• Emma Watson Will Train Afghan Men to Be Feminists

    July 6, 2015 // 5 Comments »


    So here we skip over to Afghanistan.

    As the UN Women’s Goodwill Ambassador, important actress Emma Watson (pictured above in traditional Afghan garb) has spent the last year trying to convince men that women’s equality is more than just a women’s issue. In the U.S., her “He for She” campaign gained the support of celebs like Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who tweeted about it, and Steve Carell, who wore the campaign logo on his cufflink at the Oscars. Because of that tweet, and those now-famous cufflinks, women’s equality has been forever fixed in the Homeland.

    Ambassador Watson now has set out to complete her journey by taking the “He for She” struggle to Afghanistan. Apparently the Taliban, whom the U.S. is almost done defeating after 14 years of war, are not nice to their female property, and Emma is so on that thing.

    To kick off the UN campaign’s launch in Afghanistan last week, “local activists,” (i.e., a few women rounded up and paid taxi fare to attend) government officials (i.e., a few thugs who live off foreign graft rounded up and paid taxi fare to attend), and foreign dignitaries (i.e., a few UN interns rounded up and paid taxi fare to attend) met at a Kabul high school to demonstrate how men play an integral role in the fight for women’s rights. Using the slogan “A brave man stands for women,” activists took the stage and shared stories that attempted to reposition the fight for women’s rights as a courageous and valiant undertaking.

    The underlying message was that gender equality can’t be achieved unless men change the way they view women. It’s a major shift in tactics considering that up until recently, gender equality in Afghanistan has been framed largely as a cause taken up by women.

    Super quick reality check: So this has been the problem all along! The Taliban, and the thugs who preceded them, as well as the corrupt men who have been running Afghanistan for the last fourteen years of freedom under the direct supervision of the United States, just didn’t know that it was “a guy thing.” All those “honor killings” and rapes and child brides and murder of women, or that thing last month when a mob in downtown Kabul lynched a 27-year-old woman for allegedly burning a Quran, are just a perception issue.

    Easy fix. Ambassador Watson and the UN have set a lofty goal of acquiring signatures from 3,000 Afghan men and boys pledging to stand up for women’s rights on the “He for She” website (it is unclear 3,000 Afghans of any gender have access to the Internet.) It’s part of a broader aim to acquire pledges from one billion men and boys worldwide by the time the UN General Assembly convenes in September.

    This is all off to a great start — Emma’s website currently boasts 327,488 signatures! The bad news: the majority of them originated in the United States. Only 325 signatures came from Afghanistan, most likely from people rounded up and paid taxi fare to visit one of Kabul’s fine Internet cafes.

    But the program is not just sitting on its hands. It will fix all gender problems further in Afghanistan by gaining endorsements from “Afghan celebrities,” and screening a documentary film telling human-interest stories depicting the plight of Afghan women.

    And if all that fails, Ambassador Watson, who starred in the Harry Potter movies as empowered wizard Hermione Granger, will just wave her wand and shout “Reparo!” Come to think of it, that might have a better chance of helping than the rest of this silliness.

    Five points to Gryffindor!

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Democracy

    $416 Million Afghan Program to Empower Women: No “Tangible Benefit”

    April 7, 2015 // 14 Comments »


    The American reconstruction campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have, and continue, to spend billions of taxpayer dollars on pointless projects seemingly designed solely to funnel money into the pockets of U.S. government contractors.

    Empowering Women

    These projects (Iraq War examples are detailed in my book We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People seem to bounce between the merely pointless, such as dams that are never completed and roads to nowhere, to the absurdly pointless.

    One ongoing theme under the absurdly pointless category has been the “empowerment of women.” In both countries, the U.S. has acted on the assumption that the women there want to throw off their hijabs and burkas and become entrepreneurs, if… only… they knew how. Leaving aside the idea that many women throughout the Middle East and beyond prefer the life they have been living for some 2000 years before the arrival of the United States, the empowerment concept has become a standard.

    However you may feel about these things, and the programs are in some part designed as “feel good” but cynical gestures to domestic American politics, the way “empowerment” is implemented is absurd. Lacking any meaningful ideas, women are “empowered” by holding endless rounds of training sessions, seminars, roundtables and hotel gatherings where Western experts are flown in laden with Powerpoint slides to preach the gospel. Over time, in my personal experience in Iraq at least, these proved so unpopular that the only way we could draw a crowd (so we could take pictures to send to our bosses) was to offer a nice, free lunch and to pay “taxi fare” far in excess of any reasonable transportation costs; bribes.

    One Army colonel I worked with was so into the goals of the program that he called these things “chick events.”

    Women’s Empowerment in Afghanistan

    So much for Iraq. How’s it going for women’s empowerment in Afghanistan?

