By Safira Lakhani
This essay is a thread of a larger thesis, The River is for Washing Carpets, submitted to the University of Waterloo in July 2017 for the degree of Master of Architecture in Engineering.
The gendered approach to international development and peace-building (1) in Afghanistan has imported foreign notions of public and community space into the war-torn country, with significant consequence to Afghan society. Notably, the international community’s failure to recognize gender dynamics and the importance of the family structure in the Afghan context has heightened local tensions. Particularly, international ignorance of women’s role in the family dynamic, and the consequent breakdown of the family structure, exacerbated by imposed Western planning and design principles, collapses important senses of community cohesion, solidarity, and resilience that are necessary for achieving enduring peace.
Family is a zone of safety for Afghan people, “the most important institution of identity, socialisation, and moral support.” (2) Extended families have historically formed the premise for village settlements, making the family the major economic, social, and political unit of society, and guaranteeing security for each family member from birth to death. (3) Family ties and loyalty thus remain “resilient sources of psychological well-being, social welfare, and economic security,” all of which are necessary to sustain community solidarity, build local capacity, and empower human dignity. (4) Accordingly, any sense of Afghan national identity, Afghaniyat, (5) has never traditionally been based on the individual, but rather is embedded deeply in the collective unit of the tribe, clan, and family: “in Afghanistan, you understand yourself as a son, a brother, a cousin to somebody, an uncle to somebody. You are part of something bigger than yourself.” (6) Family is solidarity.
Women play a critical role in terms of family integrity; women are the perpetuators of ideal society, their deeds reflect the honour and dignity of their families. (7) Women are thus central to the family dynamic, and protectively guarded. Spatially, this means that women have traditionally been secluded, participating in a private life that takes place in the enclosed walls of the domestic courtyard. Repeated at various scales in the traditional Islamic city, the courtyard produces a cellular urban structure in which public space is “reduced to […] an interior corridor system, framed by adjacent buildings.” (8) Any open space is integrated as larger courtyards into specific social and architectural entities, thereby ensuring no leftover, undefined, or residual exposed space (See Image 1). The accumulative process of centring, enclosing, and integrating, generates an intimate urban fabric in which “every section of the network matches the character of the space it serves, and the social needs of its users.” (9)
Women’s role, as keepers of family honour, means that there is a fundamental link between spaces for women and spaces for family and the larger community. Based on the enclosed courtyard, a "family space" is denoted by the presence of women, and invokes a sense of interiority, privacy, and modesty. Appropriate community spaces in the larger urban fabric draw upon similar values. Enabled by the presence of women, the concept of the family space mediates between conventional notions of public and private to generate culturally acceptable social spaces for both genders. The family space is safe, gender-neutral, and appropriate for informal, public community gathering. Such shared spaces, activated by feminine presence, provide a community-based platform for peace; their familiarity inspires participation, dialogue, and decision-making, and empowers a sense of united cultural identity.
Insensitivity to, and ignorance of, existing cultural and spatial relations in international development schemes aggravate local tensions and jeopardize community cohesion. Specifically, the imposition of Western urban planning principles generates spaces of isolation instead of unification, breaking social relations embedded in traditional Afghan settlement patterns. The enclosed courtyard typology, which has typically produced the cellular urban structure of the traditional Islamic city, is increasingly being replaced by a Western narrative of street-oriented blocks and undefined representative civic space. (10) Streets, paved to the scale of the vehicle, “expose the introverted precincts of secluded residential areas to the immediate impact of function and activities from which they were carefully screened off,” reducing, or removing entirely, the sense of interiority and enclosure that defined these spaces. (11) This imposed and misguided urban zoning causes any sense of cohesive community to become distinct social groups that are alienated from each other, and from a sense of place, physically, culturally, and socially.
Personalized, enclosed, qualitative space is being replaced by anonymous, open, quantitative space. (12) For example, the UNESCO-led urban development scheme for the city of Bamyan in the Central Highlands of Afghanistan features a large public park between two central roads leading to the new provincial head office (See Image 2). Framed on either side by the posterior facades of various administrative buildings and encircled by asphalt, the park is an oversized void. The park is vacant throughout the day unless the city is hosting celebrations for a commemorative occasion, and in the evening, may often be the site of a men’s pick-up soccer game. Locally, it is perceived as an uncomfortable space, too open, too visible, and thus too vulnerable for daily social occupation.
