Transforming perceptions to create change

By Tabasum Wolayat. Tabasum is a graduate student of Social Anthropology at Oxford University, and has studied at Middlebury College in the US. She used to work as a BBC reporter, presenter and producer for the BBC’s Afghan women’s hour program in Kabul. You can read her previous post for No women, no peace. here.

Tabasum, do you enjoy your freedom here, in the West?

Tabasum, how do you live under oppression when you go back to Afghanistan, since you are free here?

Tabasum, how did your father and brother allow you to come here for an education?

I am asked these questions whenever I introduce myself from Afghanistan.

Well, my answer differs from person to person. I see their purpose in their questions and then respond to them.

For some, I tell stories of women who enjoy their freedom in any corner of my country.

For others, I remain silent and wish that they could have the capability of understanding that putting a headscarf on is not a source of oppression; staying at home and doing household chores is not a source of oppression.

I tell stories of fathers and brothers who have made sacrifices to educate their daughters and sisters. I want to tell them that fathers like my father are many in Afghanistan; my father is not the only one. There are many fathers who have tried their best for the future of their daughters, but their voices were not heard. They did not have the opportunity my father had; and their daughters did not have the opportunity I had.

In an international airport in the West, I was sitting beside a man who asked me where I was from. When I said from Afghanistan, right away he started talking about 9/11. After a pause and deep breath, he said: ‘No matter what Afghans are doing to my country, we are still helping them’. My answer to him was two words: ‘Thank you’. Sarcastically, of course, to quit the conversation. He made me feel awkward: as if I, as an Afghan, was guilty for what happened in 9/11; as if I, as an Afghan, was to apologise for what my country did to his country; as if I, as an Afghan, was to kneel down and thank him for what his country has been doing for me.

Well, this is how I am perceived in the West (by some people, to avoid generalization), an ‘oppressed’ and ‘extremist’ Afghan who has been ‘helped’ and ‘liberated’ by the West.

Now, how do we see the future of Afghanistan if we keep going like this?

I have come to the conclusion that stereotyping and ignoring each other will not help. After all, we Afghans stereotype Western women and men as well.

Since everyone in the world shares a common struggle – regardless of their place, gender and sex – we can overcome the problems we face when we are united as citizens of the World, when we stop labeling, mapping, and stereotyping each other. In my opinion, only oneness is able to challenge the systemic oppression that we face.

Let’s communicate more and understand more. Let’s build a bridge and fill the gap. Only understanding and raising awareness can bring positive change.

The photo shows the historic Pul-i-Malan (Malan Bridge) in Afghanistan: a long bridge that appears to be built from bricks, with two turrets, stretching across a shallow river with a bright blue sky in the background. By United Nations Photo, shared under a Creative Commons licence.