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They're Not Worth It. The Afghan Barbarian Myth

This is the fifth in a series on popular myths about Afghanistan. For Myth #1, read Popular Myths About Afghan Women,  Myth #2 is The Afghan Women's Movement on International Forces, for Myth #3, read The Myth That Afghans Don't Want Us There, for Myth #4, read Guest Myth-Buster Melissa Roddy's The Persistent Afghan Pipeline Conspiracy Theory, and Myth #6 is Afghanistan has never been conquered by outside forces.

Myth #5: Afghanistan is backwards and irreparable

The Truth: In 2006, when I was speaking at the women's conference of the World Peace Forum in Vancouver, I found a pile of flyers in the hallway that were left by a "peace" group on Saltspring Island. "Get Out of Afghanistan Now!" was the heading. On the flyer it said,

"Afghanis do not want us in their country. They have been fighting this war or that since the beginning of time. They are an inherently bloodthirsty, warrior people. They will never change, and we will never win. They thrive on violence."

I quickly reworked the speech I had planned to give, and instead, I read the text of this flyer to the delegates, expressed my dismay, and called on the conference to challenge the kind of racism and stereotyping found in this sort of thinking. I called for western women activists to do a better job of listening to their sisters in other parts of the world, rather than labelling them as fundamentally different and undeserving of the same rights that we enjoy in the west. As I spoke, the chair of the conference, Elsie Dean, cut me off, outraged. Dean defended the message on the flyers and said my comments were "inappropriate".

Like at the Peace Forum in 2006, there is too often a strain of racism, belittling and condescension running through western pacifism, whereby Afghans (or Iraqis, or Cubans, or Iranians) are deemed not grown-up enough to handle democracy. Insisting that Afghan women like being treated like cattle, the people of Darfur welcome genocidal behaviour by their leaders, or Iranian citizens prefer theocratic authoritarianism, is a crucial part of the machinery of non-interventionism. As soon as one acknowledges that the citizens of Afghanistan have the same expectations that we do, the missions of organizations like MAWO and, find themselves on crumbling foundations.

The western mainstream media's simplistic portrayal of Afghanistan-as-represented-by-the-Taliban has helped fuel the popular notion in the west that the Taliban are merely a natural outgrowth of the ordinary Afghan population. The Taliban, who are in fact a multinational force numbering somewhere between 10,000 and 25,000 fighters, in a country of some 30 million, dominate media coverage of Afghanistan and have even come to be associated with Afghan culture.

The Taliban are indeed backwards and should rightly be seen as such. Yet, while their ideology found some fertile ground in a country whose social fabric was deeply ruptured by civil war and where deeply conservative local religious leadership has a history of disrupting reform efforts, the dark and deranged anti-intellectualism of the Taliban are still as alien to most Afghans as they are to anyone in the West. As the perplexed Afghan-American, Mohammad Qayoumi, who grew up in the garden-adorned, rock-n-rollin' and liberal Kabul of the 1950s and 60s, notes, "Many assume that's all Afghanistan has ever been -- an ungovernable land where chaos is carved into the hills." Yet, Afghanistan has a complex and rich history of modernization efforts, progressive social movements, and even its brand of Islamic jurisprudence, the Hanafi school, is considered the most liberal and reasoned of the four jurisprudential schools in Islam.

In the 20th century, Afghanistan was a beacon of light in the Muslim world, a country facing the outside world with an inquisitive openness and an eagerness to modernize. Then, as now, education was foremost on the minds of many families, as they sought to ensure that future generations would be literate and learned. Then and now, they turned away from religious madrassahs and towards secular education. They wanted their children to be multilingual and worldly.

By 1964, Afghanistan had one of the region's more progressive constitutions (including a gender equality provision); and education for women and girls had been on a slow but steady rise since the 1920s. It was also during the 1920s that the first magazines and newspapers for women were founded. Veiling was discouraged for urban women and even a ban was attempted at this time, 80 years ahead of France's controversial efforts to ban the burqa and niqab.

In the 1950s, prominent women such as those from the royal family and those working for the government, typically appeared in public unveiled. By 1964, women had the vote, seven years ahead of Swiss women (1971) and 20 years ahead of Europe's uber posh Liechtenstein (1984), the country with the world's highest GDP per capita. Meanwhile, in 1984 in Afghanistan, Khatol Mohammadzai was becoming Afghanistan's first woman paratrooper, and would go on to become a general in the Afghan National Army. By 1977, women already comprised over 15% of the upper legislative body, and today they comprise over 27.5% while Canada lags behind with 22%.

