Analysis of the cultural differences regarding the status and social role of genders experienced during a mission in Afghanistan.
Short case presentation
In April 2008 I was offered the opportunity to travel to Afghanistan for a field visit in relation to my work. It was my first time going to the field as a professional, even though I grew up in several countries because of my dad‟s job as a UN diplomat. Growing up, we have always been to family duty stations (Countries where you can bring family), except one time when we were in Haiti, and had to leave my dad there after the first year. Security wise it was not possible for the family to stay.
So I had some idea of what was an emergency country. But I had never been in a war country, Afghanistan is considered to be one of the most dangerous places, and has been in a state of complex emergency for over the past twenty years. The country‟s infrastructure and systems have been largely destroyed. An estimated 70% of the population lives in poverty and substandard conditions. Over 100,000 people - most of them children and women - remain displaced by conflict and drought. The security situation in the country is deteriorating; and more areas have fallen into active military operation zones, which hamper humanitarian operations and access to affected populations. However, I was still extremely excited for this opportunity.
My mission was suppose to last two months, and I was joining the UNICEF Afghanistan office, one of our biggest operation with approximately two hundred staffs scattered in several sub offices all over the country. I was based in Kabul city and had few trips in the country to visit some of our projects. Since I am working in the communication section of our Geneva office, my job in Afghanistan was to produce some human interest stories1 that would be featured on our website and annual report.
The first thing that struck my attention when we landed in Kabul and drove through the city to get to the guest house was the absence of women. At the airport, there were only male workers; in the streets you could see very few women walking wearing burkas.
Within an hour of our landing, we had to be briefed on the security situation and on the local customs.
Afghan men are very protective and jealous of their women (mothers, wife‟s, sisters, etc...) And in the majority of families, men make decisions in regards to everything for their women. If she is allowed to go to school, when she should get married and with whom, if she can work, if she can go outside without being accompanied, basically everything is controlled by men. A very very small percentage of the population acts differently, but since people tend to care about what the others think, it makes it difficult to freely act against the majority. Being a young woman sent to work in Afghanistan, it was hard for them to understand.
Our office was in a very big compound with few other UN agencies. We had several Afghan men and women working but not interacting unless it was for professional reasons. Being used to working with both sexes, I had not problem what so ever to interact with men and women. And for the Afghan men, it was ok to speak freely with any foreigner women. When talking with the women, they explained to me that they could not have lunch or interact with their male colleagues to avoid any problems and bad reputation. I was friendly with all my colleagues as I would I have done it in any other circumstances, until I understood that by doing so I was starting to feel disrespected from male Afghan colleagues.
Let me explain: In the briefing I had on my first day, I was told that Afghans were forbidden to go in any international restaurants because alcohol was sold there. The international community leaving there is asked not to help in finding or buying alcohol for Afghans since it is strictly forbidden for them to drink alcohol even though most of the men find ways of drinking. If an international is found guilty of doing so, he risks losing his job and being expelled from the country. By being nice and friendly to my male Afghan colleagues, I think they started to think that I was a frivolous and easy girl, a colleague explained that a man and a women are only allowed to be close to each other if married and could not only be friendly. Drivers and other young Afghan colleagues started to ask me to buy alcohol for them, or to invite them to my hotel, that is when I realised that we could not just be friends.
One day, I asked the driver who was taking me back to my hotel to stop by the liquor store (located in the office compound), I was invited at a farewell party and was asked to bring some wine. When we arrived there, he asked me if I could buy some beer and vodka for him even though he knew I was not allowed to do so. I was extremely uncomfortable and had to think of a nice way to say no. First I told him, “you know I can‟t, I am not allowed to do that and I risk my job” he said “nobody will know, I won‟t say anything I promise” so I told him that in my country, men don‟t ask women to buy alcohol for them because it is very disrespectful. Yes I lied, but after that he never asked me anything, again and I also wanted to show him that where I come from or lived men also had respect for women somehow. I don‟t know if he understood that or if he was shocked that a woman could say no to him.
