What next for the women of Afghanistan?

Ten years on from the invasion of Afghanistan, MP and presidential hopeful Fawzia Koofi discusses wo

On 7 October 2001 the US began its invasion of Afghanistan, on the premise that the Taliban government was harbouring al-Qaeda fighters. Suddenly, the international spotlight was on the plight of Afghan women, and the restoration of their rights held up as yet anothe reason for intervention.

Ten years on, women in Afghanistan have the right to vote, study and leave the house without male company, and yet the livelihoods of many women remain constrained. There are even 69 female MPs, and one female minister, Amina Afzali, who is responsible for labour, social affairs, the martyred and disabled.

Fawzia Koofi, one of these female MPs, is visiting Britain to meet with UK politicians and discuss Afghanistan's future. In 2005, when Koofi first went into politics, her male colleagues viewed the women in parliament as mere beneficiaries of a quota system and international pressure. Today, Koofi, who is the deputy-speaker of parliament and is considering a presidential run for 2014, says that the men recognise them as politicians. "There are women working in social affairs, like health and education, and civil society is becoming active. There have been some amendments of the laws and there have been some new laws, providing more opportunities for women."

However, women have entered Afghan politics and public life at a great risk to their own lives. A recent survey by ActionAid revealed that nine in ten Afghan women still fear the implications for women's rights if Taliban regained power, with a fifth citing their daughter's education as their main concern.

"During the Taliban [era] and the civil war, everything was taken from women," says Koofi. It would be terrible if Afghanistan saw a repeat of this, she argues, but despite the hardships that women face, she believes that her society want to move on. "The women of Afghanistan today are not the women of Afghanistan in 1996. We are strong, we can raise awareness and we also have the international community to help us." She adds that if the Taliban respected their newly gained values and rights, they would be welcome to join the political system.

According to ActionAid, 39 per cent of children currently in school are girls, and one quarter of all government jobs are filled by women. The ability of women to fully exercise their rights is, however, still marred by social constraints. Forced marriages, child marriages and domestic abuse are still very common and security concerns remain a constant fear for both men and women. According to a UN report from 2009, the lack of female electoral staff made families reluctant to allow women to go to the voting booths.

"I know it's a traditional society, that things will not just change over night," says Koofi. If the country wants to progress, politically and economically, she argues, the new Afghan government cannot continue to ignore 50 per cent of the population.

In December, an international conference in Bonn plans to road-map the future of Afghanistan and the role the international community should play. Women's rights advocates fear that Afghanistan will present itself as an all-male delegation.

According to Koofi, concerns of the Afghan society, both male and female, can only be addressed if both women and civil society groups are present. In her eyes, Afghanistan's future lies in building up the security and justice systems, and making use of Afghanistan's natural and cultural resources.

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I am special and I am worthless: inside the mind of a narcissist

There's been a lot of discussion about narcissists this week. But what does the term actually mean?

Since the rise of Donald Trump, the term “narcissistic” has been cropping up with great regularity in certain sections of the media, including the pages of this journal. I wouldn’t want to comment about an individual I’ve never met, but I thought it would be interesting to look at the troubling psychological health problem of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).

People with NPD (which is estimated to affect about 1 per cent of the population) have a characteristic set of personality traits. First, they have a deeply held sense of specialness and entitlement. Male NPD sufferers frequently present as highly egotistical, with an unshakeable sense of their superiority and importance; female sufferers commonly present as eternal victims on whom the world repeatedly inflicts terrible injustices. In both cases, the affected person believes he or she is deserving of privileged treatment, and expects it as a right from those around them.

Second, NPD sufferers have little or no capacity for empathy, and usually relate to other people as objects (as opposed to thinking, feeling beings) whose sole function is to meet the narcissist’s need for special treatment and admiration – known as “supply”. In order to recruit supply, NPD sufferers become highly skilled at manipulating people’s perceptions of them, acting out what is called a “false self” – the glittering high achiever, the indefatigable do-gooder, the pitiable victim.

The third characteristic is termed “splitting”, where the world is experienced in terms of two rigid categories – either Good or Bad – with no areas of grey. As long as others are meeting the narcissist’s need for supply, they are Good, and they find themselves idealised and showered with reciprocal positive affirmation – a process called “love-bombing”. However, if someone criticises or questions the narcissist’s false self, that person becomes Bad, and is subjected to implacable hostility.

It is not known for certain what triggers the disorder. There is likely to be a genetic component, but in many cases early life experiences are the primary cause. Narcissism is a natural phase of child development (as the parents of many teenagers will testify) and its persistence as adult NPD frequently reflects chronic trauma during childhood. Paradoxically for a condition that often manifests as apparent egotism, all NPD sufferers have virtually non-existent self-esteem. This may arise from ongoing emotional neglect on the part of parents or caregivers, or from sustained psychological or sexual abuse.

The common factor is a failure in the development of a healthy sense of self-worth. It is likely that narcissism becomes entrenched as a defence against the deep-seated shame associated with these experiences of being unworthy and valueless.

When surrounded by supply, the NPD sufferer can anaesthetise this horrible sense of shame with the waves of positive regard washing over them. Equally, when another person destabilises that supply (by criticising or questioning the narcissist’s false self) this is highly threatening, and the NPD sufferer will go to practically any lengths to prevent a destabiliser adversely influencing other people’s perceptions of the narcissist.

One of the many tragic aspects of NPD is the invariable lack of insight. A narcissist’s experience of the world is essentially: “I am special; some people love me for this, and are Good; some people hate me for it, and are Bad.” If people with NPD do present to health services, it is usually because of the negative impacts Bad people are having on their life, rather than because they are able to recognise that they have a psychological health problem.

Far more commonly, health professionals end up helping those who have had the misfortune to enter into a supply relationship with an NPD sufferer. Narcissism is one of the most frequent factors in intimate partner and child abuse, as well as workplace bullying. The narcissist depends on the positive affirmation of others to neutralise their own sense of unworthiness. They use others to shore themselves up, and lash out at those who threaten this precarious balance. And they leave a trail of damaged people in their wake. 

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times