The Opium Wars & the Changing Gender Roles in Afghanistan

Photograph by: David GuttenfelderAfghan Police Officers Chopping Down a Poppy field

Photograph by: David Guttenfelder
Afghan Police Officers Chopping Down a Poppy field

The National Geographic Cover Story entitled Opium Wars by Robert Draper discusses the current turmoil in Afghanistan created as a result of the dependency of Afghan farmers on sales generated from the opium crop as their main source of income.  For this blog post we will examine the effects of the Opium Wars on gender roles and all aspect of family life of poor farmers in Afghanistan. For clarity this post is not advocating or endorsing the sale of opium it is simply meant as a informative analysis of the current economic situation in Afghanistan. Before getting to the brunt of this article I will give some background information (feel free to correct anything that is factually incorrect).

The Opium Wars are a direct result of the political instability existing in the region for most of the latter half of the 20th century.  Since 1978 there has been a mass exodus of people from Afghanistan to neighboring countries. The Afghan refugee population is the largest in the world and presently it is approximately six (6) million. Since the beginning of the Cold War the involvement of the United States (a democratic country) and the Soviet Union (a formerly communist country) in Afghan affairs has increased as Afghanistan became thought of as a strategic “buffer state” between the democratic and communist countries of Eurasia. To counteract the Communist government placed in power by the Soviet Union, the United States supported the terrorist organization (the Taliban) to overthrow the government established by the Soviets.

When the Taliban seized power they established an ecclesiastic government claiming both religious and political authority over the citizens. During Taliban rule men and women were forced to go back to traditional Muslim practices.  Women were forced to wear the veil and men the turban and a beard. Even now that the Taliban are no longer in power many citizens still wear the garments out of fear of prosecution by the Taliban. The Taliban emphasized a stringent following of the Islamic religion. Women are encouraged to be modest and obey the orders of the men in their life. Even the architecture of the home emphasizes Islamic beliefs, the house is built in such a way that there is a private part in which the women are secluded, where they cannot interact with strangers, and then there is a public part where the men can be found.  A typical Afghan household consists of a man, his wife, his sons with their spouses and children, and his unmarried daughters. When he dies, his sons then decide to stay united or divide the family assets.  The inheritance of land property is of particular importance because the sale of crops grown (mainly poppy) on the land is essential to the way the people generate their income to buy food for subsistence.  Furthermore, marriage is considered an obligation as it provides stability for women and gives men a chance to diversify social assets.  Before getting married the families of a couple negotiate the financial aspects of the union and decide on the trousseau, the bride price, and the dowry. The divorce rate is very low in Afghanistan as women depend on their husbands’ and cannot inherit land, real estate, or livestock. Mainly, in Afghanistan women are stay-at-home mothers.

Other pressing issues at hand are the high illiteracy rate (88%),the poor health care system, and the high percentage of farmers addicted to opium. Only 5% of Afghan children receive a primary education. Most citizens have no desire to receive an education, because the current economy provides no professional future for the educated people, with the exception of those working for an international or nongovernmental agency. A person living in Afghanistan usually has to travel abroad to further their education as the current cash crop economy provides no job opportunities and prevents social mobility.

Photograph by: David Guttenfelder

Photograph by: David Guttenfelder

In fact, no political leader in Afghanistan has ever attempted to develop social welfare programs to address these issues, as the state of the economy over the past 60 years has made it impractical to implement such programs which would require the taxation of Afghanistan’s already poverty stricken citizens. Political leaders have ignored these social issues and left them to be minimally addressed by hundreds of local and foreign non-governmental organizations. Though the presence of these organizations has been beneficial, they have contributed to social stratification, as their actions are mostly limited to major urban centers and areas near the Pakistan border.

The poor health care system and the high percentage of farmers addicted to opium in Afghanistan are factors that contribute to the difficulty for Afghan farmers to quit the growth of the poppy crop. Given the limited number of modern medical facilities available, people rely heavily on traditional practices that utilize herbs (including opium) and animal products to treat their pains and injuries.  Making matters even worse the dependency on addictive herbs like opium to deal with pains and injuries has caused many people to become drug addicts.

