I have a kind of ritual for my Friday mornings (Fridays are the beginning of our weekend here). I wake early and do the following in no particular order: put on the coffee and heat soy milk for my morning latte, do my morning meditation, and spend at least a couple of hours reading emails and blogs. Then I make another latte and start to untangle all the thoughts and reflections that are crowding my mind - unwinding them into a post here.
So it is not surprising that my Friday morning posts tend to be crowded with ideas and this morning is no exception.
Home in Kabul got me thinking about Muslim women and feminism, this has been an discussion I've had with lots of Western feminists. I am really uncomfortable with the idea of Western women coming to the rescue of the oppressed Muslim woman. In my line of work it is easy to find examples of this kind of thinking. I particularly disliked the impact I noticed on Western women's perceptions of Muslim women and men of that spate of books that flooded the popular reading market a few years back - starting with "Not Without My Daughter". I would come home from my work in the Gaza Strip and find that women in the West wanted to hear about the terrible victimisation of Muslim women.
Then - soon after I left Gaza 9/11 happened and there was this other layer in it all. The message I saw everywhere I looked was of Arab and Muslim men as dangerous, violent, unpredictable and irrational. I am a Western feminist and it made me so uncomfortable, so angry - I can't imagine what it felt like for Muslim men and women.
I have only one very simple method for avoiding this kind of trap - it is to meet people, talk to people, to be open and ready to move very far from your comfort zone and to discover what the world looks like from a very different point of view. In Gaza and here in Afghanistan I don't want to do any work on "women's rights" without local women by my side - telling me their stories, sharing with me their analysis of the challenges and the ways forward. Ideally I also want lots of local men involved as well. After my recent post on Women's Day I think I need to take the opportunity here to point out that I have no problem finding Afghan men who want to work with me on projects and initiatives that will identify and try to remove the barriers preventing women from accessing their fundamental rights.
Of course I have prejudices and stereotypes, I bump into them all the time. I can only hope that by continuing to move away from certainty and a sense of my solid ground, by being always willing to move towards the questions and the uncertainties that I will also keep challenging those prejudices, and learning to let them go.
But wait - there is more from Home in Kabul - she also reminded me to go back and visit the weblog of Jan Pronk. I've posted here about Jan Pronk before, he was the UN Special Envoy to Sudan and amongst the Sudanese Government's complaints about him was the fact that he wrote about the situation in Sudan on his personal blog. His is an interesting story and you can read more about it in his own words, here. But the post that really got me thinking today was the one linked by Home in Kabul, where Jan Pronk lists 15 guidelines for peacekeepers.
Much of what he lists is common sense - 'International peacekeepers should respect their national colleagues, they know their own country better than we do', for example, and 'Delegate, trust your staff, work as a team'. This is fundamental and I don't think there is any way that anyone could get past step one in this kind of work if they don't really genuinely believe this, and act accordingly.
Some of what he says looks simpler on the surface than I find it to be in practice - 'Respect local cultures and traditions' for example seems to go without saying, except that some local traditions (in any setting, mind you, not only here in Afghanistan) are harmful to minorities or vulnerable groups. Child marriage is an obvious example. Finding ways to promote protection of child rights in communities where early marriage is a common and traditional practice is complicated and sensitive work - the best approach I know of is the point Jan makes above - respect your national colleagues, they are committed to the same human rights principles that you are AND they know their country so very much better than you do.
Some of his guidelines are more inspired - and resonate with my 'inner journey' - like:
10. Never be satisfied. There is no room for complacency, despite many achievements.
11. Insecurity, risk, uncertainty and political pressure are not a hindrance, but a challenge. They are no exceptions to a normal and stable pattern. They are not exogenous factors, but inherent to peacekeeping.
12. Fight bureaucracy. Fight also the bureaucrat in yourself. Stay a movement; keep the spirit of a pioneer.
13. Care for people. People first.
And finally - the must recurrent message of my life these days and weeks:
15. Please, stay