My sister Emily, a young mother with lots of experience in post-war conflict resolution, moved to Afghanistan last week for her new job with USAID. She is stationed on a base in a sterile, metal container or “hooch” as they call it. A posting to a war zone is required to extend her position and reemployment (somewhat similar to gaining tenure…). The war zone experience will guarantee housing and international locations for her family for the duration of her State department career.
Emily left her husband, a young son and kindergarten-aged daughter in Jacksonville, Florida with much-loved grandparents. She gets four work “vacations” during her year in Kabul and two flights home to the U.S. to see her family in order take a break from the stressful work environment (to put it mildly). Thanks to the joys of satellite technology, Emily has been able to Skype with her husband and kids once or twice a day so far. Any commuting parent understands the importance of consistent communication with the family. Talk about long distance parenting…
Emily’s husband, Ognjen, born and raised in Sarajevo, Bosnia, has prior military experience from the Balkan wars. Our father was a Navy pilot so the concept of active duty in war zones is not foreign to our family. The concept of young mothers (without military training) being stationed in Kabul, however, has taken some ‘adjustment’ for my family--just as my own long distance parenting required a new understanding of academic work life. Fortunately, our family has been very supportive of both of our situations.
Emily was a little shocked to discover that--out of several hundred USAID employees in Kabul--she has met only one other woman with young children. She was forewarned by other foreign service workers that it is almost impossible to leave Afghanistan without acquiring at least a low level of PTSD. The constant stress of leaving the protection of the base or hearing loud, explosive noises is a guarantee for frayed nerves. Emily has been working out in the gym and going to yoga classes regularly to help retain her “physical and mental health.” My concern about my sister relaxes when I picture Emily stretching on a mat with peaceful music in the background. I wonder if Afghan women practice yoga too?
Gender issues have become one of the top issues for the current nation-building attempts going on in Afghanistan and other developing nations. (See Nicholas Kristof's writings  about the subject.) The gender divide in the rural, conservative Afghan countryside seems deeply embedded in cultural routines—similar to Victorian-era practices of separating sexes through different architectural spaces, as well as constricting, formal dress codes. Emily has referenced the challenges that the State department faces with educating young girls in Afghanistan, challenges that stem from the women as much as the men. But Emily has also mentioned a group of women who were excited to meet a “Westerner” such as herself, even when she forgot to wear the appropriate head scarf to a meeting.
Development workers such as my brave sister may be one of the few hopes that the U.S. investments in Afghanistan’s nation-building will pay off. Emily makes it sound as if the cultural divide is crossable with Afghan women, even without sharing the same spoken language. The women, particularly the mothers, often communicate an unspoken appreciation with each other. The connections that mothers build in order to protect their children and stop the violence is just what this war needs.
I am wondering about other examples of mothers and anti-war collaborations?