Category Archives: Events

Event: Koran Burning and Civilian Casualties: Has the Endgame Changed in Afghanistan?

Join us next Tuesday in WLH (100 Wall St) for a fascinating discussion on current situation in Afghanistan and lessons to be learned!


The Future of Afghan Feminism: A Talk with Women for Afghan Women

“I really want to insist that, as slight as it is, as modest as it is, there has been progress over the past 10 years.”

That is how Sunita Viswanath, co-founder of Women for Afghan Women (WAW), described the hard-won gains for women’s rights in Afghanistan. WAW is at the forefront of advocacy for Afghan women. Its programs in Afghanistan and New York combat domestic violence, forced marriage, and other violations of women’s human rights.

When Viswanath first learned about what was happening to Afghan women under the Taliban rule, she wanted to do something to help. With her background in women’s rights, she was shocked that there weren’t any existing organizations in New York that were working on the issue, In 2000 she began to search for a way to start her own.She spent a lot of time with the Afghan community in Queens, NY, just listening to what women there had to say. “I didn’t want to do anything without our feet firmly planted in the community,” she said.

Viswanath and WAW began to organize a conference on women in Afghanistan for the fall of 2001. When 9/11 happened, that conference suddenly was at the center of media attention. In 2001, everyone wanted to know about Afghan women, but over time, Viswanath said, the media’s focus has drifted away. Making sure the world doesn’t write off Afghan women is at the core of the advocacy work of WAW.

The programs that WAW runs in Afghanistan are based on what they learned from the Afghan community in New York. “The model we use to work on the cases in Afghanistan is very similar to what we use in the Queens community,” Viswanath said, and noted that WAW’s work in New York was recently the topic of a New York Times article.

At the heart of the organization are the Family Guidance Centers, offices staffed by lawyers and case workers who can help women who report violations of their human rights. The first step in addressing these problems is frequently a “jirga”, a meeting of everyone involved in the situation, anyone who the women thinks would it be helpful to bring together. If, for example, the woman’s husband signs something in front of these people he respects (like the imam) and agrees to not abuse her, it can be very effective.

However, for some women, those strategies aren’t possible, and in every city where WAW has an Family Guidance Center, they also have a women’s shelter in a hidden location. Currently, WAW runs 5 shelters in Afghanistan, and is set to expand to 8 this year. However, these shelters, and those run by other NGOs, have come under attack from conservative elements in the Afghan government, which accuse the organizations of mismanagment and immorality. There is currently a law under debate that would have the government take over the shelters, and force women to go in front of an all-male panel of judges to prove their abuse before they are allowed to go to a shelter.

Viswanath was hopeful that the government would back down, but she urged audience members to sign petitions in support of the women’s shelters. The takeover, she argued, would be the first step in dismantling all of protections women have won in the last ten years. Viswanath was also worried about the long-term prospects for women’s rights. She warned that, if the US troops withdraw from Afghanistan, the situation for women in the country will return to what it was before 9/11.

“We just know that, if the foreign troops leave, we will not be able to do our work….We operate very much like locals, so we will be the last ones to leave. But we will have to leave…[without the] security afforded to us by the foreign presence.” Nonetheless, Viswanath was clear that women’s rights aren’t only a western idea. All human beings know their rights, she said, and it is their bravery in fighting for those rights that inspires the work the WAW does.

The Yale Afghanistan Forum thanks Sunita Viswanath, and our co-sponsors, the Yale Women’s Center, the Asian American Cultural Center, Reach Out Yale, the International Students Organization, the Muslim Students Association and the South Asian Studies Council.

The Yale Daily News has an article about the event here
An article about WAW’s shelters in Afghanistan is here

Event with Dr Catherine Todd

RVSP for dinner to Akriti Singh:

YAF Tea with Aziz Royesh: Friday, October 8, 5:30 pm!

Help Can’t Wait: Pakistan

Everyone come to this! Thanks.

17 Million people have been affected by the catastrophic floods in Pakistan with infrastructural damages estimated at well into tens of billions of dollars. Now with flood waters receding, the people in Pakistan need our help more than ever. Yale College is holding a Benefit Concert to raise awareness & donations about the recent devastating & crippling flood in Pakistan.
Come to Woolsey Hall from 7pm-9pm on Saturday(9/25) to learn more about this catastrophe. There will be performances by Yale Orchestra, Yale Glee Club &  South Asian Student Groups. Suggested Donation is $10 for undergrads and $20 for everyone else. All proceeds will go to the flood affected areas.
Tickets can be purchased at or at the door on the night of the concert. Donations can be made at .

