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To Lift Afghan Women, Educate All

As NATO plans to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, stability is in doubt for a country with inept governance and stubborn opposition from an obscurantist group. Crime reports from Afghanistan suggest the Taliban are waging attacks on police and schools, including the recent attack on a convoy delivering school textbooks, which killed a young US State Department staffer. 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. – YaleGlobal

To Lift Afghan Women, Educate All

Project Artemis recruits Afghan women entrepreneurs, who train and employ fellow Afghans
Susan Froetschel
YaleGlobal, 8 April 2013
Battle for Afghanistan’s future: Afghan students celebrate graduating from Thunderbird School of Global Management's Project Artemis (top); back home, the Taliban destroy a girls’ school. (Top Photo: Project Artemis)

EAST LANSING: As NATO troops plan to withdraw from Afghanistan by 2014, the world worries about the country’s stability and especially for Afghan women. On his first trip to Afghanistan in March as US secretary of state, John Kerry pointedly met with Afghan businesswomen at the US embassy in Kabul, fielding questions about security.

Given the brutal track record of the Taliban treatment of women and their violent opposition to girls’ education, the fate of women in post-NATO Afghanistan remains in question. Armies of NGOs spread throughout in Afghanistan, often working alongside the troops, advising and building infrastructure for education and health care. Over the past decade, many Afghans have witnessed an alternative course for the future and wonder if all will be imperiled after withdrawal of protective forces.

How Afghanistan and its women fare depends on the kind of political power and economic opportunities that emerge in the country.  One example of the NGO role in preparing women for a new Afghanistan is a tiny college in Arizona, a US state known for its opposition to immigration. Thunderbird School of Global Management recruited women from Afghanistan to attend Project Artemis, an intensive two-week program for entrepreneurs. Students are then paired with US, Canadian or European mentors. For at least two years, the mentors connect over Skype and email for questions and chats with Afghan women who craft soccer balls, embroider clothes and linens, or raise bees.     

Early on, at open houses, college officials fielded questions from puzzled Arizonans like “Why are you helping terrorists?”  Thunderbird carried on with its small program, securing funding from the US State Department, Goldman-Sachs 10,000 Women, the Australian Agency for International Development, the Business Development Center in Jordan and more. The program has graduated 74 Afghan entrepreneurs who have since returned to their homeland, armed with a training toolkit, in turn training at least 15,000 other Afghan women and men.

Project Artemis is just one of many programs reshaping Afghan life, with advice and training.

Project Artemis is one of many programs reshaping Afghan life: The military sent in female engagement teams to establish relationships with Afghan women and collect information to propose community projects. Provincial reconstruction teams, including NATO troops and civilian specialists, organized projects, technical advice and training in every province in an array of fields.

The US Agency for International Development reports that the US alone trained more than 633,000 men and women in farm and business skills, financed more than 500 health facilities, trained more than 21,000 health providers, including more than 1,700 midwives. School enrollment over the decade grew sevenfold, including 30 percent females, with millions of textbooks distributed.  Since 2002, NATO developed internet connections throughout Central Asia, including connectivity for Afghan provinces and 18 universities, as part of its Virtual Silk Highway Progam. Thanks perhaps to women’s education, Afghanistan’s fertility rate has fallen, from 8 children per women in the mid-1990s to 5.54 projected for this year.

“There’s been a sea-change in the attitudes of women from Afghanistan,” says Wynona Heim, director of Project Artemis Afghanistan. She describes the entrepreneurs as assertive, street smart with their caution, brimming with sophisticated questions. The school distributes laptops to students. Faculty during the first year had to teach students how to turn them on. The most recent class quickly created its own Facebook group page.

Project Artemis requires literacy, but targets disenfranchised women not already enrolled in college. Some students arrive with a few years of basic education.

