Tag Archives: religion

If you ignore women in Afghanistan, development efforts there will fail

I just read yet another list of the absolutely MOST important, key things that MUST be addressed for Afghanistan to become stable and peaceful. And, once again, negotiating with the Taliban is there, but improving the condition of women in Afghanistan, improving their access to education, healthcare and revenue-generation, is not.

Let’s be real: if a peace process or development strategy in Afghanistan does not make addressing women’s issues CENTRAL to its plan, does not make such a TOP priority, it will fail.

It. Will. Fail.

Addressing the condition of women in Afghanistan is not an afterthought, it’s not a supplement, it’s not just something nice to do after the “more critical” things have been addressed. Rather, it is imperative, it is fundamental, for any success in the country, and it must be baked into strategies. Equal rights for women is enshrined in the Afghan constitution. The Internet is rife with examples of how to leverage Islamic theology to promote the full participation of women in society. Humanitarian agencies hold the purse strings. In short: there is NO excuse for ignoring the condition of 50% of the population of Afghanistan.

I’m not alone in feeling this way:

BEHIND CLOSED DOORS: The risk of denying women a voice in determining Afghanistan‟s future, a report from OxFam

Afghanistan women: Give us a seat at the peace table

United Nations Calls for Women’s Role in Peace Process

I’ve said all this before:

When a girl in the developing world receives seven or more years of education, she marries four years later and has 2.2 fewer children (United Nations Population Fund, State of World Population 1990). When women and girls earn income, they reinvest 90 percent of it into their families, as compared to only 30 to 40 percent for a man (Phil Borges, with a foreword by Madeleine Albright, Women Empowered: Inspiring Change in the Emerging World [New York: Rizzoli, 2007], 13.). Empowering women in places in Afghanistan — giving them safe, easy access to primary and secondary education, to vocational training and to basic health services — improves the lives of everyone in the country. And, in addition, giving women a voice in defining and evaluating development goals is the ONLY way to ensure development activities meet the needs of women and children.

I rarely see Afghan women on TV news reports – and don’t tell me the reporters can’t find them. I rarely hear women mentioned in news analysis on network TV, in newspapers, in political debates about Afghanistan, in US Government briefings… That’s like not mentioning black Africans or apartheid when discussing South Africa in the 1980s. If the 50% of the population in Afghanistan being oppressed, tortured, killed, denied even basic human rights, were an ethnic group or a religious group, the outrage would be oh-so-loud and constant. But women? Suddenly oppression is a cultural thing we have to respect and not interfere with and just stand back and hope things evolve “organically” and “naturally.”

Balderdash. Bunkum. Nonsense.

Whether you are an aid worker or a policy maker, you have to be committed to women’s involvement in Afghanistan, no matter what the focus of your work is, whether it’s engineering or conflict resolution or arms agreements or WHATEVER. If you don’t, your work will FAIL. Your policies will FAIL. I’ve made many a male aid worker colleague angry for kicking back a field report that never mentioned women… Whether it’s a water and sanitation project, an infrastructure project, a weapons return program, an agricultural project, a governance project, whatever, it must talk about women. If your talk is going to be about how they aren’t involved at all, so be it. But you can’t pretend their non-involvement is normal, appropriate, and something your work cannot address.


Also see:

Empower women, empower a nation

The Wrong Way to Celebrate International Women’s Day

How to be active & anonymous online – a guide for women in religiously-conservative countries

UNDP and Religious Leaders Promote Women in Sport and Education in Afghanistan

papers on cyberactivism by women in Iran & Azerbaijan

women-only hours at community Internet centers? why?

Reaching women in socially-conservative areas

Enhancing Inclusion of Women & Girls In Information Society

UNDP and Religious Leaders Promote Women in Sport and Education in Afghanistan

Changing minds about girls playing sports in Afghanistan takes the support of religious leaders – and they are starting to get on board.

Mullahs trained by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Afghanistan are preaching about women’s rights and have conducted workshops on girls’ education, child marriage and violence against women that have reached thousands of people and are slowly changing attitudes.

“At first, the villagers were really annoying, telling me that a girl in sports clothes is against Islam and our culture,” says 18-year-old Masooma, who just wanted to go skiing. “They said, ‘Girls don’t have the right to ski – only boys can do sport. Girls are born to learn household chores, like cooking and cleaning.’”

UNDP Afghanistan trained more than 400 mullahs across the country to preach about women’s rights in Friday prayers. Abdul Rahman Redwani is one of the mullahs who started incorporating these issues into his sermons after the training. “Previously, local people didn’t let their girls learn how to read or write,” he recalls. “When girls went skiing the for first time, people gossiped that they were too westernized. But our Friday sermons helped change their minds.”

