Saturday, 7 August 2010

Compare and Contrast

Dr Priya Gopal

Feminists have long argued that invoking the condition of women to justify occupation is a cynical ploy, and the Time cover already stands accused of it. Interestingly, the WikiLeaks documents reveal CIA advice to use the plight of Afghan women as "pressure points", an emotive way to rally flagging public support for the war...

While there exists a colonial tradition of relegating the non-west to the past of the west – and some suggest leaving it to rot in hopelessness – the trendier option involves incorporating Afghans into modernity by teaching them to live in a globalised present. In non-fiction bestsellers such as Deborah Rodriguez's Kabul Beauty School, an American woman teaches Afghan women the intricacies of hair colour, sexiness, and resisting oppression. "To all appearances, there is no sex life in Afghanistan," writes Rodriguez, obsessed – like Seierstad – with the nuptial habits of Afghans. Sex and the City in the Middle East may have tanked as a movie, but as ideology it has displaced meaningful global feminism.

Acceptable Afghan-American voices such as Khaled Hosseini (The Kite Runner) and Awista Ayub (Kabul Girls Soccer Club) reiterate the notion that suburban America can "infuse" Afghans with freedom. Formulaic narratives are populated by tireless Western humanitarians, sex-crazed polygamous paedophiles (most Afghan men) and burqa-clad "child-women" who are broken in body and spirit or have just enough doughtiness to be scripted into a triumphal Hollywood narrative.

Dr Karen Woo

The access that a doctor or healthcare professional has to a community is unlike that available to a journalist; the trust and conversations are different. The insight is through the lens of birth and death, of loss and disability, and reflects every aspect of the consequences of conflict on individuals and on their community. The loss of nearly all elements of the infrastructure of a country; security, governance, education, transport, clean water, sanitation and power, are all visible in the health of the people.

The body of the documentary will focus on key players whose commitment to providing healthcare and a sustainable offering go largely unsung, these people are both foreign nationals working in Afghanistan and Afghan men and women who a working to make a change. The context will be set by the women and men who are able to tell of their experiences giving first hand narration to the viewer. The predominant focus is on women as this is where the most disturbing and tragic scenarios are played out, occurring through ignorance, poverty and cultural and religious restrictions. The characters; both the patients and the care givers, give us their human stories and link us to the real people and families of Afghanistan. This perspective gives substantial reason to continue to invest in humanitarian aid and development.

The documentary aims to counterbalance the British media's bias toward reporting only the live conflict, to provide a deeper level of information and understanding of the complex situation which is the current Afghanistan. It aims to reflect the human spirit of survival and to remind of, or explain the relatively developed Afghanistan of the 1970s as a way of visualising a possible future of peace and stability.

I wouldn't wish to suggest that Priya Gopal is personally responsible for the deaths of Karen Woo and her colleagues. Indeed, it's not yet clear whether they were murdered by the Taliban, who have claimed responsibility, or by opportunistic bandits. But arguments like hers - or those of the Canadian academic Melanie Butler, who claimed that the leading Canadian women's group campaigning to improve the lives of their Afghan sisters was little better than a front for Western imperialism - set the context in which aid workers can be viewed as legitimate targets. Armchair intellectualising about the semiotics of magazine covers may seem smart in the rarefied atmosphere of a Cambridge college or the editorial office of the Guardian. But they are easily picked up by the murderous ideologues of the Taliban or of Al Qaeda. Indeed, Al Qaeda has in the past proved itself adept at using the language of Western liberal scholarship in its own propaganda.

Gopal wrote, in her now notorious article, that Aisha, the mutilated Afghan teenager, "ultimately fills a symbolic void where there should be ideas for real change." She was able to decry the "bankrupt version of modernity" that "has little to offer Afghans other than bikini waxes and Oprah-imitators." Karen Woo - a product of that bankrupt modernity - was offering the Afghans considerably more than bikini waxes. Those minded to reason like Gopal should perhaps be reflecting today on the life of someone who was very far from being a symbolic void, who left a comfortable and well-paid job to improve the lives of the women and children of Afghanistan, and whose work stands as the best answer to the cynicism that sees a magazine cover as no more than a tool of US foreign policy.