The return of peace to Afghanistan has spurred an exile Afghan woman living in Berlin to pay a visit to her country. Armed with medicines and private donations, she’s now helping rebuild a war-torn province.
Giving Afghan women a perspective is a priority
Mariam Notten’s recent trip to Afghanistan began on a lucky note.
Just days before her arrival, a new checkpoint was opened on the Iranian-Afghan border. The new border pass meant that Notten was spared a long car trip that would have taken several days through the infamous stronghold of warlord Ismail Khan, where travelers are often known to be attacked, robbed or even killed.
The exile Afghan woman now living in Berlin was on her way to her hometown of Nimroz, a province in southwest Afghanistan, situated in the land-locked triangle bordered by Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Thanks to the new border pass, Notten could directly travel to Sarandj, the capital of Nimroz – located just a couple of kilometers from the border.
Life returns to Nimroz
Most people from the province of Nimroz fled the region during the decade-long civil war against the Russians in the 1980s and then the tyrannical Taliban regime in the last six years. Many of them sought refuge in neighboring Iran and Pakistan.
But with the dismantling of the Taliban regime by the U.S. last year, some people have been pouring back into the province after 25 years of exile.
Mariam Notten, who originally comes from Kabul, made her way to Berlin in the late 1960s from Nimroz. Though she doesn’t plan to move back to Afghanistan now that a measure of stability has returned, she wants to help the province of Nimroz back on its feet.
Model of safety in volatile country
As opposed to several other regions of Afghanistan, Nimroz is one of the safest provinces, Notten told DW-RADIO.
"One hardly sees any armed men there, apart from the soldiers in their barracks. They’re very tolerant towards women, who live a much freer life here. Even single women who come from other provinces, including Kabul, come here (Nimroz) to work That’s because they’re safer here," she said. Notten also said she’d experienced the safety of the place first-hand during her 11-day trip.
In fact, Nimroz could almost serve as a model for other Afghan regions grappling with problems of lawlessness and security.
The local government – a non-fundamentalist resistance group which Notten says has the potential to build a civil society – has managed to persuade men to disarm and at least refrain from carrying their weapons openly on the streets. The result is that residents feel safe enough to leave their doors unlocked at night, says Notten.
Nimroz being given a make-over
Work has also been going on in earnest in the province to repair damaged houses and public buildings.
Fourteen schools, including the girl’s school in Sarandj have opened their doors to students once again. Classes are now conducted within concrete rooms and a staff of 140 teachers teach some 3,000 girls.
The only thing that was missing in the school was running water for the washrooms and toilets. Mariam Notten has already invested the first 360 euro that she collected in Berlin in providing water. Water tanks were mounted atop the toilet buildings even before her short trip came to an end.
The remaining donations that Notten collected are now being invested in setting up a village school on the outskirts of the capital of Sarandj.
Empowering women a priority
Notten spoke of an extraordinary willingness on the part of the province’s governor to cooperate in realizing several social projects.
He's given his backing to an organization called "Democratic Women of Nimroz," which is trying to find jobs for widows, many of whom live with their children in tents in refugee camps on the outskirts of Sarandj. Three projects – the setting up of a bakery, a laundry and a shop for stitching quilts – are in the works.
The idea is to buy sewing material and other goods from the private donations. The women would receive their salaries from the profits made by selling the quilts and bread.
The governor has apparently shown interest in supporting the women’s bakery.
Notten says that it’s a project with perspective. She’s careful to point out that it won’t be a bakery, like the ones found in Germany with "20 different types of bread or cake."
Notten explains that women-run bakeries are a tradition in Afghanistan. "The Afghans mostly eat white bread and pita bread and that’s their staple along with meat and vegetables. That means the bread has to be baked freshly – it has to be fresh for three meals a day. So one can’t just ignore the bread because it’ll become hard in no time. In other words, the bakery is busy all day," she said.
Psychological barriers take longer to melt
Afghan female students
Though Nimroz might have a fairly liberal government, clothing oneself in accordance with religious norms is still respected. Though the women discarded the all-enveloping burqa after the fall of the Taliban, they retained the black head scarves, which are mandatory in neighboring Iran.
Notten explains that it’s not up to the men of the province to order the women to abandon the head scarves and that it will take time before deeply-entrenched thinking can be changed.
"It’s the women themselves – and even possibly their husbands. The families have lived abroad for 25 years, an entire generation grew up abroad with these head scarves and I think psychologically it’s quite a big barrier to reverse 25 years of development in a moment. They say that themselves."