“Now a lot of girls and women come to watch us ski,” smiles Masooma, “which was not possible a few years back. This motivates me and encourages other girls to start skiing.”

Read the entire story here.

No, I’m not involved in this project. But I would love to read all I can about it, and support it however I can, because leveraging the cultural and religious beliefs can be a great strategy for encouraging women’s equality – something I learned in Afghanistan as well. Back in 2007, when I put together a workshop on to help my Afghan co-workers in Kabul feel more comfortable speaking in public, I did a lot of research, and learned that women speakers, teachers and leaders have always been important in Muslim society, including in Afghanistan. So I put this into my training, talking about the public speaking and leadership roles of Khadija, first wife of the Prophet, Aisha, the favored wife of Muhammad, and Muhammad’s daughters, as well as Rabia Balkhi, a poet of Afghanistan and Razia, a Muslim woman ruler of 13th-century India.

Read more about what I did in Afghanistan as a part of UNDP (and what I’ve done for the country since)

Making certain volunteers feel unwelcomed because of your language

Many volunteers are motivated by religious reasons to donate their time and expertise, and enjoy religious messages in association with their service. But many of these volunteers don’t realize that their messages regarding their belief and volunteering, made to other volunteers, can make those that are not of the same religion, or not religious at all, quite uncomfortable – even unwelcomed.

Take this message posted to the Volunteer Firefighters Facebook page, which assumes all volunteer firefighters are religious or, if they aren’t, they should be:


In case you don’t get it, the message literally means if a firefighter is faced with something challenging in his or her firefighting or in life in general, that person should pray to God (or Gods or Goddesses, perhaps?). The responses to the message are mostly “amens” — confirming the religious nature of the message.

Remember, this isn’t a Facebook group specifically for Christian firefighters or Muslim firefighters or Jewish firefighters or Hindu firefighters, etc. – the group is called Volunteer Firefighters. The assumption from the title is that it means ALL volunteer firefighters, not just religious ones.

What does this message say to non-relgious firefighters? It says: “You should believe in God. If you don’t, you should. Religion is how you can handle tough situations.” Imagine, for a moment, how that makes non-believing volunteer firefighters feel. If you can’t, then can you imagine if the administrators posted a message that assumed all volunteer firefighters are atheists and, if they aren’t, they should be? If a message was posted saying that the best way to handle challenging situations in life was to NOT believe in a god? Can you understand how that kind of message would be completely inappropriate for a group for all volunteer firefighters, not just religious ones?

As I noted in my earlier blog, Do you welcome people with your language?, inspired by a similar incident: most people who have been made uncomfortable by the mixing of religion and volunteering at an otherwise secular event or in an otherwise secular group are probably never going to say anything about their discomfort when the activity is infused with religion, particularly from the group’s organizers or administrators. No one wants to be seen as ruining an event or a feeling for others, even if the activity makes them feel less a member of the group – and they also don’t want to be singled out for “saving” later. Also, if you haven’t heard any complaints about these type of religious messages on your group, could it be because you’ve created an atmosphere where non-believers/other-believers don’t feel welcomed to be a part of your group – or to volunteer at all?

Sadly, this blog will be used to say I’m against religion and against religiously-motivated volunteers. I’m not, at all.

May 6, 2014 update: 

The administrator of the Volunteer Firefighters Facebook page didn’t notice the link to my blog post that I made on his group until just a few days ago, and decided to repost it to encourage people to comment. And comment they did – as you can see below. The comments started off overwhelmingly negative – just as I predicted, I was accused of being anti-Christian. Which is fascinating, as, today, I once again did a presentation for a Christian-based nonprofit regarding volunteer engagement, per their request. They do great work regarding social justice, human rights and poverty alleviation, in my opinion, and as their stated motivation is their religion, they do a lot of praying and references to their beliefs in their work with volunteers. And I have no problem with that at all – they are a religious organization and, as such, they know they are exclusionary, they are honest and upfront about that, and I respect it – and am still able to give them advice about how to improve their volunteer engagement. If I were anti-Christian, I’d refuse to work with them.

If the Volunteer Firefighters Facebook group isn’t going to focus on welcoming ALL volunteer firefighters, and is going to assume that, because most of their members are religious, then promoting religion is just dandy, then I hope they change the name of their group to Christian Volunteer Firefighters or the Religious Volunteer Firefighters. Why not be truthful and upfront about what you will – and won’t – include in your organization?

Big thanks to the Friendly Atheist for picking up the story, which resulted in the counter comments here and far more on his blog

Also see:

Time Magazine asserts there are no organized Atheist volunteers

Do you welcome people with your language?