- Rangina Hamidi
president of Kandahar Treasure, the first women-run business in Kandahar. She is a former resident of the United States who returned to her native Afghanistan shortly after the 9/11 attacks.
- Paula Lerner
the principal photographer for the Emmy Award-winning feature Behind the Veil about the lives of women and teenage girls in Afghanistan. [NOTE: She did not appear on the broadcast, but provided the photographs shown during interview.]
Vice President Joe Biden is in Brussels today to get NATO allies to support the US surge in Afghanistan with more troops. We go to Kandahar to speak with grassroots Afghan activist, Rangina Hamidi. She is a former resident of the United States who returned to her native Afghanistan shortly after the 9/11 attacks. Today she is the president of Kandahar Treasure, the first women-run business in her hometown of Kandahar. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to war. Vice President Joe Biden is in Brussels today to get NATO allies to support the US surge in Afghanistan with more troops. The Obama administration has ordered 17,000 more US troops to Afghanistan to fight as part of an escalation of the seven-year-old war.
Meanwhile, in an interview with the New York Times, President Obama admitted the US is not winning the war in Afghanistan. He also revealed the US is considering reaching out to moderate elements of the Taliban, as he put it, much as it did with Sunni militias in Iraq.
On Sunday, thousands of women across Afghanistan donned blue scarves and came together for a Prayer for Peace with Justice. The gatherings marked International Women’s Day. That night, I spoke with Rangina Hamidi. She is a former resident of the United States who returned to her native Afghanistan shortly after the 9/11 attacks. Today she is president of Kandahar Treasure, the first women-run business in her hometown of Kandahar, helping Afghan women sell locally made embroidery. I asked Rangina Hamidi about the significance of the International Women’s Day in Afghanistan.
RANGINA HAMIDI: In Kandahar, we got together about — well, we got together last year and decided that as the government agencies have been celebrating International Day for Women, which falls on March 8th every year, we did not want to be necessarily celebrating the day when so many women were in mourning because they were losing a lot of their male relatives or male members of their families almost on a daily basis. So, in 2008, on March 8th, the women in our network gathered together, more than 1,500 of them, to commemorate the day by praying for peace, because they’ve been in war for literally more than thirty years. And women are sick and tired of it, and they don’t know — you know, on a local level, they don’t know any political figure, locally or nationally and/or even internationally, that they can go to to have their voices and have their plea be heard. So, because this is a religious and a conservative society, the women said, “Who better to pray to about peace than God?” These are all believing women. And so, they gathered for the first time publicly to pray for peace.
And it was not, you know, a program to necessarily get a lot of media. I mean, it was an event, kind of almost ad hoc, to expect the local government and the insurgents to hear the woman’s voice. And unexpectedly, a lot of media came and, you know, covered the event, and the women’s voices were heard, surprisingly, all over the world.
So, in Kandahar yesterday, we had more than — you know, we had hundreds of women show up, and all of them were praying for peace. The age group — we probably had women in their seventies and as young as ten and twelve. Even babies came to our event with their mothers. And it was a very peaceful and a calm event. All of the women were wearing light blue scarves as a symbol of peace and stability that they’d chosen.
And basically, it was a short event, but an event full of a lot of meaning, because the women want the world to know that they’re active in their pursuit — in their way of pursuing peace and stability, because a lot of the women know that the men, unfortunately, in our country, whether they’re in politics or not in politics, being either businessmen or just men in society, it seems that men are not trying hard enough to ask for peace. And so, the women have taken it upon themselves, that because they have never been part — an active part of the wars in the past thirty-plus years, they want to now be the active agents of calling for peace.
AMY GOODMAN: Rangina, right now, US policy — President Obama announcing the surge in Afghanistan, tens of thousands of more troops being sent in — what does this mean for Afghanistan, and particularly Kandahar? I mean, in the last week, we’ve heard about the three Canadian soldiers that were killed. I don’t know how many Afghan men, women and children have been killed. But what about this policy?
RANGINA HAMIDI: OK, that’s a great question. In fact, last night, we were at a friend’s house for dinner, and I’ll begin by quoting her directly. Her name was Shalah [phon.], and she said, quote, "Every time someone from my household goes out, I accept in my heart that they may not come back." This is the kind of feeling and attitude that most Afghan people live with today.
And she also — you know, she was someone that you do not expect to have any political opinion or basically an opinion and an idea of the current situation. But she was very open to share her thoughts with us, especially when she pointed this — after, you know, quoting her, we continued talking to her. And then she — surprisingly, she said, she said, “When Obama was being elected or elected to become president of the United States, there was hope in her family.” And she said that “I had hoped that things might change” — and “things” in terms of the military and political situation of Afghanistan, because she said, “We don’t want more killing to occur.” But as Obama decided, obviously, you know, after being sworn in as president that he will send more troops, more troops translate to more killing here. And so, she was very unhappy about that decision.
And this is not the decision only of her, but the decision of mine — or the opinion of mine and so many other people here who share this frustration that, you know, America needs to better focus on its strategy about what they’re doing here and, you know, what they want to accomplish in Afghanistan. Merely sending more troops will not solve the problem.
This is a political situation where, in my opinion — this is my personal opinion — that for every one individual we kill — and often it’s easy to claim that this is a Talib. You know, we bombard a village and then say, “Well, we killed a Taliban.” That’s not necessarily true. A lot of innocent people get killed. The common people are stuck in the middle. So, on the one hand, the Taliban or insurgents might come at nighttime with guns and ammunitions and force the village people to keep them, meaning give them housing, give them food. And when they do that, because they can’t — you know, ordinary people cannot fight back, in the morning or maybe a day or two later, the military get reports that the Taliban or insurgents have come, and then they come and start bombarding. So, when they bombard, the bombs are blind. They don’t see who’s Taliban, who’s not. We can’t differentiate between the ordinary people and the Taliban. So a lot of innocent people are being killed in the process, and the psychological effect on people is that, whether it’s a Talib or, you know, an ordinary person, it’s an Afghan that is being killed at the end. And so, it is very hard to not feel bad for innocent people being killed. And so, my assessment is that for every one person that we kill, we’re creating ten more who are against us. So if this policy of war and killing continues, I don’t know if we’re going to get any good result in the near future.
My personal recommendation, and that of many Afghans, is that the strategy about going forward with this war needs to change, for one, with a heavy focus and a critical focus on development. Afghanistan remains, after seven years or eight years of the international community’s involvement, to be a very severely undeveloped nation, with poverty still on the rise and corruption still very much as part of an integral part of the current government that we have. So unless there’s focus or a push from the international community to force the government, because the government, after all, is to — the government, after all, is operating on behalf of or as a representative of the people, but it is so corrupt. And, you know, obviously the government is getting a lot of assistance and aid from the international community to continue its operations. The international community has a responsibility to put enough pressure on Karzai and his government to address the issue of corruption. And unless we address the issue of corruption, development becomes a very hard, you know, issue, because even though many Afghans know that a lot of aid has come since the past eight years, because of the corruption or because of the level of corruption, the people, in the very end, the people in the villages, the people in the small cities, have hardly seen any kind of difference in their lives from when the Taliban were in power to now.
So you can imagine the effect that this is having on ordinary people and the frustration and the anger. And, you know, again, it’s hard to accept this fact. But I can understand why ordinary Afghans would want to go and join forces with the insurgents and/or the Taliban, because the alternative government, or the government in power right now, has failed to provide any services or development to the people.
AMY GOODMAN: Rangina Hamidi is an Afghan activist. She’s speaking to us from Kandahar. We’ll come back to the conversation in a minute.
We continue with my conversation with Afghan activist Rangina Hamidi. I reached her in Kandahar and asked her to talk about the reaction to the deaths of the three Canadian troops in Afghanistan last week.
In our peace event — not yesterday, because we did not have much time to give women to really basically — or to really voice their own personal opinions about it, because we had to go to a second event organized by the government agency, but last year — I heard a mother had lost her son due to a suicide bomber, and she got up to speak, and she said a beautiful thing. She said, “Whether it’s a Talib who’s being killed, an Afghan policeman who’s being killed, or an international army military person who is being killed, he leaves behind a mother, a sister or a daughter and/or a wife who mourns for them.” So that saying was quite powerful in saying that women have this inclusive idea of security and owning peace. Stopping the killing for all, whether they’re Afghan or not, is reason enough for them to wage peace. You know, mothers feel the pain of human beings, and they’re calling for and they want this killing to stop.