Osama Film Screening

To kick off the new year, Yale Afghanistan Forum will be holding a screening of the film Osama in Timothy Dwight’s Selin Lounge! Bring your friends and learn more about what YAF has planned this year!

Thomas Barfield – Political Legitimacy

Thomas Barfield of Boston University spoke at Yale on April 6, 2010. Professor Barfield is Professor of Anthropology and the Director of the Institute for the Study of Islamic Societies and Civilizations at Boston University. He is also the President of the American Institute of Afghan Studies. His most recent book is Political Legitimacy in the Land of the Hindu Kush: Ruling Afghanistan 1500-2010.

Summary by Anna Kellar

Professor Barfield began his talk by questioning two of the prevailing notions about Afghan history:

How can Afghanistan be a “graveyard of empires” if everyone conquered it before 1830?

And if it is such a fractious place, how did it keep a single dynasty for 200 years?

For a very long time, Afghanistan was ruled by Turkic tribes, who were hierarchical, with only certain lineages allowed to compete for power. A ruler like Babur was a professional king, who could rule any where. Conquest in this kind of society was more like a corporate takeover – the leadership changed, but there was little effect on the average person living in the territory, and no concern for the consent of the governed.

Professor Barfield made the analogy that a homogenous empire is like American cheese, with the same law applying uniformly to everyone within the borders. Central Asian Empires look more like Swiss cheese, with the valuable, cheesy parts of the empire governed directly, and the holes governed indirectly. It was true that no one conquered the Pashtuns, because their land simply wasn’t worth the trouble. The people who live in the ungovernable parts have to rely on the centers for supplies. The problem is that we tend to view Swiss cheese as defective American cheese and try to fill in the holes, in places that have never been directly governed.

There was no such thing as patriotism and defense of the homeland in Afghanistan until the British invasion in 1838. Then the success of a nationalist-religious uprising demonstrated to the rulers that they couldn’t defeat foreign powers without mobilizing their people. However, this changed the system of who had a say in governance, and every mobilization increased the unruliness of the population. Nonetheless, the people who lived in the ungovernable bits never took over the government. They fought the wars, but the old dynasty clung to the structures of power. Barfield argued that this divide matched a tribal split between Ghilzai and Durrani Pashtuns.

Ghilzai and Durrani

According to a saying, Ghilzai have the sword, Durrani have the state. The split comes from their different political ecology. Durrani live in the irrigated southern plains, they inherit valuable land, and so their politics are based around hierarchy and patronage, and they are risk averse. Ghilzai on the other hand, live in the eastern mountains, practice subsistence agriculture and have a more egalitarian political structure, exemplified by the jirga council.

In times of anarchy, Ghilzai do well. They value individual achievement, and aggressive leadership. Najibullah, Hekmatyar, Haqqani, and Mullah Omar all were/are Ghilzai. However, the skills that make good warlords, do not necessarily make good peace time leaders. The job of an Afghan king is to link the country to the outside world in order to bring in patronage. Following the fall of the Taliban, there was an abrupt shift from the wartime to the peacetime framework. People saw that the future lay with politics, and having the toughest, most aggressive leader, was no longer a good thing. Karzai, a Durrani with ties to the ruling dynasty, was brought in because he was able to charm the Europeans.

For an Afghan leader to be successful, he must manage both internal and external demands. He must tell foreigners that without him there will be chaos, while assuring Afghans that he can take the foreign money while keeping the foreigners themselves out of the country. There is another historical lesson: every leader installed by an incoming foreign power has failed, while every leader installed by a retreating power has succeeded. From Shah Shujah and the British to Karmal and the Soviets, the weak personalities that were initially chosen to rule managed to annoy both Afghans and their foreign patron. However, the strongmen installed by the fleeing foreign occupiers, such as Abdul Rahman or Najibullah, usually succeeded

Barfield argued that this pattern suggests that the American government should have abandoned President Karzai in the last election. The perception of power is power, so if we had backed Abdullah, he might have been able to win a run off. There was a misreading of signals between Washington and Kabul – while the American government tried to talk about neutrality and legitimacy, Afghans read that as our support for the status quo. Rather than trying for neutrality, which no one buys anyway, we’d be better off playing political hardball. There might be more political progress, according to Professor Barfield, if the Afghan government were run the way Lyndon Johnson ran the US House of Representatives, using development aid like patronage to encourage good behavior.

The Yale Afghanistan Forum would like to thank Professor Barfield, Professor Monsutti, The Gattis Smith Lecture Series and the Council of South Asian Studies.