Women on Streets of Kabul

In a very shocking experiment, a female reporter of 1TV, goes undercover to reveal what “a typical day in life of a woman in Kabul” looks like. All she does is appearing on streets and waiting for a taxi. It was apparently enough for a non-stop caravan of cars pulling over to “pick her up:” they offer her money, they brag about working for high level officials, they use whatever trick in the book to talk the lady into their vehicles. A hidden camera recorded the experiment only  for 27 minutes, during which, more than 80 cars stopped by to talk to Arezo Nawbahar, the reporter, as if she was a prostitute waiting for her next client.

She doesn’t dress very provocatively, to blame it on her appearance. Even women under burqa, the video shows, are regular targets of harassment  by men who consider any woman on street as a potential sex worker. (This video also shows how prostitution works in the city.)

This is just catastrophic, even the thought of being a woman in that city makes me sick. What a total collapse of morality. Shame.

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Reading Jane Jacobs Today

Jane Jacobs

Jane Jacobs

In the opening line of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs says that her book is an “attack on the current urban planning and rebuilding” (p. 3). She wrote this in the 1960s, when large-scale urban redevelopment projects were transforming the shape of American cities. However, Death and Life is not just a battle cry from the 1960s, it is a book of novel ideas and  insights that are still relevant to the urban experience. At the height of centralized urban planning practices in New York led by Robert Moses, Jacobs was the flag bearer of U.S. urbanists who fought against his destructive projects (e.g. Cross Bronx Expressway) in city councils, editorials and on the streets. In the end, Moses managed to finish most of his projects and fundamentally transform New York City. Despite this, Jacobs carried on her struggles by writing this book, one that half a century later still continues to influence how the public and the planners perceive and produce city spaces.

Jacobs’ main purpose is to challenge the mainstream planning principles of her time: superblocks, car-oriented mobility solutions, separation of land uses, lack of attention to density and overlooking racial issues. As an alternative approach, she proposes a number of key solutions to make cities work better: (a) a district should be mixed and serve several primary functions; (b) blocks must be short and walkable in order to maintain a dynamic street life; (c) urban buildings should be diverse in terms of age, physical condition, functions and rentals; and finally, (d) neighbourhoods should be crowded and dense to create a sense of community and safety.

Jacobs puts a great emphasis on street life. Sidewalk interactions, she argues, are essential to enhance racial and class integration. She even wants streets to serve as playgrounds. Children should be able to “fool around” on streets, instead of playing “recognized games” in the parks. (p. 85) She is particularly against the Corbusian notions of open spaces and big parks. Jacobs, instead, proposes small neighbourhood parks and playgrounds, spaces that could be easily accessed and constantly used.

Death and Life, in particular, attacks urban planners and their established principles. That was why, in response, they reacted by counterattacks and mockery: Lewis Mumford (1962), in his New Yorker review, called her book “Mother Jacobs’ Home Remedies,” while a reviewer for the Journal of the American Institute of Planners accused her of naïveté and contemptuously added: “The enchanted ballerina of Hudson Street, with a chip on her shoulder, would throw the baby out with the bathwater” (Hoppenfeld, 1962, p. 136). These harsh reactions were partly because of Jacobs’ position as an outsider: she had no formal training in planning and she had never finished college.

Today, Jacobs’ ideas about walkability, safety, mixed-use development and density are being practiced in many cities, including her hometown of New York, where its outgoing mayor has been pushing for bike lines, neighbourhood revitalization and pedestrian-only areas in downtown. With the increasing influence of new technology on how we behave, consume and work, it is not only the planners who transform cities but an array of other agents who are shaping the urban experience: software developers, health agencies, small business, large corporations, local authorities, security institutions and, most importantly, ordinary citizens. This is a significantly more collective and participatory form of planning which Jacobs advocated.

The car is no longer a universal object of desire. In response to environmental and health concerns, an increasing number of cities in the world are redefining their transportation strategies to accommodate cyclists. Apart from bicycle-sharing projects in North American cities, there are cities like Copenhagen where 55% of urban trips are done on bicycles (Tagliabue, 2011). The city is no longer “a wonderful mechanical toy” built for cars (Jacobs, 1993, p. 23). The city today, thanks to Jacobs and other urban advocates like her, are more human-friendly, healthier and more inclusive.

Death and Life is rich for its insightful ideas about the social and economic dynamics of city neighbourhoods. It suffers, however, from the lack of a rigorous methodology and theoretical basis: it seems that Jacobs has based the entire book on personal observations and anecdotal evidence. Her most important contribution, in my opinion, is participatory urbanism, a kind of approach in planning process that values the people’s interest and engagement. This is her lasting legacy in city planning. Therefore, one could argue that she lost the battle against Moses, but won the war.

