A brighter future?
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