The communication process in this situation took place between the Afghan driver and me, who was trying to get me to buy him alcohol even though this was formally against the office rules and regulations. It was a complex communication process, because I had to find a nice way to refuse his request without being too harsh and avoid this situation to happen again. I knew that whatever I decided to do would have repercussions on my relations with the other male Afghan colleagues. 1) If I happened to say yes, it would have incited him to ask me again, and he would have told his colleagues that I was ok for buying alcohol for them. 2) If I had said no without finding a diplomatic way, it would have been hard for me in the future to get any drivers when I needed one, since we could not move in the city without official cars, we were very dependent on the drivers so we had to be very nice to them.
In this case I am the sender, because somehow I took this opportunity to draw a line between me and the male Afghan colleagues who are the receivers (Afghan drivers plus the other male Afghan colleagues will get echo of what has happened). I knew that my decision would have an impact on my future interaction with the male Afghan colleagues and on how they perceived me. The driver acted in this process as an individual, but I wanted him to be a messenger to the others. So that no one else put me in the same awkward situation by asking me to buy alcohol, to come by my hotel or to have any disobliging attitude. But I had to find a way of doing so without hurting anyone. I can also be perceived as a receiver and the driver as the sender. In this particular situation, he is asking me something, if I had agreed, he would have also shared the info with his colleagues. My message would have been perceived as I have no problem in going against the rules.
The channel and instrument of communication used is verbal communication in English only since I don‟t speak the local dialect. The risk could have been that my messenger gave the wrong message to other colleagues and not explain that I not only had office rules that prevented me but also had good enough reason attached to my culture.
The contents of the messages of the 2 main parties are:
The Afghan driver: „Can you buy me alcohol, even though you are not suppose too, basically can you not follow the rules, risk your job and get me some beer and vodka” he did not say it like that but that‟s how it sounded. After my first attempt to say no “Common, who cares, just get me a bottle, no one will find out!” Again that is how it sounded to my ears.
- Me: “how dare you asking me something like that!” Of course I did not say that, I first reminded him It was not allowed, then, I used the cultural excuse, since they are very attached to their culture, I told him it was not appropriate for a lady to be asked from a man to buy him alcohol where I came from.
The interlocutors (the male Afghan driver and me) in this communication process can be categorized in four spheres: Professional, Gender, Religious, Age.
Professional: Even though we are colleagues, Afghanistan Is very hierarchical, and I was considered as having a more important job and having an importance of status and reputation. In Geneva where I live, from the Director to the clerk who delivers mail, everyone is at the same level and has the same rights.
Gender: In Afghanistan interactions between men and women at work are officially laid down and limited in formal rules. Men and women hang out separately and don‟t have the same interest per say.
Religious: He is Muslim and is not allowed to drink Alcohol. To make it even worse, they have very strict rules that forbid the Afghan to go in restaurants in their own country just to avoid the risk of them being exposed to alcohol. International people are told that they could lose their job in they provide the locals with alcohol.
- Age: I am a lot younger than the river who could be my dad. Age is a very important factor in Afghanistan. You have to respect the elderly. You can contradict older people, they are considered to be wise and since they have more experience, they should get all the respect.
So in this Situation, I am not only a catholic woman, a lot younger than my male interlocutor, but professionally I am considered more important. He could have felt embarrassed to have to ask me for something and then being denied, but I tried to handle the situation so that no one looses face.
Despite all my efforts at being cautious not to hurt my colleague‟s feeling, I was not 100% sure that he understood the reason I had refused his request. My first motivation, of course, was not to break the rules, even though I thought that any individual should be allowed to do whatever they wanted or drink/eat what they pleased. My second motivation was to make him (and his male Afghan colleagues) understand that just because I was a foreign woman, who was friendly to them (male), it didn't‟t mean that I did not have morals or a culture. After explaining to him that in my culture it was forbidden, he had apologised and I had never been asked anything that could have placed me again in an awkward situation until my departure. I had conversations with Internationals colleagues, some of them found themselves in the same situation. And it is interesting to say that women felt more uncomfortable than man.
After doing this analysis, it made me understand that culture was the main factor in this case, being from totally different background did not make it easier.