References:

Hoppenfeld, M. (1962). The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs [Review]. Journal of the American Institute of Planners, 28 (2), 136–137.

Jacobs, J. (1993). The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House

Mumford, L. (1962, December 1). “Mother Jacobs’ home remedies.” The New Yorker. Accessed October 18, 2013: http://www.newyorker.com/archive/1962/12/01/1962_12_01_148_TNY_CARDS_000269697

Tagliabue, J. (2011, Sep. 13). “In City of Cyclists, Pedestrians Feel the Squeeze”. The New York Times. Accessed October 22, 2013: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/14/world/europe/in-copenhagen-pedestrians-feel-squeezed-out-by-cyclists.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

Thirsty for Knowledge: Student Hunger Strike in Kabul

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Female students too taking part in protests and hunger strike

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Hunger strike under the sun.

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About 70 students in hunger strike.

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After the today rain in Kabul, students are coverd under a plastic.

A large group of male and female students from the Faculty of Social Sciences at Kabul University have been in hunger strike and in a sit-in protest near the parliament building since May 20. They number around 70 and all of them are Hazaras. So far, about 30 of them have been  hospitalized.  Not only the international media has ignored the event, even the non- Hazara Afghan media, in particular Tolo and Ariana TVs have turned a blind eye on the ongoing protest which has been the central topic in Afghan blogsphere and social networking sites for the last week (interestingly, the owners of both TV stations are Shia, but they are very cautious to keep away from anything related to the Hazaras).

The students protest against ethnic discrimination, corruption and the “illiteracy” of the teaching staff in the faculty, and in particular, they demand the removal of Farouq Abdulla the dean (the same guy who physically assaulted a Hazara female student in 2011) and Faisal Amin one of the faculty members from the university. It’s the first time that a student protest is centered on the reformation of universities rather than on political or religious issues which have been more common in the past.

Unlike other faculties at KU, about 80 percent of the students at Social Science faculty (who got admissions through a national entrance exam, Konkor) are Hazaras. This faculty which houses the departments of Philosophy and Sociology, Archeology and History, has been the main destination for many Hazrara students who come mostly from central provinces.

According to the students, the professors have been systematically trying to fail the Hazara students en mass and repeatedly so, in order to make them drop the university. The majority of teachers don’t have a degree higher than a BA from KU, therefore, their knowledge of the subjects they teach is extremely limited. They use failing grades as a weapon against students who appear to know more than themselves.

This kind of corruption is a common issue in all the 14 faculties of KU, but the students at Social Sciences are naturally more vocal, as they are (supposed to be) the future philosophers and social thinkers of this country, for whom, reasoning and questioning would be part of their job description.

According to sources close to Arg, Hamid Karzai has summoned Osman Baburi the deputy Minister of Higher Education for an explanation. Baburi who is a notorious anti-Hazara figure from Herat,  accused the students of being dishonest and took side with the university’s corrupt profs and administrators. Karzai, apparently believed him.

Authorities from Independent Joint Anti-Corruption Monitoring and Evaluation Committee have visited the protestors and have shared the findings of their investigation about Kabul University, confirming that ethnic discrimination is a widespread issue there and profs tend to grade the students based on ethnic, linguistic and religious affiliation.

Different groups of politicians and activists from every ethnic group have given the students a visit for solidarity, among them, the speaker and many members of parliament, community activists from NGOs and some journalists. A group of musicians and poets even organised a nuit blanche on Thursday night at the site of the protest.

According to recent news, groups of students in Daikundi and Herat have organised rallies in support of the Kabul students. This is becoming a national issue.

It seems that a new and genuine grassroots movement is taking shape directly in response to the everyday problems of the ordinary people. Unlike most of other rallies in Kabul, they are not funded by foreign NGOs and they don’t care about fancy slogans attractive for international media. Their demands are simple and real: knowledge and the equal opportunity for everyone to pursue it.

Note:

All photos from the official Facebook page of the student protest.

“Turkish Fantasy”

Intercontinental’s “Turkish Fantasy” ad in The Kabul Times, 1976

Turkish Fantasy

Presenting the fantastic Turkish “Safak” belly dancer every night except Mondays from Dec. 14th to Dec. 23rd at the Pamir Supper Club. Cover charge Afs. 75.

The Kabul Times (Vol. XV, NO 215, December 12, 1976, p. 3)

Good old days at Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel, eh!

Dammit! I missed the good times!

