Monday, April 25, 2016

The Identity Story

Rabia Nasimi, a masters student in the UK pursuing her higher education on themes of ethnic and gender identity focusing particularly on Afghanistan speaks about her work and her life, along with insights on Afghanistan and the question of identity.

Let's start with something about you. Would you be able to talk about yourself, your work, and your education? 

During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, my parents left to continue their higher education in Ukraine. I was born in Moscow (although I hold a Ukrainian birth certificate, as this was the country in which I was registered) and have, subsequently, lived in the UK since 1999. Being born in Moscow and holding a Ukrainian passport reveals the real fluidity of this notion of identity. If I were to travel alone to Afghanistan, I would need a visa as I am not identified as an Afghan national. Again, this idea of not belonging leaves me in a state of confusion and unable to understand my own identity.

You work specifically around issues in Afghanistan and Identity Formation. Would you like to tell us something specific about that?
I was five years old when I moved to the UK in 1999. I completed my primary, secondary and sixth form education in the UK, and then went on to study at Goldsmiths University of London, where I did my BA in Sociology and Politics. My dissertation was titled 'The contemporary crisis of Afghan national identity and the rejection of identifying oneself as an 'Afghan'. I am currently doing my MSc Sociology (Research) at the London School of Economics and aim to write my dissertation on Ethnicity and politics in Afghanistan looking at the 2014 Parliamentary Elections. I endeavour to do my PhD in the future, and continue to look at ethnicity and the future of ethnic identities in Afghanistan, considering ethnic inequalities, classification of ethnicities and everyday experience. 

There is so much negativity around Afghanistan - the media has done a splendid job of portraying the country as being wartorn, to the point that it has "gone beyond redemption". What are your thoughts on this, and what do you believe is the true image that we're not hearing?

We cannot deny that Afghanistan is a war torn country that has been though decades of war and terror, even though there has been considerable improvement since the collapse of the Taliban. Only a tiny elite in Afghanistan enjoy a lavish lifestyle, including glittering new apartments, shopping malls and celebrations at luxury wedding halls. The media plays an important role in conveying the human rights abuses in Afghanistan, both as a popular means of expressing opinion, a platform of discussion as well as helping the government and international community identify government areas of concern. 

What are your thoughts on the situation relating to the rights of women in Afghanistan?

One should not turn a blind eye to the progress achieved through international exposure. There have been many changes in legislation aiming to provide women with an equal position in society. Under the Taliban’s rule, between 1996 and 2001 women were denied the most basic rights and were discriminated against in many ways, simply for being female. But on the whole, since the downfall of the Taliban, the idea of controlling women as personal property remains in the minds of many men.

Farkhunda was beaten to death on the streets of Kabul before being set on fire and thrown onto the banks of the Kabul River. She was falsely accused of burning the Quran. Rokhshana was stoned over an accusation of a crime called ‘zina’ (illegal sex), for rejecting a forced marriage in place of a love marriage. Her chosen husband was lashed and set free.
Reza Gul’s husband cut off her nose. She says she doesn’t understand why. These are just some examples of the horrific violence many women face in Afghanistan today, in spite of their constitutional rights. It seems to suggest that the average Afghan man’s misogyny is still not vastly different to that of the Taliban.

Looking beyond issues pervading gender identity, ethnic identity also remains a controversial and contentious topic in Afghanistan: many believe that talks on identity should be kept to a minimum, due to the fragility of the state.  However, I strongly agree that the more we try to enforce an absolute notion of identity, in the hope of creating unity, the more it actually fragments as ‘identity is an invention’.  Thus, the more we silence it, the more people would become mobilised. This is evident in the ongoing debate about electronic ID cards in Afghanistan and whether ethnicity should be mentioned.

A large part of the world is so pivoted towards stereotypes in their inter-faith relations. Have you experienced that? What have your key challenges been, and how have you dealt with them?

Interfaith relations have become a very hot topic, since the refugee crisis, which has been evident in the increase of hate speech against refugees and Muslims. I have not experienced such stereotypes, possibly due to my liberal position. However, I believe that there is scope to deal with these challenges, through promoting interfaith understanding and cooperation. By raising awareness within wider society of the importance of inter faith issues and understanding about faith communities. 

The intersectionality of nationality, religion and gender brings its own challenges with it. As a British Afghan Woman, what were some of your key challenges in terms of stereotypes people followed or had in mind, in interacting with the members of the BAWS?

That is a very important point. I think as someone who came to the UK at an early age, I didn't face much of a challenge in terms of stereotypes. As I know the language well, have been educated in the UK and therefore have more of an awareness of my rights as a British citizen. However, I think the women who have arrived more recently, may face greater gender inequality, having been born from isolated cultural and religious norms as well as lack of community integration and social cohesion.