Montana State University

MSU History Professor says Afghanistan women should control own future

February 13, 2002 -- Brenda McDonald

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Bozeman -- The scenes of devastation and privation for the women of Afghanistan delivered daily by the media stir deep passions. People want to help.

Montana State University history professor Michelle Maskiell cautions that the need to act should be tempered with the realization that Americans don't necessarily know what the best course of action should be for Afghan women.

Her concern with the idea that the West must rescue Afghan women from Afghan men implies that the West knows best how to treat women and smacks of old-time colonialism.

"The idea that someone else knows best how women should be treated has a long history over the centuries," said Maskiell who teaches a class on "Women in Asia" at MSU. "The British colonists thought that they knew best in the 19th century but many of their decisions are seen today as creating intractable problems in 20th century Afghanistan."

"We have an assumption that everyone wants what we, as Americans, want," Maskiell said. "That assumption is false. We would never make that kind of generic statement about Americans. All Americans don't want the same thing."

Maskiell reminds us that there is a complexity to Afghanistan (society) that must be kept in the forefront of our understanding.

"We need to talk to Afghan women and ask them what they want," she said. "We need to give them the respect to be treated as adults and acknowledge that the choices they make are the best they can in a difficult situation, and they may not be the choices we would make."

Maskiell, whose research area is neighboring Pakistan, posed her observations in the overlay of the historical context of the country.

"Afghanistan as a geopolitical reality is an artificial state," Maskiell said. "Its borders were the result of political decisions that suited the colonial powers of the 19th century. It's not a stable geopolitical state and the population is very fragmented. The people who live there have relatives and friends in many surrounding countries, so Afghanistan as a country is not a bonded unit with one language and a solid border. Historically the people of the country have resisted centralized control."

Maskiell noted that the people in Afghanistan have been pulled in many directions as their indigenous leaders sought social change during the 20th century. There have been periods where women have been banned from covering themselves from head to toe because the country's leaders wanted to be viewed by the world as modernizing. Most recently, while under the Taliban, the demands shifted totally the other way. Afghan women were completely veiled and were banned from being educated or doing anything outside the home.

"The idea that the individual is the most important unit is not widely accepted in Afghanistan," she said. "It's the family. Women identify themselves as part of a family, not as an individual who makes a separate life for herself. For women, the honor of family is important."

Maskiell suggested that Westerners wishing to read what Afghan women really want and need without the filter of the media or politicians, may visit www.rawa.org, the Website for the Revolutionary Association of Women for Afghanistan.

In March Maskiell will be presenting a lecture on women in Afghanistan during MSU's Women's History Month. The lecture, sponsored by the MSU Women's Center, will be March 25 at 7 p.m. in SUB 276.

For more information contact Michelle Maskiell (406) 994-5201