by Jak Lundown
Attempts to promote women's rights in Afghanistan.
|Chess the missing link?
I remember in high school soccer, it was official state policy that practice could not begin before August 1. In this policy practice was defined as executed by the coach, or that is how we, the players,interpreted it. Each summer a week or two after school ended the future varsity team captain would organize an unofficial training schedule. The weeks leading up to the Fourth of July were nonchalant show up if you can afternoon scrimmages and then we would crash a teammate’s pool after. Following the holiday, practice would focus on drills and conditioning, the pace steadily increasing. We would meet in different locations throughout the town for runs, stair climbs or unofficial scrimmages. All of this was coordinated by the players. The older players took it upon themselves to drive those who needed rides and the younger players would share their mom’s transportation services.
This unofficial practice during the summer was always great fun and set the foundation for team cohesion. Epic events happened during this time, hilarious pranks, team dinners, and the occasional trip to a professional baseball game. All planned and executed by us. A few stories spanned seasons and the players’ names were remembered long after they were gone. One summer a player’s parents took some of the team out on their boat for tubing. Two tubes were strung behind the boat and we spent the afternoon playing king of the tube. Half wrestling, half balancing we struggled to push each other off the tubes and to be the last one standing, as King! During this struggle for tube dominance the water grabbed hold of one player’s bathing suit and it was never to be seen again. The charade of getting this nude high schooler out of the water and into the boat, but not bearing it all to our teammate’s mom was a tale repeated for many seasons.
The practicing and social events were never really considered a task or responsibility. We naturally made sure there was water onsite, everyone wore the proper equipment or rides were available. We coordinated with the football team for shared resources and never had any significant issues. During my senior year I jumped in and assisted never receiving any official guidance or direction. It was our team and we were proud to be a part of it. As I reflect back on this experience I am impressed at what a group of teenagers accomplished. Although I like to think that us young players were in charge, our parents, coach and the athletic director all monitored our actions, but took a hands off approach to encourage us to take ownership and responsibility.
Currently, I find myself in Afghanistan as part of an organization committed to the reconstruction of governance and society. Our focus has gone full circle and we have delivered bridges, dams, roads, power infrastructure, schools and many other material items. We have provided training in numerous topics and activities, though most never being of much benefit when compared to the resources expended. The resources that are thrown at this initiative are vast. Billions of dollars have been spent on organizations like ours throughout Afghanistan. My group alone has doled out double maybe triple digit millions in the last four years. Forgive me for being vague, but tracking this stuff has not been our strong suit and little analysis of what we have accomplished exists.
As we prepare to exit Afghanistan, military and civilians, our focus is now on promoting centralized governing and security. This is a much more nebulous task than delivering material goods as done in the past. This new focus has shifted our efforts from building random things we think they need, but probably don’t, to endless meetings talking about how they should manage a budget, yet never establish their goals or objectives as a governmental body. In a metrics driven organization such as the military, it is hard to stand in front of the boss and give a brief that you are going to convoy to dangerous spot X, secure spot X and then sit down with Person Y and discuss governing 101. When everyone knows this discussion really means sip some chai tea while being asked for more money and then convoy back. In efforts to put a professional façade on our metrics we have been searching far and wide for new ideas. The latest being a chess tournament for girls in the local city.
Women’s rights in Afghanistan are appalling and at a young age females are segregated and denied what the rest of the world considers basic training to function in society. They are for the most part locked in the family home and if allowed to leave they will have a male chaperon, mo beany times their young son, and be covered from head to toe in a burka. It is common for prepubescent girls to be married off and child berthing will start once biologically possible. It is obvious that women’s rights need to be addressed and for a civil society to develop major strides are required. I beg to ask if a chess tournament for girls is really part of the forward progression. There are so many issues with women in society right now that a chess tournament seems irrelevant.
As I sat through the mission planning for the girl’s chess tournament, I found myself reflecting on my high school experience with player organized practice. I had to question how effective we were using our resources when a group of teenagers were able to plan and execute a much broader operation with much less resources. This chess tournament is nothing more than an after school activity that would generally be run by a few parents and the participants. It consists of a gymnasium, chess boards, tables and people overseeing the matches. Orchestrating this tournament we have a PhD assisted by an Ivy Leaguer with an advanced degree. Rank and file participants are two West Point graduates, one with a masters in business, a London educated geospatial expert, dozens of security forces personnel, nearly $10 million in trucks and equipment, plus a few women on standby, all of which are officers with a minimum of a bachelors degree (not to include military training). A staffing more fit for a research department than an afternoon of casual chess.
If a group of high school teenagers were able to plan a two month long pre-season training program that incorporated conditioning, fundamentals, scrimmages and team building events is it unreasonable to assume that a degree of organizational capacity exists in every society? The Afghans developed the Taliban from within, a terrible organization, but effective in accomplishing their goals. I would ask, are the Afghans incapable of organizing a chess match or unwilling. I would guess they are unwilling. If unwillingness is the case then I would venture to say that with this dream team of educated personnel and abundance of resources it would be more effective to focus on the a more intensive education of women’s rights and advocacy rather than an isolated girl’s chess event.
Young Muslim women have an impressive background in advocacy and self organized events. A quick scan of Muslim Student Association websites illustrates this, there are events and sub organizations in locations around the world with diverse initiatives and approaches. A significant organization to note is the Muslim Interscholastic Tournament or MIST, a tournament combining many aspects of the academic arena, including art, writing, and speech, that bring high school students together from around the United States to develop leadership, promote communication, and inspire creativity while gaining an understanding of Islam and Muslims. This impressive organization was created by Shazia Siddiqi, a freshman at the University of Houston in 2001 at age 18. Since its creation in 2001, MIST has expanded to nine different regions across North America and successfully engaged over 5,000 youth. Not only does this organization promote education and awareness about the Muslim faith it encourages and educates the youth on how to make a difference through public speaking, organizing and advocacy. Ms. Siddiqi identified a social issue and organized a group to instill change. Her coordination with the Muslim Student Association and Muslim community allowed her to maximize her influence with the support of many people also concerned with the stated objectives of MIST. This organization is not an anomaly and the potential for similar organizations to develop exist if those willing to take the initiative are properly fostered.
Does this chess tournament demonstrate our lack of understanding of the Afghan people and that we are just groping for self satisfying objectives? If we really wanted to make this a positive event would it not be more effective to have the girls organize this event and to provide minimal assistance, much like my community’s parents, coaches and school officials or better yet those that helped Ms. Shiddiqi start MIST? I would also suggest that there are better events to coordinate than chess, considering the oppressive nature of this country. These people are capable of governing themselves and rebuilding their society, but we need to take a lesson from common Americans raising their children, step back and let the Afghans have the helm. Foster female organizational skills and leadership under our prudent watch instead of us showing them how smart we are. Let the chess tournament be a consequence of the leadership developed within the girls, like my team’s tubing trip or MIST’s tournaments as a medium to promote Muslim education. This approach might empower enough women to influence change.