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Stereotypes in Afghanistan Society About Women's Rights Harassment and Terrorism

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Stereotypes are very common in all societies both within and between groups of people. They have been especially noticeable in ‘Western’ society about Middle Easterners and Arabs, including Afghans. Afghans are constantly the subject of over-generalized ideas, many of which are untrue or exaggerated. Common misconceptions about Afghans include the mistreatment/oppression/limited opportunities of Afghan women, which is a major exaggeration. Another is the belief that all Afghans are terrorists or terrorist supporters, which is a complete falsehood. The idea that Afghans hate foreigners is also a very exaggerated and common stereotype about Afghans in Western countries such as the United States, Canada, and European states.

In the past few decades, many Americans and other Westerners have had a skewed perception of women in Middle Eastern countries, including Afghanistan. Women in those countries were seen as oppressed by male dominance with limited opportunities in life. The most prominent symbol of this is veiling, more specifically the burqa (Preface). The burqa is the most extreme form of veiling; “…a loose-fitting garment that covers a woman’s body from head to toe, with only a small mesh screen over the eyes to allow the wearer to see…” (Preface). However, the burqa and other veils are simply a means to “protect women from sexual predation” (Preface). It’s an “Islamic symbol of modesty, worn to conceal the outer beauty in order to show the inner…it is frequently a means to mobility and an assurance of security for women entering public space” (Kaura, Vinay “The Oppressed”). Most Muslim women practice veiling, and veiling only seems more common in countries such as Afghanistan because more of the population identify as Muslim than compared to the United States or Europe. In fact, ninety-nine percent of Afghans are Muslims (66). Eighty percent are Sunni Muslim and nineteen percent are Shia Muslim (66). Veiling is not a symbol of oppression for them, but rather a symbol of their culture, beliefs, and modesty. Additionally, “…most men cover their heads and bodies for practical if not religious reasons, so covering in both genders might be regarded as much a social as a religious custom” (Kaura, Vinay “The Oppressed”). To prove this point, Muslim feminists returned to wearing the burqa and other veils as a way of working to break Western stereotypes (Kaura, Vinay “The Oppressed”). Although most Americans expected the women to stop veiling after the Taliban was overthrown, many Afghan women continued to wear the burqa, or replaced it with a hijab or other headscarf. They believe that there are more important symbols of freedom, such as holding a job in the government or the ability to get an education (Preface). However, Afghan women are also thought by many Westerners to have no access to education, with unequal opportunities compared to that of men.

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This is partially true, yet still exaggerated. The Taliban ruled the country in the late 1990s and early 2000s, they banned girls over the age of about eleven (Bearak) from attending school, helping to spread this misconception. In fact, according to “66 Interesting Facts,” only about one in three Afghans in Afghanistan, men and women, are literate overall (66), so it’s not just women who are missing out on getting educated. Education is not valued very highly in Afghan culture for women, as most are expected to stay home and take care of the house, and “barriers inhibit women from achieving higher education” (Mashriqi). A “resistance to the idea of educating and empowering women and the stigmatizing of women who are educated or who do work outside the home as dishonorable” (Kaura, Vinay ‘The Emerging’) has been prominent in recent years. In fact, “…a local elder interviewed in 1990…stated that education would “pollute” a rural woman’s character” (Kaura, Vinay ‘The Emerging’). However, as Afghanistan is becoming more modernized as a result of an increase in Western influences, more and more young girls are gaining an education. Even so, locals are led to believe that educated women wear European clothing, work outside of the home, and do not have good moral character. This results in a growing resistance to the idea of the education of women in the country, which then reinforces the stereotype (Kaura, Vinay ‘The Emerging’). One reason for this resistance is the belief that education will not only corrupt a woman’s character, but also result in a loss of Afghan culture. Many Afghans feel Western beliefs are spread through the school system, and therefore have the potential to spread to the girls that attend those schools. Since women usually raise children, it’s feared that the children of female students will have decreased knowledge of Afghan culture as a result of their mother’s Western-style schooling. Essentially, they fear the Afghan way of life will disappear.

Another common misconception is that women are the victims of much violence, the result of a patriarchal society. “Afghan women have become the world’s stereotypical victims of male domination, ignorance, and hide-bound religious belief” (Kaura, Vinay “The Oppressed”). “Remove the sensation and it remains true that many Afghan women experience violence, deprivation, and constraints on their freedom of choice and movement. Frequently too, their condition is ignored by the Afghan authorities or taken as the norm. And when Afghan women take action to escape victimization they are often victimized again” (Kaura, Vinay “The Oppressed”). Yet in all reality, the big stories heard about women in Afghanistan being raped, forced to marry at a young age, subject to beatings from their husbands, murdered, starving after being widowed, are not the norm. They are simply human interest stories meant to make Afghanistan seem backwards and wrong. These stories are found everywhere: international media, academic literature, and reports on Afghanistan’s development. While violence in Afghanistan is definitely higher than in most countries, the belief that women are subject to the majority of it is untrue (Kaura, Vinay “The Oppressed). There are countless stories of loving husbands and fathers, thriving family relationships, daughters getting an education, and wives in the workplace (Kaura, Vinay “The Oppressed”). All in all, the thought that women in Afghanistan are simply victims of violence is a major exaggeration, as is the idea that all Afghans are subject to extreme violence. Again, Afghanistan may be a country that has a higher crime and violence rate than most countries, but as stated above, most are simply human interest stories (Kaura, Vinay “The Oppressed”). For example, in 2009, Afghanistan had three major “tragic incidents in…two weeks” (Paper). These three incidents combined resulted in over two hundred and sixty casualties, mostly of civilians (Paper). However, as stated above, this is not the norm in Afghanistan. In reality, both Afghans in general and Afghan women are not victims. Women are able to pursue education, and veiling is not a symbol of male dominance but rather religious and social customs.