    Not well, at least according to the latest report by the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR). Some highlights from that report include an inquiry into USAID’s Promoting Gender Equity in National Priority Programs (Promote), which has been highlighted as USAID’s largest women’s empowerment program in the world. Promote has left SIGAR with a number of “troubling concerns and questions,” to wit:

    –SIGAR is concerned that some very basic programmatic issues remain unresolved and that the Afghan women engaged in the program may be left without any tangible benefit upon completion. SIGAR is also concerned about whether USAID will be able to effectively implement, monitor, and assess the impact of Promote.

    –Many of SIGAR’s concerns echo those of Afghanistan’s First Lady. To quote Mrs. Ghani, “I do hope that we are not going to fall again into the game of contracting and sub-contracting and the routine of workshops and training sessions generating a lot of certificates on paper and little else.”

    –Promote has been awarded to three contractors: Chemonics International, Development Alternatives, Inc., and Tetra Tech, Inc. The overall value of the contracts is $416 million, of which USAID is funding $216 million and other—still unidentified—international donors are expected to fund $200 million.

    –USAID does not have any memoranda of understanding between any of the three Promote contractors and the Afghan government.

    Other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Democracy

    Helping Women in Afghanistan Go to Jail

    April 19, 2013 // 7 Comments »

    By now we have all heard that the Foreign Service Officer killed recently in Afghanistan was there in part to help Afghan women be “free” (she “gave her young life working to give young Afghans the opportunity to have a better future”). Indeed, women’s empowerment has become a sub-meme for U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, replacing the now less-politically correct freedom and democracy thing.

    Not sure? Have a look at what Yale University is saying:

    NGOs and diplomats, often working alongside troops, have transformed lives by setting up programs on education, health and more. Many, like Project Artemis of Thunderbird School of Global Management, strive to lift women through education and trade: Entrepreneurs attend an intensive program at the Arizona campus, then connect with mentors in the US, Canada and Europe and remain in touch online. Project Artemis graduates have gone on to train and employ more than 15,000 other Afghan men and women, presenting an alternative future for Afghanistan other than war and ignorance.

    Zip over to your Department of State and search “afghan women” and you’ll see things like this:

    The President’s strategy for Afghanistan includes the provision of assistance to women to build their capacity to participate fully in Afghan society thereby building their country’s future. Secretary Clinton has long been committed to improving the rights of Afghan women, both in her work as Senator and as Secretary of State. When Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues Melanne Verveer traveled to Afghanistan in June 2009, she noted that “the women in Afghanistan are critical to progress and stability…it is only by men and women working together can Afghanistan move forward.”

    O.K., fair enough. The U.S. has been engaged in Afghanistan for some twelve years now and must have had a pretty significant effect on the state of women there given the time, money and effort expended.

    Or not.

    The Associated Press tells us they toured:

    …the Badam Bagh prison, built by the Italian government six years ago to house female inmates from the Kabul area.

    More than two-thirds of the 202 inmates are serving sentences of up to seven years for leaving their husbands, refusing to accept an arranged marriage, or leaving their parents’ home with a man of their choice, according to the prison’s director.

    Some of the women were jailed while pregnant, others with their small children. 62 children are living with their imprisoned mothers, sharing the same gray, steel bunk beds and napping in the afternoon behind a sheet draped from the upper bunk, oblivious to the chatter and the crackling noises from the small TV sets shoved off to one side of the rooms.

    But all the efforts by Yale to empower women and deceased FSOs to help must have done some good?

    “I haven’t gone to court. I am just waiting,” Mariam told the AP, hugging a ratty brown sweater to protect her from the damp cold of the prison.

    While it might not be against the law to run away or escape a forced marriage, the courts routinely convict women fleeing abusive homes with “the intent to commit adultery,” which are most often simply referred to as “moral crimes,” says a United Nations report released last month. It also said most cases of abuse go unreported.

    The director-general of prisoners, Gen. Amer Mohammad Jamsheed, said about 650 women are jailed nationwide, and “most are in jail for moral crimes.”

    O.K., good thing those imprisoned women don’t have the Taliban after them.

    Hey nation builders, here’s a practice tip: take a break from the deadly feel-good book drops (yeah, too soon and too harsh, but people are dying over this stuff) and the endless string of women as entrepreneurs-a-paloozas and see if you can’t at least do something for the women held in a NATO-built prison that did not even exist under the Taliban, ‘kay?

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Democracy

    New Dress Code for Women in Iraq

    September 30, 2012 // 2 Comments »

    When I did time as a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) leader in Iraq, “womens’ empowerment” was a major theme for us. As part of rebuilding Iraq, we were supposed to encourage women to throw off their hijabs and/or shackles and vote, own businesses, that sort of thing. The Iraqi women (never mind the men) never seemed too engaged on the issue, but that did not stop us in our efforts. I’ve got a couple of chapters in We Meant Well on the topic, highlighting the disastrous final “Chick Event” held, as well as the equally unsuccessful “Sheep for Widows” and “Bees for Widows” projects.