But it’s very difficult for them to also understand that — you know, I’m not trying to belittle the fact that three or more — I mean, we’ve had obviously more killings of not only the Canadian soldiers, but other soldiers all over Afghanistan. So, three Canadians get killed, and it’s in the news, and everybody obviously knows about it and talks about it, but in Afghanistan, on a daily basis, we have more than — I mean, it’s very hard for me to quote, but I would not be surprised if we have more than ten or fifteen people being killed on a daily basis, you know, on a city level. I’m not even talking about the villages that are bombarded. Those are numbers that we never even hear about. So, for Afghans, for ordinary Afghans, they ask the question of justice and fairness. Where is the fairness in reporting the lives of people that are killed on the Afghan side?
And in the end, there is a war going on. We cannot deny the fact that we are at war here in Afghanistan. You know, many of my government officials, both on a national level and on a very local level, they get up and they speak about how wonderful life is and how wonderful, you know, the situation is and the progress we’re making going forward. But the reality is that we are at war. And this is a fact that the world needs to accept and Afghanistan needs to accept, that unless you address the issue of war and killing and a strategic way to move forward about bringing peace or waging peace, you cannot — you cannot stop it. I mean, sometimes I feel that we’re fooling ourselves. We being an Afghan American, so I see myself almost as a bridge between both of the worlds. How can we refuse to accept that there’s a war going on?
<p.So, again, I reemphasize that unless we change our strategy moving forward and focus heavily on development and address the political situation of the region with a strategy, with a clear focus, with an understanding and a reality check of what is going on on the ground, we cannot simply be making decisions for Afghanistan sitting in Washington and not having any contact or any communication with people on the ground. Honestly, I felt that when I was in Washington, that many — unfortunately, many of our policymakers don’t even have a clue of what’s really going on, but they’re making policies. And that is a really scary thing.
Rangina, what brought you back to Afghanistan?
What brought me back? Sometimes I just say I was born to be back, but I guess that’s a cliché to say, and it doesn’t sound too good. But I guess, at the end of the day, I can just point to the fact that I’m an Afghan woman; I was born in Afghanistan, in Kandahar, to be specific; and I was fortunate enough — of course, my country was unfortunate and my family was unfortunate to be forced to leave by the war that Russians started in the early — or late ’70s, but I was fortunate enough to have been brought up in a family that is very open-minded, very much forward-thinking, and allowed me every opportunity and any opportunity in my life that I wanted to take. So when I finished my college in America and September 11th happened and then the issue of Afghanistan came up, I only knew that I had to go back, because if I had — if my father had — or if my parents had not decided to leave Afghanistan when we were young, I could very well be the women that I work with today. And most of these women are, you know, unfortunately women who are either widows or extremely poor or living in relationships and families that are completely controlling and, you know, not recognizing women’s rights and not recognizing women as valuable human beings.
So I only thought of it — my sole decision or my main decision to come back is to serve the people that I’m part of. I mean, I cannot deny the fact, my identity, that I am Afghan. And having the understanding of both worlds, both being Afghan and then being American, and seeing the world through both lenses gives me a great opportunity to be able to create a bridge of understanding, not only for my Afghans, but also to help my American community in trying to understand what the problems are. So I think it just was a natural calling that I answered. And I’m very happy, and I’ve enjoyed every single second of my life in the past six years that I’ve been here.
Rangina, tell me about your organization, Kandahar Treasure.
When I first came in 2003, I was part of — I was working with a nonprofit organization called Afghans for Civil Society, and we started an Income Generation Project for women here, because most women obviously did not have opportunities to earn an income. So, recognizing that women in Kandahar are extremely skilled in a very delicate and a fine embroidery of the region — they all know how to do this from starting ages six and seven — we recognized the skill, and instead of wasting resources of the international community funding money to train people how to do something they already knew, we instead focused on training them how to improve the quality of their work and, you know, helping with the designs, so that we could better market it.
And we operated this project for about three years before I had the idea of transferring it or making it into a business, because, ultimately, a business model is the most sustainable and promising model. And in terms of development, in a region like Afghanistan, unless there is a long-term sustainability in mind, unfortunately most of the projects that begin, they fail, because there’s no sustainability taken into consideration. So we turned the nonprofit project with Afghans for Civil Society to become Kandahar Treasure, which is the first private women-owned business in Kandahar.
And currently we’re working with over 400 women at home. Most of these women are at home. We have twenty women coming in to our production site, where we work on a daily basis creating the prototypes or the models for the masterpieces that we then take to the women to reproduce from. And women are earning an income in their home, at the safety of their home, and men are loving the project or the business, because we’re not asking women to do anything extraordinary that they wouldn’t be doing. And I know that Kandahar Treasure will be one model that the world can look at to see that sustainable development is possible and that change can happen in small increment ways. We don’t necessarily need to focus on big huge projects, although they’re important, too. But it is really the small grassroots projects and initiatives that will ultimately make the biggest change.
