a wave of triumph in realizing that the first misogynist man I'd met in Afghanistan perhaps no longer saw my gender as a threat and he was more interested in progressing though our work.
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I recently met a friend who works for a nonprofit advocacy organization for Afghanistan. As we traded stories about Afghanistan, he asked me if I had "felt" the changes in the eight years that I spent in the country.

This was not the first time I was asked the same question. In fact, I'm asked on a regular basis whether or not I think there has been much progress, especially for women in Afghanistan. The short answer is a simple: yes, Afghanistan has changed a lot for better since I first arrived in the country almost a decade ago.

I was born in Afghanistan to a family who hails from Kunar province, a place which was popularized in the documentary Restrepo and most recently, was the setting for an ambush on the Afghan National Army that killed 21 soldiers. My parents moved to Canada when I was still a baby and I was raised with all the comforts of a Western upbringing.

In 2005, I decided to go back to Afghanistan to volunteer as a radio trainer for a Canadian nonprofit. I was meant to stay for six months. I ended up living and working there for nearly ten consecutive years.

Two weeks into my arrival, I headed out on my first provincial site visit to a radio station. After driving for about an hour and half on slippery dangerous roads with two of my Canadian female colleagues (neither of Afghan descent), hiking up a large snowy hill to what looked like a tiny tree house with a small satellite, we arrived at a small independently run radio station. We were in the middle of the mountains.

Upon arrival, we were greeted by the manager, a man with a long beard wearing paran tumban, the traditional clothes for many Afghan men. He was stern-looking and seemed almost irritated at our presence, but it was hard to be sure as we were offered the traditional Afghan hospitality of hot green tea as soon as we sat.

My friends and I were excited because it was our first time at a local Afghan radio station. We couldn't wait to discuss the equipment, broadcast training and satellite maintenance issues with him.

But my excitement soon ended when the station manager fixated on me and launched a series of questions which had nothing to do with supporting his radio station. He looked directly at me and asked if I was Afghan. I answered him happily and honestly. I had grown up abroad and this was my first time back in my actual homeland. He persisted with: "Are you married?" "Where is your family?" "Why are you travelling alone?"

At first I was answering him politely, assuming he was simply curious and maybe this was an introduction of sorts. Maybe this was normal. But it only got worse. "Why did your father let you travel alone (especially for a Pashtun Afghan girl)?" "Why are you travelling with infidels?"

I really didn't have a split second or the guts to get a word in edgewise. My new and just as hopeful colleagues were quietly and politely sitting back, perhaps thinking that this was a language issue and perhaps even feeling like it was their loss not to talk to this man. At one point one of them whispered to me "what's a KAFIR? He keeps looking at us and saying that."

I'm sure she learned one day that it means infidel but on that day I told her it was "visitor or foreigner."

The station manager went on a few tirades that I'm not sure I quite absorbed fully but it was all said in a general tone of utter disgust. I just let him go on until he paused and I had time to say we needed some questions answered for our boss in order to provide him the equipment. He muttered something about the satellite coverage. My heart wasn't in it anymore but I made a note of what he said with no desire to talk to him further. We all said our no-eye-contact goodbyes and we were on our way out. I didn't tell my colleagues how mean he'd been because I didn't know how to deal with it myself.

That was my first experience of the sort with many more to come. It was the most significant for me because it was the first time I saw firsthand that confronting a hate or dislike that stemmed from gender, ethnicity or anything that I could never have controlled, is not up for discussion.

That was month one. Fast forward a few years and it was now 2008. I was working in Afghanistan's emerging private media sector. Our company was hosting an event to unify the many provincial radio and TV stations managers.

During the event, as I was talking to some of the local heads of the radio stations I knew personally now, a man approached me: he was the same station manager from my very first provincial visit. "You are still here," he asked me. This time I was tense but he appeared relaxed and at ease. We spoke for about 15 minutes. I was afraid he would launch into yet another tirade about his disapproval of my working as an Afghan Pashtoon female in the presence of men. But to my utter surprise, he passionately talked about how well his radio station was doing, their new programs, and the renovated studio. He was actually discussing what we were here to discuss and appeared to be indifferent to my gender.

I felt a wave of triumph in realizing that the first misogynist man I'd met in Afghanistan perhaps no longer saw my gender as a threat and he was more interested in progressing though our work. I highly doubt he suddenly respected me -- but what does that matter when I'd at least become somewhat a normal sight for him.

As years went by and more Afghan women stepped into the work place and in the growing Afghan media, I could see the country had come a long way since 2001. And progress for women was and is continuing despite incredible challenges facing them in a male dominated society of Afghanistan. I've seen that the younger generation of Afghans, who literally grew up in the last 12 years and make up the majority of the population, are more open to interacting with women and more comfortable working together with women in the same office than those who grew up during the Taliban and other past regimes.

Perhaps, it's the increased level of education, openness of the society, the growing influence of the Afghan media, or the presence of the international community which has allowed this change of perceptions to take root in the last 12 years. But for Afghan women, these leaps and bounds could revert to the dark past if the world forgets them after 2014. That's how fragile things are in Afghanistan. Yet I am still hopeful that my fellow Afghans, especially the women of the country, will defy the violent extremists and become an accepted, if not respected, part of Afghan society.

Mina Sharif is an Afghan-Canadian who worked for international aid agencies and private Afghan media industry, most recently as the Executive Producer of Baghche-e Simsim (Afghan Sesame Street) at Afghanistan's premier Television Station, TOLO.

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