Kabuli girls in the past. Photo: THOMAS ABERCROMBIE / National Geographic

Afghan women in Kabul probably in 80s (judging by the hair!) . Photo: STEVE RAYMER / National Geographic

These two pictures are from good old days of Kabul when walking the streets of the city was fun! The young women in these pictures are probably old ladies now, whose daughters can only appear in public with a Burqa or hijab. The cultural change in this city is unbelievable.

“For what sin was she created?”

A Hazara woman in Central Afghanistan. Photo: urozgan.org

“For what sin was she killed?” (Al-Takwir: 9)

This is a popular verse in Quran that Muslim preachers and orators use a lot in  mourning ceremonies of Martyrs. In particular, the Shias use it during Moharram days when they commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, the prophet’s grandson in 680 AD.

This verse is part of the  Al-Takwir (the overthrowing) Sura, where God describes the Judgement Day and apocalypse. The Sura goes like this:

When the sun is wrapped up [in darkness]. And when the stars fall, dispersing. And when the mountains are removed. And when full-term she-camels are neglected. And when the wild beasts are gathered. And when the seas are filled with flame. And when the souls are paired. And when the girl [who was] buried alive is asked. For what sin was she killed.  And when the pages are made public. And when the sky is stripped away. …………………. (The full text here).

The verse in question is one of the rare examples where God turns feminist and criticizes the long-established Arab tradition of burying the female children alive right after they were born. This tradition which had roots in tribal honor was demolished when the Arabs converted to Islam (however, still in many Muslim countries in the world, including Afghanistan, it’s a shame for a man if his wife gives birth to a girl – although they don’t bury the babies anymore).

Asad Buda, a writer in Kabul has written a lyrical short piece about his mother and rest of Afghan mothers, inspired by the above picture which shows a white-haired woman in central Afghanistan carrying a large load of plants on her back. The woman’s face is wrinkled, her body is bent, her cloths are old and dirty, she is exhausted of walking the long mountain road and will be even more exhausted until she arrives home. This is her entire life suffering in misery, poverty and isolation until the day she dies. Buda has altered that Quranic verse and asks: “For what sin was she created?” His question is addressed to God who should give an answer on Judgement Day to many millions of Afghan women. Only if that day ever comes.

Being a woman on Kabul streets

Women crossing the Sher Shah Mina St. (the road to Kabul Uni). Kabul / Sep. 2010

Today I saw an episode of Shabkhand (Farsi video), a comedy talk show on 1TV hosted by Asef Jalalai, one of Afghanistan’s most popular stand up comedians. The guest was the self-satisfied director of a horrible Afghan soup opera on 1TV, whose childish braggings aside, told a couple of good stories.

One of the rather funny stories he told was a real one happened on the set of his show on a Kabul street:

We were on the street to shoot a small scene on location, where the actress Amena Taqavi was waiting to stop a Taxi, get into the car and drive away. She was standing alone on the street and the Taxi  driver was waiting for me to shout “action!” to move, but before I could open my mouth, a random guy in a Toyota Corolla pulled over beside the actress and asked her to get into his car. My assistant waved at the guy to go away, but he insisted to “pick up” the girl, “it’s none of your business, I’m taking her!” he yelled at him. Finally my assistant went closer to him and explained that the girl is not a street woman, she is in the middle of a TV scene right now. As soon as the man noticed the camera and the crew, left the scene and let us do our five minute work.

As awkward and sad as it sounds, this story is the real life of women on  streets of Kabul. A couple of months ago, a BBC Persian TV reporter (Farsi video) followed two young women on a Kabul street for 10 minutes and he counted 6 cars attempting to pick them up by seducing or threatening words.

In part, this dirty culture has roots in street prostitution in Kabul. In a city of five million people, of whom the vast majority are poor, with a large population of widows, the growth of underground urban businesses like love trade is quite natural. Unlike other similar cities like Tehran and Lahore, the problem in Kabul, is that there are no (open secret) red light areas, where the prostitutes would work, therefore any woman on any street in any part of the city, by default, is regarded as a slut. Talking about his issue in public is a social taboo which makes it more difficult to find a solution; you can’t solve a problem that you pretend doesn’t exists. Afghan men, as far as I know, would not volunteer in speaking up on this matter, so it’s up to the Afghan women – the victims – to take action and raise their voices by better means than occasional street rallies.

A female student of Kabul University, beaten up by dean

Zainab Khavari the injured student at KU / Photo: Bokhdi

At the social science faculty of Kabul University, a young female student was beaten up by the dean, Mr. Ghulam Farouq Abdullah, to the extent that one of her hands was broken, Bokhdi News Agency reported.

