Paula Lerner has been reaching out to the women of Afghanistan ever since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2002. As a photographer and activist, she has seen the unique challenges and triumphs of women's rights activists there. Abbas Jaffer of AltMuslimah recently interviewed her about her involvement in Afghan women's development.
When did you begin travelling to Afghanistan and working with the Business Council for Peace?
Paula Lerner: I have been to Afghanistan five times, beginning in 2005. During the first three trips I was part of a team of volunteers working with the Business Council for Peace, a non-profit organisation that helps women establish and grow self-sustaining businesses. In 2006, I collaborated with the Washington Post to produce an award-winning multimedia feature about this group of unusual businesswomen, which is archived online.
My last two trips I spent primarily in Kandahar working on a separate project about women in that city.
Is the coverage on Afghanistan in the United States painting an accurate portrayal of what's really going on there?
I feel that media coverage is generally not as in-depth or well rounded as it should be, and for that reason it is also not as accurate as it should be. In general, the coverage is limited, and heavily focused on the military and on the Taliban insurgency. There is very little coverage of daily life, or stories that would give Americans a better understanding of the cultural complexities or the human side of the Afghan people. Without that balance, I feel we get a very skewed picture, and so our capacity for compassion – and also for real understanding – is stunted.
Can you tell us a bit about the efforts and challenges faced by Sitara Achikzai, the women's rights activist recently killed by the Taliban?
Sitara Achakzai was an intelligent, educated, articulate and vibrant woman who was working very hard to improve the situation of men, women and children in her home province of Kandahar. As an elected member of the Kandahar Provincial Council, she had a price on her head, as do all of the council's members. She was very brave to continue her efforts under such circumstances.
A few weeks before her murder, I did an in-depth interview with Achakzai, and one of the things she told me that she was most proud of was that she and the other three women on the Provincial Council were recognised as being more honest and less corrupt than some of the male members of the council. When men in the province would bring a petition to the council, some of them would seek her and the other women out to act as their representative on a case because of this.
What do you think the role of Western women should be in helping Afghan women? How would you characterise these interactions?
Through the Business Council for Peace (Bpeace), I saw successful Western businesswomen reach out to advise, train and, in some cases, help launch their sisters in Afghanistan. What was beautiful to see about these interactions was that this was a clear case of Western women offering a hand up, not a hand out. I think this kind of effort is exactly what we in the West should be focusing on if we wish to improve things in Afghanistan.
I saw many strong friendships develop between the Bpeace members and the Afghan women in the programme, which have lasted over time. I think it's fair to say that on both sides the women's lives were changed in a positive way. Other groups that I have seen doing similarly good work is Women for Afghan Women and Project Artemis at the Thunderbird School of Global Management, to name a few.
What are some accomplishments that Afghan women have achieved that don't always get highlighted in the mainstream media?
There are many women's success stories that go under-reported in the mainstream media. Over the last four years, I have personally interviewed Afghan women in business, media and politics who are doing outstanding things in their fields but whose stories are for the most part unknown in the West.
On just this last trip in March I met with women in traditional garment-making and embroidery businesses, women who are beekeepers and honey producers, and women who manufacture soccer balls. Collectively they employ hundreds of other women and have a significant impact on their communities, both financially and as role models.
Part of my personal mission as a photojournalist and multimedia producer is to shine a light on these women, and to tell their stories to a larger audience in order to give a more balanced perspective on the experience of women in Afghanistan.
* Abbas Jaffer (email@example.com) is associate editor of Altmuslimah and will be studying gender and Islam at Harvard Divinity School this fall. This abridged article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews)