Some words of introduction here: When I was in Afghanistan, I kept a journal. I wrote down lots of things ‘as they happened’ or ‘the way I remembered them! Now that I am home again, those entries have been placed in an already existing file of writings that I call “Skeletons” because they need to be fleshed out. Maybe I should call it “Bones” because some of them need connecting as well!
I recently attended another meeting at the Ministry of Tribal and Border Affairs (MoBTA). My understanding of my task was that I was to offer some guidance to fourteen Afghan guys who would be conducting surveys around the country to find out what folks (tribal leaders) think about Reintegration and Reconciliation (R2). Aside from the irony of me training Afghans on how to get information from their own people, I was skeptical from the start.
My RM was wearing her Afghan costume. The only other woman there was an English Army person. She wore her civvies and a cute yellow scarf. Neither she nor the RM said a word the entire meeting. This was clearly another case of “Meg’s in charge. Let’s just sit back and watch.” I chose to wear my ACUs that day but took along a lovely pink and green silk floral scarf just in case (Luckily for all of us, I can’t find that picture! Will keep looking.). It’s a good thing I did because the room was filled with all sorts of tribal elders from down South and representatives from various GIRoA ministries. The imbed over at Ministry of Borders and Tribal Affairs (MoBTA) was not known for his organizational or communication skills, but this took the cake, or the naan, or whatever they take over here. It was one big interpretive dance (presenting a train heading for a cliff) from the moment we entered the room until we left.
The Afghan gentlemen, were not quite so reserved. In fact they were quite animated at times, like when they argued for ten minutes about the wording of a particular question that they had already decided was stupid. By the time this argument flared up I was contemplating the best way to go about painfully attracting my interpreter’s attention because he was joining in the discussion instead of keeping us abreast of things!! The non-Afghans in the room had no clue what was going on and no way to stop it!
This argument only saw the light of day because we had to go through each question one by one and let everybody “vote” on it. I would say the question number then the Minister of Mustaches would read the question in Dari and Pashto. It is safe to assume that some, if not all, of the fantastically dressed Elders couldn’t read (another fashion note: One Elder had a hideous cold and was using a huge silk Hermes scarf that he was using as a hanky. Made quite a show of it too!).
The Elders were not rude- they just weren’t cordial. The more urban dudes had no issue with the presence of women in the room or the fact that I was (supposedly) running things. Well, things were getting out of control, and the guys weren’t going to take ‘shushing from any woman- not even one in an Army uniform. My mind was racing, trying to figure out how to salvage some semblance of order when I recalled an article that I had read about the Jirga and how men are honor-bound to listen when women speak for peace. Desperation can lead us to take risks. So… I took a deep breath and started talking (I had managed to make my interpreter recall his job for the moment) The minute I/he said ‘peace’ the room was silent. I owned that meeting for the rest of the afternoon…or maybe they just let me think that, but we had a great discussion about surveys, PEACE, reintegration, PEACE, reconciliation, PEACE, even the Taliban and Pakistan, and PEACE.
They never did say what they think the role of women is in the R2 process, but THEY are the ones who brought up the question (or maybe that’s just what I let them think), and I put my hand on my heart and thanked them. Smiles almost all the way around.