The student, Zainab Khavari, was in Mr. Abdullah’s office to ask him if she could participate in final exams, as due to her absence, she was not allowed to do so. Usually in some cases, the dean has the authority to forgive a student’s absence, if she/he had good reasons. Ms. Khavari has told Bokhdi that she has to work and study at the same time, so her absence reached beyond the acceptable limit.

According to the report, when the dean refused her petition and asked Zainab to get out of his office, she repeated her request, this time the dean lost control and attacked her with a stick; the academic assistant and a professor were also present. After the violent attack she noticed that her hand was broken, she went to the 3rd district police station, but no one listened to her, she then went to Afghanistan Human Right Commission, where she filed a complaint.

Physical violence is not very common at Kabul University campus; however, there are several incidents I can remember from my years of studying and then teaching there, when students were beaten either by profs or the security guards.

I believe this particular incident is the result of the intense ethnic hostility in Kabul University, as Zainab is a Hazara apparently a returnee from Iran who are mostly more expressive and self-confident in verbal confrontations.

Social science faculty is where the Hazara students are predominant in number, so the sensitivity against them is very high. Years of absence from Afghanistan’s education scene, made the Hazaras to rush to schools after the fall of Taliban in 2001 and this obviously has made some officials uncomfortable –though still the number of Hazara students at Kabul University is very small, considering their general population. In 2008, the chair of the philosophy department in social science faculty, a guy named Ahmad Zia Nikbin was famous for publicly ranting racist stuff against the Hazara people in his classrooms. The Hazara students decided to protest in front of the Higher Education Ministry, where one of the three Hazara employees of the ministry asked the minister to expel Nikbin. He was removed from his post, and then he returned after a while and took his teaching job, but not as a department chair. He also occasionally came to our department as well for teaching, I could say his knowledge of philosophy was embarrassingly little. However, he hanged a portrait of himself beside the portraits of Plato, Aristotle, Hegel and Kant on his office wall.

Anyway, the environment at Kabul University is really sick and dirty, the students are hostiles, the profs are ignorant, and the future is dark. I know more than one professor whose native tongue was Persian, but they still couldn’t read a simple Persian text from the book. This is catastrophe, I do not expect from these “scholars”, more than violence, ignorance and racism. The worst thing is that I don’t see any possibility to fix this; the only solution would be to remove them en mass from the university, which in this government is impossible.

SlutWalk in Kabul

Afghan women rally in Kabul july 14, 2011 / Photo: UNDispatch

On January 24, 2011 Michael Sanguinetti a Toronto police officer was invited to speak at a York University safety forum about crime prevention. He said among other things: “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” This classic blame-the-victim tone outraged the women activists in Toronto who initiated, a now worldwide, movement known as SlutWalk.

The first SlutWalk took place on April 3, 2011 in Toronto in which hundreds of women dressed half naked as prostitutes rallied and carried signs protesting the sexual harassment of women in public spaces.  Soon women in other cities in Canada, United States, and some European countries organized their own SlutWalks and it became officially an international movement.

Last week a group of young girls gathered in Kabul city and rallied for the same cause of protesting sexual harassment on streets, however they avoided to call their event a SlutWalk. The rally which was well-reported in international press was composed of about 30 men and women. Although the girls were all decently clothed and no one looked sluty, the rally itself was probably a discreet response to the international SlutWalk movement.

They carried signs which read “the street belongs to me too” and “we won’t be silent anymore”. There were some religious signs as well, which made me uncomfortable. One said “street harassment is a sin” the other held a hadis, quote from the prophet: “only the inferior people insult the women” – visible in the above picture. Well, my question is how do you promote gender equality among Afghan people by religious rhetoric? Religion doesn’t work here, for two reasons.

One, people of Afghanistan is fed up with religious hypocrisy, everybody knows what is wrong and what is right in Islam, but still keep doing all the robberies, murders, bribery, lies, deceptions, …. Look at the corrupt mullas, officials and the public; this people are sick and dirty in all possible levels. So religious preaching is meaningless to them, although they are considered Muslim fundamentalists. The second reason is that you can’t fight Islam with Islam. The mullah in the following video says exactly what the Canadian policeman in Toronto said: women should stop dressing provocatively in public in order to remain safe.  He cites Islam for that, luckily he is a Shia mulla from Hazara ethnic group who have a more moderate stand on women. If it was a Sunni mull, he would repeat the true Islamic Sharia, the kind we experienced during the Taliban.

It is very hard to accept it, but what Taliban did to women in terms of appearing in public was actually based on Islamic teachings. Today, if the Afghan women are genuinely in pursuit of equality, they would not acquire it by hypocritically chanting religious quotes on streets and demanding Islamic Sharia; in contrary, they should fight this Islamic-infused misogynist culture by all other means. I wish them best of luck!