In contrast, the Women’s Garden (See Image 3), a walled park just outside Bamyan city limits established in 2007 by the private NGO PARSA, is commonly used for informal, local social gathering. Enclosed by a tall masonry wall along its perimeter, the Women’s Garden is programmed to include a restaurant, greenhouse, and a place for women’s handicrafts. A water feature near the entrance provides a tranquil backdrop to the sound of children playing on swings, and complements the hum of conversation from families, couples, and groups of women picnicking under the shade of scattered poplar and willow trees (See Image 4). The garden is intimate, comfortable, and safe. The very presence of women, facilitated by the sense of enclosure, qualifies the garden as a family space. In fact, entrance to the garden is not permitted if a group is unaccompanied by a woman.
Especially when popular forms of local Afghan cultural expression are linked to social interaction, for example, cooking, poetry, reading, and singing, enclosed places of gathering provide an important space for communities to engage together in these dimensions of culture. (13) Such spaces that can strengthen community resilience are vital for a sustainable peace. Necessarily, peace must be recognized as a social environment, a space in which communities can formally and informally come together. The presence of women enables this very context, producing spaces in which tension and conflict can be negotiated through dialogue and compromise. There is, thus, an intrinsic link between women and the peace process. The spaces that activate community resilience are inherently imbued with the feminine: it is the presence of women that enables safe spaces; it is the agency of women that brings people together; it is the voice of women that mobilizes communities.
(1) Peace-building in conflict-prone and post-conflict societies aspires to prevent the re-emergence or escalation of violent conflict by establishing a durable and self-sustaining peace. Contemporary peace-building practice follows the tenets of liberal peace-building, which is rooted in neoliberal ideology and ultimately values global security over local needs.
(2) Rosemarie Skaine, Women of Afghanistan in the Post-Taliban Era: How Lives Have Changed and Where They Stand Today (North Carolina: McFarland & Company Inc, 2008), 73.
(3) Nancy Hatch Dupree, “The Family During Crisis in Afghanistan,” Journal of Comparative Family Studies 35 (2004): 313.
(4) Samir Khalaf and Roseanne Saad Khalaf, ed., Arab Society and Culture: An Essential Reader (London: Saqi Books, 2009), 259.
(5) Lina Abirafeh, “Afghanistan Gozargah: Discourses on Gender-Focused Aid in the Aftermath of Conflict,” (PhD diss., London School of Economics and Political Science, 2008), 132.
(6) Hermione Hoby, “Interview with Khaled Hosseini,” The Guardian, June 1, 2013. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/jun/01/khaled-hosseini-kite-runner-interview
(7) Skaine, Women of Afghanistan in the Post-Taliban Era, 65.
(8) Stefano Bianca, Urban Form in the Arab World: Past and Present (London: Thames and Hudson, 2000), 40.
(9) Ibid, 202.
(10) Ibid, 204.
(11) Ibid, 202.
(12) Ibid, 39.
(13) Constance Wyndham, “A Short Study Investigating Values Ascribed to Heritage Sites in Bamyan by Residents of the Bamyan Valley,” in The Giant Buddhas of Bamiyan Volume II: Safeguarding the Remains 2010-2015, ed. E. Erwin et al. (Munich: ICOMOS, 2016), 25.
Safira holds a Bachelor degree in Architectural Studies, and a Master of Architecture (Water) from the University of Waterloo in Canada. Pairing research and design, her thesis, The River is for Washing Carpets, advocated for the agency of design in fragile states, notably that the intersection of participatory architecture, decentralized infrastructure, and local ecology can create a grounded framework for enduring peace and sustainable development in Bamyan, Afghanistan. This work was premised in on-the-ground experience working with the Post-Conflict and Disaster Management Branch of the United Nations Environment Programme in Afghanistan in 2016.