Thesis: The limits of youth activism in Afghanistan
What possiblities have Afghan youth to rebuild their country and to work for a better future? Which constraints do they meet? Anthropologist Elisabet Eikås has been on fieldwork among young people in Kabul from October 2003 to June 2004. The result is the thesis ‘It is open, but not so open’ - gaining access to participation among Kabuli youths.
Young people are often seen as agents of change. But they don’t act independently of the wider society. Eikås’ study provides an ambivalent picture of the young peoples’ possiblities.
There are lots of young people in different organisations who work for a better future. Many of them want to replace the political model of the elder and ethnicity & affiliation with a model based on equality: “All generations or sects should be involved in politics, everybody, every group should be represented in politics", informant Amin said.
But the young peoples’ activism is a continuous struggle with the structures of the society.
A big problem for many young people is the strong position of the family. As the government is not able to provide satisfactory social services and security, the extended family is still regarded as the safety-net. The strong reciprocity of obligations and rights within the family is limiting the time young people can spend on political activism.
Eikås regards personal autonomy from the family as the main entrance to change.
Being in their 20s, the young activits are expected to marry - something that would mean further responsibilities and less time for political activities. Many informants try therefore to delay the time of marriage. One of her informants decided to move away from his family.
The tradition of respect of the elders was often mentioned as one of the major obstacles for the youths to contribute to society, this being in the family, at university, at work or in other social arenas, she writes. Patriarchy is not only concerned with male domination over females, but also dominance by seniors ("elders") over juniors.
She describes a meeting with some board members in a youth organisation, when suddenly the leader of the organisation enters the room.
All stand up to greet him. (…) He sits down behind his 3X2 meter teak desk where there is a picture of himself, a framed table sign with his name and an Afghan flag. One of the others pours him a cup of tea and serves him. (…)
The feedback of the members to the leader, their behaviour towards him, shows similarities with how the youths describe the elders, or how the teachers at university expect to be treated. In the interaction with the regular members, the behaviour by the members are characterised by loyalty and respect towards the leader. They are hesitant to state critical comments, they usually wait for him to invite them to speak, and some of them to a certain degree expect the leader to have more knowledge and provide the answers.
The hierarchy within the youth organisations suggests that these organisations are not able to change the model of the elder for that of equality within their own organisations, and as such they alternate but still reproduce the patriarchy, however through a young leader
The most promising place for an alternative form of politics to evolve is the university. Despite the prohibition of political activities on campus enforced by the Ministry of Higher Education, student groups are established, and seminars, also concerning participation by students, are held, she writes.
At the university, students with diverse backgrounds, both ethnically, regionally and regarding gender, meet:
The proximity of these students, the diverse forums they meet in, in class, in the canteen (although that is segregated according to gender) and outside the classroom, builds the foundation for diverse networks to mingle and also the possibility of bridging networks to evolve, where their common status as students can be the main source of their solidarity.
The fact that they were able to arrange a seminar, where representatives from different student groups were gathered, further substantiates the potential, through co-operation, of a change in the political culture towards a more universalistic culture where equality between the different students can be the guiding principle.
On the other hand, there is also evidence that bonded loyalties prevail, also among the students. (S)ome students see their possibility of participation best secured through a bonding network adhering to particularistic values, whether this be family, kin, an external patron, political group or ethnicity.
Many problems are related to the long periods of war in Afghanistan. War leads to the breakdown of trust, and networks are usually narrowed:
My data seem to support Putnam’s understanding of trust to be developed through face-to- face contact, in lack of institutional trust, exemplified through how relations to political activities or aspirations only were discussed with ‘people one knows’. As such, Kabul University can be a promising place for increased trust to develop.
As I interpret much of the data in this thesis, I believe the lack of trust in the Afghan society, is one of the main reasons why both bonding networks and also patron- client relations prevail. It takes time to build trust in a population which has been at war. The people in Afghanistan have just started this process.