Afghanistan: fundamentalism, education, and the minds of the people

Women can only hope for a better future if the next generation of Afghans is taught to unlearn religious, cultural, and gender prejudices that are instrumental in their oppression. Education is pivotal to this vision, and it is the single attainable factor that keeps the hope of our women alive

Democracy, human rights and gender equality are the cornerstones of enduring peace and progress in Afghanistan. However, in such a context where peoples’ lives continue to hang in the balance of a harsh fundamentalist culture, and complex socio-economic and political challenges, attaining them has been an onerous all-time struggle. 

Afghans of today inherited patterns of thoughts and behaviours that sharply distinguish status, roles, social claims, entitlements, rights and opportunities on the basis of gender, cultural, and religious stereotypes.  It has perpetuated divisions among people, resulting in the subordination and oppression of the weak. The aftermaths have been disastrous to the powerless -  the women, the poor, the ethnic minorities, and those who are victimized by perverse interpretation of Islam and religious teachings.

For Afghan women, it is particularly disastrous. The combined impacts of cultural, religious and gender prejudices have reduced their status into worthless human beings, without rights, exploited and oppressed - especially by family members who are supposed to be their sources of strength and protection. Nowadays, with the anticipated departure of international supporters by the end of 2014, Afghan women are fighting a fierce battle to protect the gains that they had won during the last decade. Foremost in our agenda is the preservation of the 2009 Law on the Elimination of Violence against Women which serves as its main source of protection against 22 acts of violence that are now punishable under the law.  The recent resurgence of Taliban influence in the country’s governance institutions threatens to abrogate this law and leave Afghan women defenceless in the face of extreme cruelty. In this situation, women can only hope for a better future if the next generation of Afghans is taught to unlearn religious, cultural, and gender prejudices that are instrumental in their oppression.

On the whole, our inability to advance economically and politically is rooted in this malady.  We need to overhaul our social structure in a way that would render inequalities, religious extremism, and lawlessness an anachronism. Afghanistan should breed a fresh generation of people who would unequivocally stand for freedom, peace, good governance and social justice. We need to breed an army of young women and men who will put a stop to the inter-generational transmission of ideologies that make religion, gender, and culture a justification for terrorism, violence, banditry, suppression of rights, social inequity and all forms of injustices that make the lives of Afghans regressive and miserable.  We need non-traditional leaders who can bring unity to our people, heal the wounds of our battered past, and bring everybody on a collective journey forward.

Education is pivotal to this vision. If there is any country in the world whose need for non-stereotyped learning is most profound, it is Afghanistan. Removing cultural, religious and gender prejudices in the curricula and educational materials is a strategic entry point towards a meaningful life.  There are no available studies on the extent of religious and cultural prejudices in Afghan schools. With regard to gender, however, a study conducted in 2010 by Khalid Fahim, entitled “Gender Issues and Textbooks: Gender Bias in Pashto Primary School Textbooks in Afghanistan” showed how roles depicted for women in our school textbooks continue to be stereotyped, less active, and confined to reproductive, non-decision making spheres of life.  There were disproportionately less portrayals of women and whenever they were depicted in public spheres of life, they were shown in traditionally-females roles as teachers and vaccinators. Concepts and languages were male-centred, resulting in female invisibility in many subjects. Worse, school authorities and personnel believe that the roles of women in the textbooks need to reflect the values of a conservative Islam society, an indication that Afghan schools serve the purpose of reproducing patriarchy, gender conservatism, and female marginalisation.

In the last decade, the removal of stereotypes in educational materials and curricula has received attention from certain donors, NGOs and international organizations. However, such effort is too minimal to generate a transformative potential to society, particularly on the generations to come.  There are five essential requisites that appear to have been missed appear to have been missed.

The elimination of prejudices in school curricula and learning materials must be predicated upon a strong commitment to the principles of democracy and human rights.  Respect for rights and human life, equality, non-discrimination, individual freedom, empowerment of the disadvantaged, tolerance and inclusiveness are vital to the framing of principles and initiatives around non-prejudice in the schools. The elimination of religious, cultural, and gender-based stereotypes in curricula and learning materials will have a stronger chance of being sustained if it is founded upon the commitment of school officials, personnel, students, parents, and citizens to democratic and human rights values, making it both a political and personal exercise rather than a mere official task or responsibility of some civil servants and professionals, who, after a while, may no longer be in the position to support non-stereotyping in the school system.   

The elimination of stereotypes in school curricula and learning materials may never succeed if pursued as a stand-alone approach. Rather, it has to be positioned within a comprehensive strategy to address the very roots of prejudices in all walks of life. This requires collaborative efforts, especially among institutions that set the framework defining what is, or is not, acceptable in a given society. Foremost among these, in Afghanistan, is the religious sector which has a very strong commanding influence over the minds and behavior of people. Religious leaders should echo what the schools teach.  Any dissonance is highly likely to lead to confusion, tension, and struggle among institutions and people.  Thus, to be meaningful and sustainable, interventions to rid schools of stereotypes need to begin with multi-sectoral consensus building about the path of transformation, and pursued at the broadest level.

