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A personal reflection on sexism in the humanitarian sector

A personal reflection on sexism in the humanitarian sector

December 2006, Herat, Afghanistan

The American prosecutors show up at my office for the meeting with a Rambo-style ‘close protection officer’, or bodyguard, in tow. He’s one of the many private security contractors in Afghanistan, but unlike other bodyguards I’ve seen, most of whom keep their pistols in a discreet holster under their jackets, this guy holds his gun at the ready, stalking along the corridor as though there might be a Taleb fighter hiding in our UN offices.

As soon as I see him, I rush to shoo him away, explaining to my visitors that our office is a gun-free zone and that their Rambo-for-hire is freaking out my colleagues. Rambo is not pleased about being dismissed, but the woman who appears to be in charge of the group tells him to go and wait in the car while we talk. He reluctantly retreats.

The woman’s name is Marie and she is indeed in charge. She gives us a rundown on their programme, which will involve training and direct mentoring of prosecutors in Herat city. It sounds like exactly the sort of thing the local prosecutors have been telling me they desperately need.

When Marie is done, she opens the floor to the two American men who have come with her. Her first sidekick, who is wearing cowboy boots with his suit, asks in a thick Southern drawl, ‘Is it true that there are Hezbollah terrorists in this region?’

It is such an unexpected question that I am struck dumb for a moment. Either this guy is way off track or I have somehow overlooked what would surely have been the most surprising political news of the year. Could I have missed hearing about the infiltration into Afghanistan of the infamous militant Lebanese group? I know Hezbollah have strong connections with Iran, which is only a hop, skip and a jump from where we are sitting. We could be at the border in less than two hours by car. So although it seems extremely unlikely, I’m not confident enough to dismiss his question out of hand.

‘I haven’t heard anything about a Hezbollah presence in Herat province,’ I say. ‘I’d be extremely surprised if that were the case. Are you sure you didn’t hear about reports of increasing Taleban presence in the region?’ He shrugs. I want to give him the benefit of the doubt. I know that these guys, as staff of the US Department of Justice, live under even stricter security rules than I do. They have very little freedom to move about outside the military base where they live and work. It makes sense that they might be disconnected from even the most basic local knowledge.

I ask if they will consider running training courses in Badghis, Ghor and Farah. The Cowboy responds.

‘I don’t think we’ll be able to expand our programme into those provinces in the next year or so,’ he says, ‘but maybe we could invite prosecutors from Badghis and Ghor to join our training in Herat.’

‘That’s one possibility,’ I acknowledge, ‘but the challenge is there are so few prosecutors in each of those provinces that the chief prosecutor would find it very difficult to release any of them to come to Herat for the three months of the training.’

‘I see,’ he responds. ‘Well, then maybe the prosecutors could remain in their home provinces and just commute to the training course in Herat. The classes are only for one day a week; the rest of the time they could be at work.’

I appreciate his willingness to find a solution for my friends in Badghis and Ghor, but the capital of Ghor is two days’ drive from Herat. If one of the prosecutors were to try to commute to one class per week he would spend the rest of the week driving. This guy obviously has little idea about even the basic geographic layout of the region in which he is working.

Rather than complain about yet another American working in Afghanistan without the first clue about the place, since I was pretty clueless myself when I arrived a year ago, I decide to do something about it. I offer to visit them regularly out at the military base to keep them up to date with developments in the region that they might otherwise miss due to their relative isolation.

After a few meetings the arrangement seems to be going well. I always take one of my local colleagues along. We pull out the map and go over the main tribal, political and social groups in each district. The Cowboy always has lots of questions and generally we are able to answer them. He seems genuinely interested in rectifying the ignorance caused by his forced isolation and I’m hoping that by educating him on the profound challenges facing police and prosecutors in Badghis, Farah and Ghor, I’ll convince him to expand the training there. But my good intentions backfire. I hear from friends in Kabul that the Cowboy has been telling people I have a crush on him. I’m horrified! From then on I am less helpful.

IDP camp tent
IDP camp tent. Photo courtesy of Marianne Elliott.
March 2016, Wellington, New Zealand

When I look back on my – now a decade old – struggles to make sense of how gender norms were playing out not only in my human rights work in Afghanistan but also in my professional and personal relationships with colleagues from around the world, what strikes me is how far we still have to go in unravelling sexism in our work.

There’s a level on which the story of sexism is simple: all over the world women and girls continue to experience greater violence, deprivation, oppression and discrimination than men and boys. Poverty, we know, is gendered – and so is war.

On so many other levels, however, the picture remains much more complex. Transgender and genderqueer people are subject to more violence and discrimination than other women. Sexism intersects with other forms of discrimination to create layered forms of exclusion and oppression. White, middle-class, heterosexual, cis-gendered feminists from New Zealand (like me), are wise to be wary of claiming the shared experiences of the women we work with anywhere in the world.

I have an Afghan friend who has a similar story to the one I shared above. Her professional contact with a foreign man, motivated by the hope that her efforts to better inform him might result in positive change for an Afghan community, was misconstrued and rumoured to be romantic in nature. We share that experience as women. However, in my friend’s case the rumours were used to challenge her professional competence (her job was threatened), to disrupt her family life and, ultimately, to undermine her credibility and her safety.

I don’t have a tidy lesson or conclusion to draw from all this. Sexism is pervasive. It exists in all the humanitarian organisations and institutions I’ve ever worked in or with. At the same time, it is important to remember that its impact varies wildly. There is danger in overemphasising the sisterhood’s shared experiences at the expense of acknowledging differentials of power and privilege.

So I keep telling and listening to stories. I tell my own stories of sexism in both expected and unexpected places. I listen to the stories of other women, learning from them the many different shapes and guises in which oppression and discrimination appear – including some that I recognise as my own.

Featured image shows Marianne Elliott in Ghor, Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Marianne Elliott.

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Marianne Elliott is a writer, human rights advocate and yoga teacher. Trained as a lawyer, she helped develop human rights strategies for the governments of New Zealand and East Timor, was Policy Advisor for Oxfam, and spent two years in the Gaza Strip before going to Afghanistan, where she served in the United Nations. In Afghanistan, Marianne decided stories were her weapon of choice, and yoga was her medicine. She created the '30 Days of Yoga' course, and wrote 'Zen Under Fire'.

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3 thoughts on “A personal reflection on sexism in the humanitarian sector

  1. Oh Marianne, how I had missed your writing. I’m sorry this happened to you, and I wish I could say that I didn’t have my own stories to contribute. Thanks for telling this one.

  2. I once had a supervisor tell me – in an annual review – that I needed to be quiet more often, because people don’t like it when young women talk so much. The worst part is he was right.

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