The setting for Project Artemis – the Thunderbird School of Global Management campus – is itself a product of war. The tiny school was founded in 1946 by a US Army Air Forces lieutenant general. Barton Kyle Yount, in charge of training pilots during World War II, had found American aptitude for global connections wanting. According to the Arizona Memory Project, he obtained the 650-acre military airfield for free from the War Assets Administration with one condition – the base be used as a “school for instruction in foreign area studies, business administration and international relationships.” 

“There’s been a sea-change in the attitudes of women from Afghanistan,” says a Project Artemis director.

Enrollment declined sharply after the 9/11 attacks, but since bounced back. Programs like Project Artemis boosted the school’s reputation, particularly among diplomats and business people in Muslim-majority nations.

Trade and citizen diplomacy are powerful forces, Heim notes. Once in Arizona, the Afghan women are surprised by US diversity. They attend services at a mosque open to women, with worshippers from around the world. When the women return to Afghanistan, others might say “Americans just want to control us” or “Americans don’t like Muslims,” and the women can say, ‘That’s not true,” Heim explains. “It’s why we bring women purposefully from all over Afghanistan – to create a network that can transcend tribal politics, religion, and other barriers.”

With programs in Pakistan and Peru, too, the project encourages cross-border networking. For example, one Afghan woman who makes furniture ships it to a Pakistani woman who does interior design for offices.  

Still, obstacles await Afghan business ventures at every turn. Elise Collins Shields, founder of CommonWell Institute International, Inc., at the University of Arizona, trains Project Artemis mentors, has mentored herself and describes one business plan: In Afghanistan, women are seamstresses; men are tailors. Women seeking fittings send along measurements with male relatives to tailors. So, one woman set out to train women as tailors. The community lacked reliable electricity, so mechanical sewing machines were donated. She turned her home into a school, but had no tables. Women sat on the floor, pumping treadles. Lack of heat forces winter closures.  

Security is a constant worry, accounting for more than one third of business costs, by some reports. Project Artemis entrepreneurs report receiving threats after returning home, and Heim explains the women must be flexible:  Some close their business and start another with a lower profile; some work from home or take a job. The school has lost contact with about 10 percent of its Afghan graduates.

Crime reports from Pajhwok Afghan News show a recent pattern
of schools and police as targets.

Security fluctuates in the diverse country. Some areas report minimal violence; other communities are described as treacherous. The United Nations reported a drop in civilian casualties for Afghanistan in 2012, yet a 20 percent rise in deaths and injuries of women, attributed to domestic violence and culture, according Jan Kubis, UN special envoy to Afghanistan.

With up to 600,000 jobs needed annually in a country where more than 60 percent is under age 25, unemployment is as much a threat as insurgency, suggests Wais Ahmad Barnak, Afghan minister of Rural Rehabilitation.

Crime reports from Pajhwok Afghan News since the start of March show a pattern of schools and police as targets, including teachers gunned down in Balkh, beheadings of local security in Badghis; the bombing and assault on a crowded courthouse in Farah that left 54 dead and 100 wounded; a suicide attack on a convoy delivering textbooks to schools in Zabul Province, which killed US diplomat Anne Smedinghoff, 25.

Education and security ensure progress. After Ambassador Kolinda Grabar, NATO Assistant Secretary General for Public Diplomacy addressed three Afghan universities on International Women’s Day, one student spoke up:  “If we do not educate the men, how can we expect them to send girls to schools?”

Women who have tasted freedom from obscurantism are a force for change, but their success, indeed survival, depends on how many of their male cohorts accept women outside the home, let alone in workplaces. A relative small number of Taliban fighters, perhaps 35,000 in all, are fighting progress, and great courage is required of the Afghan people.


Susan Froetschel is the author of Fear of Beauty, a suspense novel about women in a fictional Helmand village who fend off extremists.

