Photojournalist shares firsthand accounts from Afghan women

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Lifestyle Reporter
Peggy Kelsey, author of Gathering Strength: Conversations with Afghan Women, speaks March 31 during the Voices of Freedom philosophy dialogue in the Comal Building.

Students attended the Voices of Freedom section of the Philosophy Dialogue Series March 31 to hear from the author of Gathering Strength: Conversations with Afghan Women.

Peggy Kelsey, photojournalist, is the founder of the Afghan Women’s Project. Her goal is to seek wisdom from women who have experienced hardships. During her conversations with students, she discussed sections of her book, which details the lives of individual Afghan women.

Kelsey visited Afghanistan for the first time in 2003. She returned in 2010 after meeting Afghan women in Austin. The people she met did not fit the victim stereotype of Afghan women the media often portrays.

Kelsey said meeting the women made her want to investigate the situation further in order to better tell their stories.

“I wanted to tell a bigger story,” Kelsey said. “They were not poor, helpless victims that needed help.”

She asked women what they thought about their burqas, an outer garment worn by women in the Islamic culture that covers the body, throughout her trips. The responses she received were surprising.

“They did not care,” Kelsey said. “They were more concerned about education and healthcare.”

Mark Norris, philosophy senior, was captivated by the women’s concern for particular issues.

“I think it was interesting when (Kelsey) said the women talking about the burqas and how they are not concerned with what they wear but instead (with) what it means to be a person,” Norris said.

Kelsey said her discussions about domestic violence included the fact it is not always between a man and a woman.

“Twenty-five percent of violence is woman-to-woman, mostly between mother-in-laws and sister-in-laws,” Kelsey said.

Kelsey said this type of violence occurs because some women follow more modern customs than others. When a woman marries a man, she usually moves in with his family. Problems can arise if the new bride does not follow the family’s traditional customs.

Maximiliano Hernandez, philosophy sophomore, who attended the lecture, said the women’s stories surprised him.

“I learned more about what exactly the women of Afghanistan want and their outlook,” Hernandez said.

Kelsey said the women she met were educated and concerned about civil rights issues and feminism. The women were passionate about feminism, but their concerns departed from the context of American views.

“When we think of helping them, we think of, ‘Oh, be more like us,’ but they want their own interpretation,” Kelsey said. “‘We don’t want Euro feminism, we want Islamic feminism.’”

Fixing the various social issues the women face in Afghanistan will take time, she said. People working to solve problems in Afghanistan should not expect the women to be more like Americans because they are members of a different culture.

“We are dealing with civil rights issues here, but things are getting better here, and things will get better there, too,” Kelsey said.