    Despite our efforts at liberation (womens’ and otherwise), Iraq seems to be slipping at least sideways if not backwards on these fronts.

    As reported by Iraqi blogger Kassakhoon, and according to the Al-Mada newspaper, a state-run woman-related body has issued dictations on what is not allowed to be worn by female employees in government ministries and institutions. The daily posted a document issued by the Supreme National Committee to Develop the Iraqi Woman in which it refers to previous documents from the Cabinet’s Secretariat General and the Oil Ministry dated back to last October. Banned clothing now includes tight body shirts, tight pants, colorful and showy shirts, short skirts and slipper-like flat shoes.


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    Posted in Afghanistan, Democracy

    State of Women in Modern Iraq

    April 3, 2012 // 3 Comments »

    The following was written by a woman in Iraq to her Twitter followers, an open, raw assessment of her own life and the life of many Iraqi women. Powerful writing, powerful sense of life on the ground for too many women.

    Dear Twitter,

    I am writing this message to you because I believe that everyone has had enough of me and my crap ”mind my language”, at least if you got annoyed with me there isn’t anything you can do about it no?

    It’s been two weeks of this Twitter, two weeks of severe soul-killing depression, and I am getting really tired of myself. I have been suffering from depression on and off since I was 17 years old, and here I am; I am 26 years old, a qualified doctor, and yet I fear seeking therapy or counselling because of the social stigma associated with seeking psychiatric help. Once your family and friends learn that you are depressed and you want to seek help they either think that you are mentally ill or simply lack faith in Allah and that’s why you got depressed. I have been hiding what’s been going on with me from everyone I know down here in Iraq, because I do know very well that they’ll judge me and will never view me the same way again, and that’s why I am pretending to be normal infront of everyone here in Iraq, and it is an absolute torture. To say hello and smile at everyone, to treat your patients, to make conversations with your friends, to deal with your family, to do all of that when the only thing you want to do is to crawl to somewhere dark and isolated and cry your eyes out-it’s just torture…

    You know what? The hardest thing to deal with is the guilt. I keep asking myself the whole time ”Why am I depressed when apparantly I have no reason to be depressed?”… I am perfectly healthy, I have a decent job and I do make good money, and yet over the past two weeks I have been praying each night to Allah so that he’d take away my life while I am asleep, but for some unknown reason each time Allah kept turning me down. Take a look at the world Twitter, there’re millions and millions of people out there who lack money, health, jobs. There are many people out there who cannot afford to eat and dress properly. And yet instead of looking at them and thanking Allah for what I already have I go and drown myself in depression, how clever!

    You see Twitter, I am a 26 year old single woman who lives in Baghdad, Iraq. I have no parents and no first degree male relatives. My family (a very traditional Baghdadi family) loves me and wants the best for me, but what they don’t know is that they are suffocating me, the whole time they exert their full control over me and prevent me from being the real me, and that’s breaking my spirit. Each time I ask ”Why can’t I own my life?” I get the usual answer ”It’s because you’re a woman!”. Everyday I die a thousand times, and they won’t listen to me because they think their way of dealing with me is the right way. I just want to be me, I just want to have control over my own life, but they won’t let that happen. You have no idea how much I’m hurting because of this, for me almost everyday is ”I wish if I were a guy” day. I tried to leave Iraq for a while, but that wasn’t possible either, immigration is a very difficult thing to pursue especially if you were an Iraqi because no country wants you, so I’m stuck in my cage.

    I am writing this because I want you to understand the plight of many other Iraqi women who might be even more depressed than I am and yet don’t have the means to express themselves or tell the outside world about their ordeal. You see, we have no functioning mental healthcare system in Iraq, and even if we do we wouldn’t be able to benefit from it freely because let’s face it we’re women so we don’t own our lives…

    After two weeks of pretending to be perfectly normal with everyone and crying my eyes out when I’m behind closed doors I am just too tired, so I had to write this. I am sorry for bothering you Twitter, but I have no other choice. At least with you I won’t have to wear a mask that hides the real me, and I do know that you’d tolerate my rants, I mean Justin Bieber uses you so I believe we’re fine!

    Baghdad, Iraq.

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Democracy

    Counterinsurgency Tips: Don’t Hug Their Chicks

    March 7, 2012 // 1 Comment »

    In general, don’t hug Muslim women. It offends and makes you look like a pimp.

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Democracy

    Love Those Saudis

    June 1, 2011 // Comments Off on Love Those Saudis

    Who says America’s bestest friend ever in the Middle East doesn’t love its women? Too bad Saudi is locked into a perpetual Arab Winter this Arab Spring.

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Democracy