Many of the Afghan women I know who came of age in Kabul in the 1950s and 1960s remember copying the latest hairstyles from London, wearing miniskirts with funky patterns, and attending classes with male students. They listened to The Beatles and by the 1970s, to local heart throb Ahmad Zahir, known as the Afghan Elvis, or the King of Afghan music, who belted out hit after hit of both rock-like pop music and soulful melodies. Many of these women met their husbands at university, marrying freely for love, as adults, rather than in forced or arranged marriages when they were under-age. By the 1990s, half of all university students were women, 40% of doctors in Kabul were women, 50% of civil servants were women, and 70% of teachers were women.

Major infrastructure projects were underway across the country by the 1950s, and scientific research was spreading in the country's universities. There was widespread interest in bringing western technologies to Afghanistan. The Government was actively building diplomatic and trade ties with a diverse range of countries, from a friendship treaty with India in 1950, to welcoming cultural missions from around the world, like the Goethe Institute in Kabul which opened in 1965.

Afghanistan was an essential stop along the Hippy Trail throughout the 1970s. Thousands of Americans, Canadians and Europeans, now in their 50s and 60s, have fond memories of trekking through a country they recall for its great natural beauty, its people's unmatched hospitality, and the peace and safety that prevailed at the time. There were street cafes where people of diverse nationalities rubbed shoulders and compared the treasures they had bartered for on Kabul's famed Chicken Street, amidst the faces of Afghanistan's multiple ethnicities, who welcomed these strangers into their land.

Traces of this Afghanistan of the past are found everywhere in today's Afghanistan, having survived the decimation of three decades of war. Kabul's cosmopolitan legacy lives on in the modern city, where you can enjoy the common chai sabzi, Afghan green tea, among the crowds of the bazaar lined by the old colonial buildings along the Kabul River, or sip back an espresso at the Wakhan Cafe in the Shar-e-naw neighbourhood while using the wireless internet. Chicken Street still sells its tribal jewelry of grubby silver, carved lapis lazuli, and hand-woven silk carpets; or one can get custom-fitted haute couture at Zarif Designs, where traditional Afghan fabrics meet modern cuts created by the award-winning fashion designer, Zolaykha Sherzad. One can buy the latest in digital cameras or scanners in one of Kabul's shopping galleries, swing by the ATM, and then head to Murad Khane, the old city, where blacksmiths, potters and bakers sell their wares as they have for centuries, from small street stalls crammed close together in ancient, twisting alleyways. Here, distinctive wood carvings adorn old houses, part of a rich architectural heritage. Downtown, there's the Big Chief burger joint, a kind of eastern McDonald's, greasy and neon-lit, or kebab and boulani carts on the street, or any one of the high end or mid-range restaurants serving up Afghan, Persian, Indian, French, Italian, Thai, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, or Mexican food.

There are progressive women MPs like the youthful Sabrina Saqeb and Fauzia Koofi, or the indefatiguable rights crusader Shinkai Karokhail, who push through legislation in the reborn parliament to better protect the rights of women. They carry on the work of the women who came before them. There are daring and acclaimed filmmakers like Siddiq Barmak who call Kabul home, as well as an up-and-coming generation of women filmmakers like Dil Afruz Zeerak. There are open mic poetry nights, reopened and busy cinemas, parks that are green once more, and rehabilitated heritage sights like the 500-year-old Bagh-e Babur gardens, where the central Asian Mughal emperor Babur rests. Highrise wedding halls and residential towers shoot up along the skyline against a backdrop of jagged mountains, where mud walled homes crawl up the mountain sides. More than 120 democratic political parties struggle to find a foothold in the new democracy, and the pictures of women candidates are plastered on city streets alongside those of men candidates vying for seats in parliament. Traffic is horrific as streets are paved and sewers dug. It's a teeming, vibrant, edgy city with an ancient core and a modern outlook, and its under siege by invading Taliban who want to blow it back to 7th century Arabia.

So while British Defense Secretary Liam Fox recently called Afghanistan "a broken 13th-century country," most who have ever visited Afghanistan recall, rather, a country and people of great beauty, and have a more nuanced perspective of a country that is indeed troubled, but finds comfort in a heritage of liberalism, modernization, and a population that for the most part, yearns for "a dream of freedom, civilization, and enlightenment."

The least we can do is acknowledge that dream, and the best we can do, is to help protect it.


Lauryn Oates is a Contributing Writer for The Propagandist.


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