Photograph by: David Guttenfelder Farmers Addicted to Opium

Photograph by: David Guttenfelder
Farmers Addicted to Opium

Economically, Afghanistan currently produces 90% of the world’s opium. “85 percent of…citizens…rely on two dueling revenue streams. One flows from Western aid, in the hopes that the country will renounce Taliban.  The other flows from opium trafficking” (Draper). The “dueling revenue streams” have created political instability within the region and have completely destroyed the country’s infrastructure.  Recently, a pattern has emerged, a majority of Afghanistan’s citizens who were once subsistence farmers in a previously agricultural economy now find themselves’ dependent on both the income generated from growing poppy (opium) cash crop and the exports of other countries to sustain their basic subsistence needs.

“…recently the Afghan government seemed to take stock of the obvious: For the outside world’s largesse to continue, the national economy’s addiction to opium must end” (Draper). The government of Afghanistan is currently forcing the conversion of Afghanistan’s economy from its current cash-crop economy to an agricultural economy with the early stages of industrialism. To implement this plan the government is “cracking down” on corrupt officials; enforcing devastating tactics to prevent farmers from growing poppy (constantly chopping down poppy crops preventing farmers from making any profit off it); presenting farmers with alternate ways of making a living; using a local police force to apply the laws; and introducing new programs to diversify the economy.

The Taliban has continually attempted to prevent the successful conversion of Afghanistan’s economy from a cash crop to an agricultural one with the use of scare tactics.  Scare tactics include but are not limited to roadside bombings, brutal assaults, death threats, land mines, and merciless killings.  These scare tactics deter Afghan people from seeking US aid (which aims in assisting farmers to stop the growth of the poppy crop) and people from joining the police force of the Afghan government.

The government’s enforcement of a poppy free Afghanistan has seen some moderate success, beginning with when it was first enforced in 2005.  In particular the province of Nangarhar, the region with biggest opium has shown the most progress.  The article describes Nangarhar post-poppy crop as,

“…Afghanistan’s breadbasket…alight with red cabbages and tomatoes… [the] streets are     now among the most vibrant in Afghanistan, and at its teeming wholesale, market, hundreds of trucks arrive every morning, bearing dozens of crops such as watermelon,       potatoes, squash, okra, and onions.”

Photographs by: David Guttenfelder

Photographs by: David Guttenfelder

The major reason the Afghan government was so successful in the region was because they worked with the local tribal system existing in the area.  Using this Nangarhar as a model, model the key to successfully converting all of Afghanistan back to a agricultural economy perhaps lies in working with the regional political institutions set up in the various districts of Afghanistan. Among both rural and urban people, a man no longer stays at home during the day because he is to able work a job in the city. Therefore, women are compelled to take on roles traditionally carried out by males as the men are generally spending more time away from the home. Most of the Afghan workers are young unmarried males, who work as long as their fit. Traditionally the public sphere is the man’s domain, while the domestic is the woman’s. Women take care of young children, cook for the household, and clean the house.  They may also care for chickens and a small garden. They weave and sew and in some areas make rugs and felt. Among nomads, women make tents and have more freedom of movement. In a peasant family, men look after the sheep and goats, and plow, harvest, thresh, and winnow the crops.

The forced conversion of Afghanistan economy into a poppy free state is drastic and merciless in nature, however the long-term effects will ultimately be very beneficial for the people; steering the future economy of Afghanistan’s in a bright and prosperous direction. Ultimately, the implementation of this policy is surely not as extreme as the Taliban’s policy when they were in power of setting the houses’ of poppy growers on fire. I leave you with the emotional documentary on Opium Wars, entitled the Opium Trail.

Thanks for reading, if you like what you read you can follow me on  Twitter at DemelioU or  you can subscribe  to my RSS feed the little orange button in the left hand menu.

 Demelio U.

Signing OFF


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