Rights:Copyright © 2013 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

Comments on this Article

13 April 2013
It is an amazing story. I hope to help one day. I have no words to express how affected I became by reading this article.
Thanks for sharing.
Claudio Mattos
-Claudio L. Mattos , Brazil
9 April 2013
Dear Susan,
Thank you so much for your reply. Your point is enlightening and on the money. I do not doubt the existence of NGOs engaged in genuinely productive community building.
To reply, I wonder if any NGO works to enlighten the Afghan people on history. The very construct of a national identity of Afghanistan was done in a way to further European imperial aspirations. The borders were drawn up expediently in London and Moscow. From the beginning of the history of the nation of Afghanistan, western empire building has destroyed any possibility for a nucleus of native nationalism and self-determination with their interference in determining identity itself.
Below I have pasted a couple paragraphs from The History News Network, to expand on the point:
"Afghanistan, like many of the nation-states fashioned from the carcass of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of the First World War, is a wholly artificial construct. Its southern border was drawn by Sir Mortimer Durand, the colonial government of India's foreign secretary, expressly to divide the Pashtun tribe's homeland in half, thereby establishing a buffer state on India's northwest frontier. When the Pashtuns who found themselves on the Indian side of the Durand line failed to integrate themselves peaceably under the Raj, the North-West Frontier Province was sliced off from the Punjab to establish a second, inner buffer. These two tribal belts were incorporated formally within the boundaries of Pakistan when that nation separated from a newly independent India under the Partition Plan effective 14 August 1947; the Durand line still stands.
Afghanistan's northern border, along with the boundaries of all of today's Central Asian Republics, were drawn by Josef Stalin. Formalized in the "Settlement of 1922," a series of treaties between the Soviet Union and its southern neighbors, the new borders carved up a region, "comprising modern day Tajikistan, southern Uzbekistan and northern Afghanistan," that, according to Rashid, had been "one contiguous territory for centuries." Like Sir Mortimer Durand, Stalin was apparently keen to create his own buffer zone against the Pashtuns (and the Raj) by stranding sizeable Tajik and Uzbek populations in what thenceforth became northern Afghanistan. With the same purpose in mind, Stalin forcibly relocated millions of ethnic Russians to Central Asia." [END]
Though admittedly this is tangential from the topic of NGOs in Afghanistan today, the way in which I want to bring it back to my initial point is by stating that western meddling in Afghanistan has served to cripple all of the necessarily arbitrary ethnic and cultural identities in such a way that they will never again be free to form their own concepts of nations, territories, and identities. That is, unless of course, someday the West will just leave them alone. Western acts have destroyed any chance of sovereign justice in Afghanistan. This is perpetuated by the continued birds-eye positioning of westerners in places of influence and intended-to-be-perceived-as cultural superiors and teachers.
Is there, therefore, any NGO that educates Afghans on the overwhelming evidence that western nations have unilaterally created the geopolitical reality that has marked their land with destruction ever since?
The examples of community-building cited in your well-written article are presumably done with pure intentions, carried out by Americans who themselves have little knowledge of what the long-term effects of westernization have had on the people they are helping. One can also assume that these projects bring immediate help to people who need it. The point stands, however, that the Afghans were stripped of any opportunity to know how to do these things themselves when they were thrown into a superficial nation upon the carving up of the Ottoman Empire (A Peace to End All Peace by David Fromkin illuminates on this phenomenon). The capricious make-up of Afghan identities was drawn up in a way that considered absolutely nothing about native realities on the ground, and led to a geopolitical situation that could not possibly create anything other than never-ending civil strife and frequent civil war.
The end to all of this rambling is this point of view: while some things NATO and NGOs are doing in Afghanistan bring immediate assistance to desperate people, the very people providing the help are products of the phenomenon that crippled Afghanistan in the first place. The only honorable thing to do is to leave completely because that is the only action the West can do that severs the historical perpetuation of the greatest act of destruction that has ever befallen Afghanistan.
Granted that solution is idealistic and unrealistic, because, as you said, isolation is not a tangible option. As an individual with no connections to Afghanistan, like the vast majority of Americans, all I can do is refuse to participate or condone the participation in any western act in Afghanistan that highlights our capricious benevolence.
