A brighter fu­ture?

Friday - - Society -

Pia says one im­prove­ment she no­ticed was that young men and women were a lot more ac­tive in so­ci­ety and more fash­ion­able. Ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tions De­vel­op­ment Pro­gramme, at least 60 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion is un­der the age of 25. The youth con­tin­gent is an im­por­tant one in Afghanistan and their pres­ence is par­tic­u­larly felt in Kabul. Many for­eign or­gan­i­sa­tions rely on lo­cal Afghan tal­ent, which has helped boost the pri­vate ed­u­ca­tion sec­tor – for those who can af­ford it.

“Some of the men and women I saw seemed very mod­ern and wouldn’t be out of place in Dubai,” says Pia. But she points out that much of this moder­nity is cen­tralised in the city.

One of the pho­tos Pia took was at a place called Lake Kargha – a pop­u­lar tourist desti­na­tion about 20km north of Kabul. On week­ends, thou­sands flock to the area to get away from the city. Most fam­i­lies spend the day there and have pic­nics. It is also one of the few places you’ll spot cou­ples en­joy­ing time to­gether, in a gen­er­ally con­ser­va­tive en­vi­ron­ment that frowns upon young men and women mix­ing.

“I saw a pad­dle boat, with three cou­ples in it,” says Pia. “They seemed re­laxed and hav­ing fun. Just be­hind them, perched on the hills sur­round­ing the lake, I no­ticed a few women in ever-per­cep­ti­ble burkas. It was a stark re­minder of the two ex­tremes you see across mod­ern Afghanistan. One try­ing to be mod­ern, the other stuck to tra­di­tional ways.”

Per­haps un­ex­pect­edly, women’s rights are another key fea­ture of Pia’s ex­hi­bi­tion. The con­di­tion of women in Afghanistan mo­ti­vates Pia. “I hope visi­tors to the ex­hi­bi­tion will feel as I felt when I vis­ited last month. I feel the evo­lu­tion of Afghanistan hasn’t gone as planned be­cause I still saw too many women in burkas. I don’t feel women are as free as they ought to be. And for me, that needs to change.”

The spon­sor of the ex­hi­bi­tion is the Fa­tima Bint Mo­ham­mad Bin Zayed Ini­tia­tive (FBMI), an Afghan-based ini­tia­tive backed by the UAE gov­ern­ment. Set up in 2010, it has of­fered more than 3,500 women – many of whom are wid­ows – the op­por­tu­nity to take con­trol of their lives.

Through of­fer­ing them em­ploy­ment in the hand­made car­pet in­dus­try, the women and their fam­i­lies re­ceive crit­i­cal so­cial ser­vices in re­turn. That in­cludes a min­i­mum wage of $2 (Dh7) a day, free health­care check-ups each month and ed­u­ca­tion for chil­dren un­der the age of 14.

“What we’re of­fer­ing our em­ploy­ees is com­pletely un­prece­dented in Afghanistan, and as you can imag­ine, in a coun­try where the ma­jor­ity of the pop­u­la­tion is both il­lit­er­ate and un­em­ployed, the re­sponse we’ve re­ceived has been enor­mous,” says Dr Fahim Pirzada, the deputy CEO of FBMI in Kabul. Some of the car­pets pro­duced by the women will also be on dis­play along­side the ex­hi­bi­tion.

“For us, it was an easy de­ci­sion to back the ex­hi­bi­tion. Not only is it an op­por­tu­nity to strengthen our on­go­ing links be­tween Afghanistan and the UAE, but more im­por­tantly, we’re hop­ing that Pia’s tremen­dous work can ex­hibit a real pic­ture of what life is like in Afghanistan.

“The sit­u­a­tion is dread­ful for most Afghans, and it’s no ex­ag­ger­a­tion to say that ev­ery day is a strug­gle to sur­vive. In par­tic­u­lar, the past 30 or so years have had a detri­men­tal im­pact on the women of our na­tion. Yet, they’ve man­aged to counter the hard­ships and sheer harsh­ness of their lives with unimag­in­able dig­nity.

“In essence, that is what FBMI’s main mo­tive is – to help draw at­ten­tion to the plight of women in Afghanistan, and to help em­power them to take con­trol of their lives and im­prove their lot.”

Pia for one is op­ti­mistic. “I be­lieve in the Afghan peo­ple,” she says. “I know how great their cul­ture is. You only need to talk to Afghans to re­alise how much they value their rich past.”

Like most who have an opin­ion on the war-torn na­tion, Pia knows to be cau­tious in her op­ti­mism. Afghanistan is at a cross­roads, and 2014 will un­doubt­edly prove the most im­por­tant year in the coun­try’s re­cent his­tory.

Elec­tions are sched­uled for April, and af­ter a strong­hold on power for more than 12 years, Pres­i­dent Hamid Karzai will have to step down

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