Additionally, “there is a tendency in the west to caricature the Afghan people as lawless tribes of men with beards and turbans who carry weapons” (Alter). Many Middle Eastern and Arab people, including Afghans, are simply seen as evil terrorists who want to create chaos and destroy Western life. For example, a gas station owner in Mesa, Arizona was killed in retaliation for the September eleventh attacks. He was neither an Arab, Muslim, or Afghan. The sole reason for his death is that he “had a beard, was dark skinned, and wore a turban” (Alter). Small terrorist organizations in the Middle Eastern region, of which the majority of Afghans oppose, have come to represent the entire population of the region’s inhabitants (66). However, “in the past few years, an estimated 2.6 million Afghans left their home country and sought refuge in others” (66), and have even fought the Taliban, especially the Tarjik region (Global). Even so, we continue to ignore these facts and hold onto our false beliefs. This view of Afghans is, in part, a result of recent violence by these terrorist organizations, including the infamous 9/11. September eleventh, 2001, marked the start of a great increase in anti-Arab sentiment in the United States and also the formation of false stereotypes about people living in the Middle East (Alter). Afghan stereotypes also originate from events and news stories such as “…in 2016, Afghan American Omar Mateen killed 49 people and wounded 53 others with an assault rifle at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. The Islamic State praised his actions” (Terrorism). While these events do occur, it is wrong to believe that the people involved should come to represent all Afghans. In Afghanistan, most people are merchants, students, teachers, and farmers, who have gone through numerous years of civil war and other hardships. Many fled to Pakistan as refugees and are waiting near the border for the fighting to cease so they may go back home (Alter). Even so, recently, the image of the average Afghan as a destructive, lawless extremist “has been reinforced through pictures of Osama Bin Laden, though he himself is not an Afghan. This is a stereotype that can be traced back to the frontier mythology of the British Empire and it is rooted in colonial prejudice” (Alter). Many Western myths of Afghans came about when the fight for their independence from Britain was occuring, and thus we view Afghans as destructive, harsh fighters. The terrorist organizations in the region and their actions only work to enforce these views. In addition, even if some Westerners don’t think that Afghans are terrorists, many believe that they at least support the terrorist cause. Supporting that argument is the fact that Afghanistan is the source of ninety percent of the world’s heroin, an expensive drug made from opium poppy flowers (Rubenstein). Many believe opium is used by terrorists to help control fear and help with brainwashing in young recruits, and the money is thought to help fund the organizations. However, the Taliban actually banned opium production in Afghanistan while it ruled there (Otis) in the 1990s and 2000s. Though Afghans have been proven not to be terrorists or terrorist supporters, believing that Afghans hate foreigners remains a common misconception.

This is a very large exaggeration, mostly as a result of Afghanistan’s history. Afghanistan was a British colony, and fought for it’s independence fiercely (Alter). The British were outsiders, and the Afghans wanted to be free of British rule. They desired autonomy and their own country (Alter). As mentioned before, many Western myths about Afghans were formed during this time, influencing Western views of the Afghan people. Afghans also drove out the Soviet Union in the 20th century, reinforcing this idea (O’Hanlon). Until recently, Afghans have nearly always been fighting to be freed of another nation’s rule. This is interpreted as having a hatred of foreigners. They have either been fighting the Mongols, the British, the Greeks, the Persians, or other military forces attempting to control their land (66). Even though there is some tension regarding Americans and the British (Global), this stereotype remains a major overstatement. Afghans don’t mind outsiders coming to their country as long as their own culture is not overshadowed by the foreign culture (Global). In fact, about fifty percent of Afghans voted the United States as ‘favorable,’ which is much more than their Iraqi neighbors (Brookings). All in all, it is obvious that Afghanistan is home to a people that are, on whole, very welcoming, or at the very least, indifferent.

As shown clearly above, Afghans are subject to being overgeneralized in many instances. The position and treatment of women is commonly exaggerated, and believing that all Afghans are terrorists is a complete falsehood. In addition, while some Afghans may be less open to certain types of foreigners, most are quite the opposite. Fortunately, there are clear and numerous reasons that caused these stereotypes to be created and implanted in people’s minds. By identifying the stereotypes as exaggerated or untruthful, as well as learning about the cause of these misconceptions, they can be countered so as to have a better and more truthful idea of Afghans. 

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