-Nathan , Vietnam
9 April 2013
Nathan, I share your concerns. My previous writing questions motives of some NGOs and the results, both intentional and unintentional:
- Tax breaks for wealthy donors: Schools struggle, while the rich fund golf tourneys: Tax deductions for charitable giving mean the rich can fund their pet causes while the government loses vital tax revenue. This loophole effectively takes the public good out of the hands of voter-elected representatives and subjects it to the whims of wealthy donors.
But just as one should not paint any culture with a broad brush, labeling them as extremists, the same can be said of NGOs. Some NGOs do remarkable work with respect for culture. Fear of Beauty details conflicting NGO philosophies and which have lasting influence.
The Afghans are in conflict on these issues. Isolation is not an option, and some Afghans do seek connections.
-Susan Froetschel , Midwest, US
8 April 2013
Dear Ms Froetschel,
The content of this article is one that carries a message of hope for the future of Afghan women, but it stinks of neo-colonial pompousness. Let me bring your attention to one specific line from the article,
"Students are then paired with US, Canadian or European mentors."
You make this point as if to say that without Western mentoring, these women will have a difficult time finding success. One should be aware of what "Western mentoring" has done to the people of Afghanistan throughout the decades. The point of view that any Western mode of nation building will serve as beneficial to the Afghan people is arrogant. Western NGOs, throughout the world, have a poor track record and often serve to attempt to neo-coloniolize a given developing country. The notion that we know how to run this country, despite how unappealing we find the Taliban to be, is always going to be a detrimental notion to the development of nations that do not follow our culture. We cannot force our notions of equal rights on the people of Afghanistan. This is a Western ideal. We follow it in our own countries because we believe it is right. Have you not seen what happens when Western cultures attempt to impose our ways of life on foreign cultures?
Perhaps unfortunately, the US and Project Artemis have no right to augment a culture that is not ours. Am I personally opposed to violence, discrimination, and intolerance towards women? Absolutely. That is why I choose to not live in countries like Afghanistan. The way they carry out their own society is their own business. No matter how pure the intentions of the neo-colonizers are, any action undertaken in the name of "civilizing" another culture is inherently going to lead to misdeeds.
If the Internet exsisted centuries ago, some article like this would be posted about how there is hope for the people of, lets say, French Indochina, because Catholic missionaries were making headway in that region. To read this hypothetical posting in 2013 would sicken us, because of the arrogance of the Western institutions that insist on molding foreign cultures in their own image. I am sickened by the Taliban, but this is an Afghan problem. Are the Taliban not themselves Afghan citizens? At what point will the West realize that any Afghan problem that we confront is not our problem but theirs? The people want to live a certain way. It is not our responsibility to police them, supervise them, or convert them to our way of thinking. In fact, though tragic, it is not even our responsibility to protect them.
The message of this article is that we should pity the Afghans, particularly Afghan women, feel sorry for them, and attempt to Westernize them for their own good. This mentality is misguided and will ultimately amount to nothing. Living in SE Asia, I have had exposure to Western NGOs. They are money drains. Every now and then, there is a story about how some NGO helped a town in Cambodia get fresh water. The newspapers fail to mention, though, the corruption, inefficiency, lack of cultural understanding, and wastefullness of the majority of NGO actions throughout the region. The arrogance of NGO workers, in general, to believe that their mission is a 21st century mission civilisatrice is upsetting and a repeat of past Western mistakes. I ask the readers not to buy into this, mind their own societies at home, and resist the temptation to impose their lifestyle on people who follow an entirely different culture.
Thank you for this space to hold free and civilized dialogue.
Nathan, Vietnam
-Nathan , Vietnam
8 April 2013
dear editor,
please permit me to introduce myself as senior journalist of pakistan based in peshawar,khyber
pakhttoonkhwa bordering afghanistan.what i want to say is that i offer my services to as stringer in this
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terrorits,taliban,al qaeda,tribal areas,suicide attacks,religious extremists activities,afghan refugees,afghan
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-sanaullah khan , peshawar,pakistan
8 April 2013
This is a most insightful piece on an extremely important issue. Well done.
-Jamsheed Choksy , Indiana University