The Afghan women work on their interview questions

The Afghan women work on their interview questions

I have just delivered a two-day workshop on interviewing skills, for 20 or so Afghan women, from my home office in Belfast!  How was this possible? Through the miracles of modern science – and in particular, skype!

Let me explain.

It has been a long time since I have posted – too long. But my silence has partly been a reflection of my frustration at the delays in our project – Afghan Women Spread the Word.

The project is supported by Queen’s University in Belfast and the British Council in Kabul and Belfast, and its aim is ultimately to establish an archive of recordings and writings from women across Afghanistan. This will be hosted at the Afghanistan Center at Kabul University, (http://acku.edu.af/ ) and hopefully at the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice at Queen’s University. http://www.qub.ac.uk/research-centres/isctsj/ )

There are other projects working to give Afghan women the chance to write – and be heard. The Afghan Women’s Writing Project (http://awwproject.org/ )  is one of these, and has collected a wealth of written work from women.

But as a broadcaster, I wanted to hear women too, in their own languages.

The first step in our project was to bring women from across the country to Kabul, and train them to carry out audio interviews. This would establish connections between women from different ethnic groups, between Sunni and Shia, between rural and urban. These women were to be trained to use handheld recorders to collect oral histories from women in their area. These recordings would then be fed back to an Afghan colleague in Kabul who would select the best. (But they would all be retained for the archive).

Then a second workshop would bring the same women together again. Each will be allocated a recording from a different area of the country, from a woman with a very different experience – from a different ethnic, economic or religious group. This second workshop will concentrate on using the experiences and information in the recording as the catalyst to write a creative piece, a poem or story. Essentially, we are asking the women to put themselves in the shoes of the ‘other’ woman.

But as the security situation in Afghanistan has steadily worsened, so my chances of returning to Kabul have diminished.

All through last summer (2014) we waited for the deadlock over the Presidential elections to be resolved, continually moving the dates for our workshop, until we ran out of time, and it was October, and I had to begin teaching again in the School of English at Queen’s University. I was on holiday in Turkey, in a bar with a wireless connection, when I got the email telling me I wouldn’t be able to travel to Kabul. I sat crying into a cheap cocktail, wondering just when I would be able to return.

Then the plan was that I would go to Kabul just before Christmas – but I was ill and couldn’t join the security course I needed to complete before I was allowed to travel for the British Council. Then we tried again for dates after Christmas, but by that time things were so tense in Kabul, even with the security training, it was not going to be possible for me to visit.

So finally, in desperation, and after many telephone conferences with my resourceful Afghan colleagues at the British Council in Kabul, we hit on this solution. I would deliver the workshops via skype from Belfast.

I have to be honest – I was dismayed. I simply couldn’t see how I could effectively train women in the physical skills of recording, through translation, from thousands of miles away, and relying entirely on the vagaries of internet connections. (Not to mention the small fact that Afghanistan is four-and-a-half hours ahead of the UK at this time of year, and as the workshop would still have to be delivered in the morning, that meant a 5am start for me!)

But it has been an amazing experience!

Of course I have had the support of two fantastic Afghan women colleagues – one from the British Council and one from AEPO – the Afghan Education Production Organisation. (AEPO produces the long-running radio soap opera New Home, New Life, and you can read more about their work here: https://www.gov.uk/government/world-location-news/using-the-radio-to-bring-social-change-in-afghanistan ). Both of these women have ensured the workshop in Kabul has run smoothly, and that I understand what is going on.

And then there are the participants; women who’ve left their children and families, who’ve braved the scorn of in-laws and in some cases the rage of husbands, and who’ve overcome the weather and the difficulties of travelling in Afghanistan, to arrive in Kabul and take part.

As well as those challenges, for many of these women, interviewing each other and other women is far from being only an academic exercise. It has been estimated that up to 80 per cent of the population of Afghanistan is suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, and yet mental health services are almost non-existant. In such a climate, asking people about their lives, and recording them, can thrown up huge ethical challenges. One woman became increasingly distressed as she relayed what had happened to her, her husband throwing her and their three children out of the home, in order to marry the 14 year old cleaning girl. By the time she had finished her story, most of the group were in tears.

However, another woman inspired everyone with her life story. She and her mother had been left at the mercy of in-laws when her father died when she was four. Her mother had had to marry again to provide for her, and this meant she had many step-siblings. When she reached 13, her step-brother asked to marry her. He was 13 years older than her. In order to keep the peace and support her mother, she agreed. She had her first child at 14 and how has five children. But, she told us, she is very happy with her husband. He respects her and she is working for an international NGO. She is paid a fantastic wage for Afghanistan, she gets to travels outside of Afghanistan, and she now supports those in-laws.

For me, delivering the workshop from home has been a surreal experience. When I travel to Afghanistan, as soon as I arrive, and I meet up with my friends, I slot back into life there. But once I return here to Northern Ireland, it sometimes feels as if the whole trip has been a dream. I call it cultural lag – and it happens every time.

So imagine how strange it has been to leave the skype connected in my home office, as the workshop breaks for tea, and come downstairs to feed the dog, while above me I can hear the sound of 20 Afghan women happily chatting in Persian! It is as if I have been in Afghanistan-  and yet not – because of course as soon as we end the skype call, I am back  in Belfast.

In many ways however, what has been most gratifying is watching how my presence has become less and less important as the workshop has continued; how the women have developed links and friendships, and how my Afghan colleagues have gradually taken over the task of running the workshop.

What we are aiming to do is empower and train these women – and I believe that is happening.

There is still a long way to go to achieve our aims, but insh’allah , we will get there!

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