Breaking away from stereotypes within school settings requires a robust teacher-student partnership. Teachers and students usually come to school with their own deep-seated stereotypes, and because of this, teachers must have the proper training to deal with stereotyping as it arises in the school setting and classroom interactions. Training for this purpose has to be incorporated into teachers’ education and refresher training curricula, so that students may acquire the skills to determine and question stereotypes whenever and wherever they occur, regardless of whether they are exhibited by fellow students or by school authorities. Teaching materials should incorporate practical exercises in actually detecting religious, cultural, and gender stereotypes, as well as skills in offering alternatives to such stereotypes.

Participatory monitoring of biases and stereotypes:  Although certain State agencies have official responsibility to ensure that textbooks and school materials are free from cultural, religious, and gender stereotypes, this responsibility is actually shared by everybody. Parents, students, media, civic organizations and other sectors of society must be encouraged to participate in ridding school materials and textbooks of such kinds of stereotypes through reporting, critiquing, and providing alternatives that will promote equality between boys/men and girls/women. Accessible mechanisms through which such sectors can coordinate and report on the presence of stereotypes in school materials, curricula and practices must be set in place.  Parents and teachers associations should consider including the elimination of prejudices in schools as one of their active areas of concern.

Teaching materials and textbooks free of stereotypes are not enough.  It is equally important for school institutions, authorities and personnel to demonstrate their commitment against such stereotypes through policies, practices, statements and activities.  For example, schools should strive for at least 30 % representation of women/men in school decision making. Teaching practices, school infrastructures, languages, and everything else in the school must reflect the absence of religious, cultural and gender stereotypes. Any message or act suggesting tolerance of violence against women must be nipped in the bud.  All sexist and culturally offensive language should be removed.  Terminologies like “mankind” should be replaced with “humankind”. Language comes with mental images, and putting “boys and men” ahead of “girls and women” all the time will reinforce the subliminal message that men and boys are more important and should always come first.   

Pictures should not depict women and girls in weak, subordinate, or traditional roles. Rather, they should be shown in empowered and non-traditional roles such as decision makers and holders of non-traditional jobs such as lawyers, doctors, engineers, etc. When shown in pictures, they should not always be behind, small, and innocuous.  Pictures commercializing women’s body, depicting women as sex objects, or portraying them under abusive relationships should be altogether banned.

Songs and messages that affirm traditional roles of women and men should be replaced with messages that promote equality and non-stereotyping.  Songs that romanticize emotional battering, martyrdom, or the suffering of women should be critiqued from an enlightened perspective and removed from curricula and teaching materials. These approaches should also be applied to jokes.

The use of blue/green/brown for boys and pink/yellow/red for girls should be discouraged.  Assigning of colours should be based on random choices, or reasons other than their association with gender or religion. 

So where do we begin?  A holistic, systematic approach is not always possible, especially in a messy context like Afghanistan. However, a good starting point would be to bring together related initiatives, identify achievements and strengths, point out obstacles and corresponding ways to address them, and draw up a holistic strategy based on the given situation.  It is imperative that such a strategy includes advocacy at the highest levels and the engagement of progressive-thinking religious leaders.  They are a rare breed and are likely to face serious antagonism from their colleagues.  For this reason, high level support will have to be solicited, such as from the Organization of Islamic Countries.

Transforming a society is always a difficult, arduous journey that takes several generations to achieve. But we can, and we should begin now.  With the resurgence of fundamentalism in Afghanistan, the educational system should stand as an incorruptible frontier for non-prejudiced behaviour, thought patterns, and culture.  The situation of our country cannot change by waging only a physical war against the enemies of our people. More than this, the real war should be fought in the minds of our people, especially the next generation. It is the single attainable factor that keeps the hope of our women alive.

In the meantime, I take this opportunity to appeal to the international community to continue to support the Afghan women’s struggle to protect their rights and well being.  Help us secure the EVAW Law from manipulations and possible abrogation by fundamentalist supporters in our Parliament. Send a letter of appeal to each of them and to the Afghan President and officials of government.  Let the light of hope visit our land again and bring wisdom to our leaders and decision makers. Let optimism lives on, especially in these most trying times in the life of Afghans.   

 

About the author

Dr. Massouda Jalal is a political activist, former Minister of Women in Afghanistan, and founding President of Jalal Foundation, an ngo that brings together 50 women’s councils and organisations to promote women’s advancement through advocacy, service delivery, capacity building and ground breaking projects.