Afghanistan's Favored People

It was an interest in elephants that led Shanthini Dawson to Afghanistan, a country of high mountains and rugged terrain where most people don’t know what an elephant looks like. But for Dawson, the trajectory was quite logical. Working on elephant ranges, which were expected to be “people-free,” led to an awareness about the exclusionary aspects of environmental policy, which broadened into an interest in social development.

Vrinda Dar in Badakshan Province

The rest was a natural progression.

Even for Afghanistan, which attracts unusual people, Dawson stands apart. She applied for her job in Afghanistan because of her growing interest in Islamic populations sparked by her work amongst the Rohingas of the Rakhine state of Thailand (bordering the Chittagong area of India). Initially Dawson was to come to Afghanistan while the Taliban was still in power. 9/11 changed all that and Shanthini finally arrived in 2002. Unwilling to join the “UN circus” as she calls it, she opted to work in the field with Christian Aid in its community based programs before joining the Government of Afghanistan.

Currently she works as an adviser to the Minister of Education, playing a critical role in shaping and implementing the national education strategy that has brought 5 million children into schools, one of the few major achievements of post Taliban reconstruction, an endeavor otherwise riddled with loopholes, missed opportunities, weak policy and poor implementation.

Even for Afghanistan which attracts unusual people, Shanthini dawson stands apart

While Dawson is an international development specialist, her Indian identity underpins much of her work in Afghanistan. Though Western countries dominate the post conflict development paradigm in Afghanistan, both in the areas of policy and finances, Indian expertise is increasingly being valued. Because of the cultural similarity, shared history and economic milieu, regional experience enjoys a premium.

Dawson brings the regional expertise “subconsciously” into her work, which has also taken her on frequent trips to India for tie ups with Indian institutions.

“When technical assistance is from the region, people are able to accept it better,” she says, touching on one of the most sensitive aspects of nation building in Afghanistan, the prickly hostility of Afghans to occupation and patronizing.

Even amongst the regional countries, Indians are perhaps the most favored community. Afghans look upon India as a friend without ulterior motives, something they treasure as many of them feel that most of the international community has played a self-serving role in Afghanistan. This friendship is undoubtedly clinched by a hostility towards Pakistan, who Afghans blame for much of the recent violence in their country. Coupled with a craze for films and soap operas emanating from Bollywood, the love affair is passionate, even if it quite one-sided.

For Indians residing in Afghanistan this warmth is palpable and makes for easy access to all corridors, from those of power to ordinary homes.

Pushpa Pathak with her Kabul Municipality colleagues

The word “hind” opens doors, says Vrinda Dar, a community development specialist based in Kabul.

Dar had a more than unusual reason for taking up a job in Afghanistan. She wanted to “settle down.” An unsettling country to most, a job with a reputed international NGO seemed steady to Dar after a period of itinerant wanderings as a freelancer. That and the irresistible lure of a challenge of a lifetime. In Afghanistan, Dar works in community development projects, often traveling to rural areas, a space she finds more real and accepting than urban Kabul.

Initially people are skeptical, but they warm up soon, Dar says. Married to an Italian, she experienced an outsider bias in small town Italy until people got to know her better and elected her to the community council.

In Kabul her life is constrained by a plethora of restrictions that limit her movements and interactions so strictly that even her organization cannot be named. Expatriates working for international organizations are barred from walking on the streets, must undertake door to door travel under armed escort, are subject to night curfews and prohibited from using of public transport; many areas are simply out of bounds. Every fresh incident of violence brings further clampdowns. Dar’s organization also bars visits to the homes of Afghans. The restrictions are even greater for women.

If Indians are favored, women, in general, are not. War, displacement, extreme conservatism, overlaid with exposure to TV’s pop culture of commodification of women and a liberalism movement has created a confused value system that has a strong streak of hostility toward women in public spaces. Whether it is women going to work, walking outside their homes or participating in public life, a visible minority is openly hostile, and most expat women live with some sense of discomfort if they venture out of protected spaces. Dar finds this accentuated in cities like Kabul, because “people here do not get to talk to you,” unlike more intense community based interactions in rural areas.

“I feel like I am in a cage” says Dar, adding that the need for male protection as soon as a woman steps out of the home or office makes her feel handicapped.

For Pushpa Pathak, one of the one of the few women to brave the male dominated corridors of Kabul Municipality as a senior adviser, her Indian experience was invaluable in dealing with the gender discrimination. Pathak who grew up in a conservative family in Ballia, in Western Uttar Pradesh, initially had a hard time convincing her family when she decided to come to Afghanistan. The challenge of working in Afghanistan appealed to her as it is “the biggest development challenge in the least developed countries,” even more so in the post conflict countries.

Her Indianness worked in two ways to break barriers. The initial difficulty in communicating with colleagues who had never encountered a woman in a working environment was overcome as her Indian identity helped open doors. Professionally, her Indian experience also bears great resemblance to Afghanistan. An example is the planning and municipal laws, the principle of customary ownership, and cost recovery strategies for municipal services, which mirror Indian practices. The significant difference perhaps is that the regional expertise helps in dealing with these challenges better than western solutions.

Pathak feels it is important to not come with preconceptions or models, but to instead develop them indigenously. She says she is now so well assimilated that her colleagues no longer remember she is a woman.

She says she was able to overcome “a rough beginning,” because the resistance to a woman in a senior position is something she had to overcome in India as well, especially in the early stages of her career. Small town India, Pathak says, has the same attitude and she remembers many a round table meetings where she would be bypassed completely as people assumed she was either present in a secretarial capacity or would have nothing worthwhile to say. It was by doggedly maintaining her space and her professional attitude that Pathak was able to make inroads in India, something she also adopted here to survive.

Of her colleagues in Kabul she say : “Perhaps some of them had never talked to a woman outside their family and there was resistance in listening to a woman. I continued and did not get disturbed,” building relationships with patience over endless cups of green tea, Afghanistan’s favored way of engaging whether it is between friends, or business partners, deal makers, politicians or even sizing up an adversary.

Adaptation is perhaps the most important feature of surviving in Afghanistan at both the professional and personal level. For Indian women, the experience is intensified. As Indian and women, they get to straddle the contradictory and peculiar space of love and hate that makes their experience distinctive – sometimes bizarre but always unique.

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