Photographer Paula Lerner: "Without balance, we get a very skewed picture."
By Abbas Jaffer, June 5, 2009
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. I asked her about her involvement in Afghan women's development, as well as her views on the recent Sitara Achakzai murder and the dangers Afghan women face when advocating for broader rights.
When did you begin traveling to Afghanistan and working with the Business Council for Peace?
I have been to Afghanistan five times, beginning in 2005. The first three trips I was part of a team of volunteers working with the Business Council for Peace, a non-profit organization that helps women establish and grow self-sustaining businesses. Their motto is that more jobs mean less violence. My role on the team was to document Bpeace programs with photographs, with audio interviews and sound recordings. 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.
Do you see Afghanistan as a culturally divided country, between northern areas like Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif and southern Kandahar and Helmand provinces? Is the coverage on Afghanistan in the U.S. painting an accurate portrayal of what's really going on there?
I have so far only spent time in Kabul and Kandahar, and unfortunately have not yet been to Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif, so I do not feel well informed enough to answer the first part of the question. As for the media coverage of Afghanistan in the U.S., I feel that it 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 with only a steady diet of skewed, mostly negative stories, I feel our capacity for compassion - and also for real understanding - is stunted. Since I am something of an "Afghanistan watcher," I monitor news reports about Afghanistan from many sources world wide. Between that and personal reports I get from friends and contacts on the ground, I feel I can get a much more accurate picture of what is happening there than from the general coverage in the American media.
Sitara Achikzai – the women’s rights activist recently killed by the Taliban – can you tell us a bit about her efforts and the challenges she faced?
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. It’s very hard to be outspoken about issues of rights and justice when one is constantly under the threat of death. She was very brave to continue her efforts under such circumstances. Her murder was a cowardly and dishonorable act on the part of the perpetrators. Afghanistan needs more people like Sitara Achakzai, not fewer of them.A few weeks before her murder, I did an in-depth interview with Mrs. 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 are recognized 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 out her and the other women to act as their representative on the case because of this. One of them even told her that at the next election he would vote only for women because he felt the women were more honest and capable than the men. She talked at length about how she was proud to be a part of that.
In your view, how is the situation in Kandahar unique for women’s rights work compared to the rest of Afghanistan?
Unlike for women in some other parts of Afghanistan, when the Taliban fell in 2001, not much changed for women in Kandahar. Because Kandahar is the Taliban homeland and the city from which the Taliban sprang, the fall of the regime didn't change the culture in the region. This means that the repression of women's rights imposed by the Taliban, such as the prohibition of the education of girls, of women working outside the home, of women to even leave home without a male escort, in large part, continues today even though none of this is mandated by law anymore. This is not unique to Kandahar, but it is certainly different than the experience of women in the capital city of Kabul and some other parts of the country.
Who else would you cite as examples of women’s rights leaders in Afghanistan?
For security reasons I would rather not mention names right now. The women I know whom I would cite are trying to keep a low profile, and for their security I think it best not to call attention to them at this time. I hope that will change in the near future.
What do you think the role of Western women should be in wanting to help Afghan women? How would you characterize these interactions?
I have seen firsthand some amazing efforts on the part of Western women to reach out to Afghan women. My first contact with Afghan women was through the Business Council for Peace, which has a very hands-on and practical approach to helping Afghan businesswomen. The Western women were successful businesswomen who reached 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 program, 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, the media, and in 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 is Associate Editor of Altmuslimah.