Finally, Rangina, I wanted to get your opinion of this latest news. The New York Times published an interview that they did with President Obama on Air Force One. They said President Obama declared in the interview that the United States is not winning the war in Afghanistan and opened the door to a reconciliation process in which the American military would reach out to moderate elements of the Taliban, much as it did with Sunni militias in Iraq. Your response, Rangina?
I think that’s a very interesting point. And actually, I would like to take some time to answer this. In 2001, when the Bonn Agreement was being signed on Afghanistan, as outside — as Afghans sitting obviously not at the table and not at the conference, but we know the representatives of many of the political parties or groups of the past thirty-some years of the war in Afghanistan all represented at that agreement, I — you know, having absolutely no experience in Afghanistan, because I was in America still, I questioned my father. I said, “Isn’t it interesting that almost every group that has been involved in the destruction of Afghanistan since the past thirty years is represented in the Bonn conference except for the Taliban?” And seven years later, or eight years later, that question that I asked is now actually being talked about by the President of America.
And it’s interesting, because if you ask, again, ordinary Afghans — there’s a difference between ordinary Afghans and then Afghans who have been involved very brutally in the destruction of Afghanistan — many Afghans will say that they did not want any of the warlords, the drug lords, the people who destroyed Afghanistan since the late ’70s, to be involved in the government, but yet the reality and the fact of the matter is — and this is what the world needs to know — that every single thug responsible for the destruction is now in some power position within the government of my country. They’re either ministers or advisers or in the senate or in the parliament or, on a local level, governors of provinces. So it was only a question of justice and fairness to say, well, if all these guys are in this government, why are we excluding the Taliban from it initially? Ideal case scenario, of course, would be to not have any of them involved, from day one. But if you are playing fair and just, then you involve the Taliban, too.
Now, coming back to the question of moderate Taliban, to be honest, I, as an Afghan, to this day, I still question, first of all, who is a Talib? And I think this is what Americans and the American government also lacks an understanding of. When we talk about the Taliban, who are we really talking about? Because the Taliban movement itself is so divided among itself that there is the Pakistani version, there is the Afghans, there is the Chechens or the Arabs or the, you know, people who come from other parts, or the Somalians, for example, who come from other parts of the world to be involved in this movement. Who are we talking about when we talk about the Taliban? And then, when we say “moderate Taliban,” I almost laugh at that the statement, because if it’s a moderate Talib who’s not actively fighting a war, meaning not blowing himself up or not encouraging others to blow themselves up, then why do we necessarily need to waste resources and time in talking to them? Because they’re not the problem; the problem is the extremists. Why aren’t we trying harder to reach out to the most extreme? Because that’s really the problem, the problem makers.
And, you know, a fact that America needs to accept is, when we address the issue of Taliban, be it extreme or moderate, the question of Pakistan is definitely a must. You cannot deny the fact that Pakistan is not involved. Everybody knows this. The entire world knows this. And so, unless there is a clear focus or a clear item on the agenda about the issue of Taliban that Pakistan needs to be actively involved and that the extremists need to be somehow addressed, I fear that we might be losing time and resources and energy again by just merely focusing on the moderate.
Again, I’m not suggesting that it’s not a good idea to begin with the moderates, a conversation with the moderates, but that should not be our ultimate goal and the end of the goal. We need to reach out to the extremists, and we also need to reach out — I mean, and not reach out, but reach out to the people, to the masses, and really just state our goal in Afghanistan. You know, I would like America to clearly state what it wants to achieve in Afghanistan, for how long it wants to be here. You know, when you compare it to Iraq, there is now a clear goal of when America wants to leave, and they’re already pulling out troops, and, you know, the Iraqis now have a feeling that America will eventually leave. For Afghanistan, we still have no idea. Is this going to be an indefinite war? Is this going to be an indefinite presence in Afghanistan? And if it is, we would like to know. I think Afghans have the right to information, and that information is our right to know. And I think America owes that responsibility to tell us what they’re doing here, how long they’re going to be here, and what its strategy is in addressing the situation.
Rangina Hamidi is an Afghan activist and founder of kandahartreasure.com, the first women-run business in her hometown of Kandahar. She was speaking to us from there.