My research experience in Afghanistan 2009

This experience has been an amazing learning journey for me, taking me into the offices of lawyers, activists and legal advisors in Afghanistan to document the construction of two important and historic legislations for women rights, which a few years ago would have been inconceivable in Afghanistan. Field work brings life to theory; it puts the law into its appropriate context but it also illuminates how law is created and reviewed from the grassroots, by whom, within what networks and informal relationships, using what sources for guidance and reference, through which criterion, negotiating through what kind of politics…. This project was my opportunity to work directly in a post-conflict and developing context. Independently I travelled into Afghanistan and was placed in a position where I had to find the right contacts, propose my research to as many people and obtain the right documents. I needed to situate myself in the network. I needed a formal relationship with it. Therefore I looked for an organisation to parent the research and additionally they provided me with the facilities and security to ensure the environment was as conducive as possible for this work. I had to be extremely resourceful; expanding my organisation, networking and negotiation skills with people in the field. It was difficult to convince individuals and organisations that my research and I was worth utilising, especially being (and looking) so young. So I had to do a lot of preparations; research into the subject area (family law and law on domestic violence), research into the network (which organisations was doing what, who the key flyers were, being familiar with the legislative process, being familiar with how civil society groups and international organisations work together and their internal dynamics). In many cases, I even had to assume knowledge. They say ‘The world is governed more by appearances than realities, so that it is fully as necessary to seem to know as to know’.

To prepare myself, I did not just read materials over a Google search but invited myself into the offices of law and development workers. This was in order to retrieve important documents not available online (like meeting notes, draft laws, country reports), to learn people’s experiences with the legal reform efforts, not experiences as narrated out in the newspapers but as experienced individually. These meetings were also opportunities to define my research through directed advice. I wanted to produce something that would be useful to my readers. Within this entire experience, I really developed my networking and communication skills and after a month, I convinced a German organisation to parent this research. Viewing it within the bigger picture, I was dropped in a difficult environment and I had to negotiate myself through it. This inevitably sharpened by interpersonal skills (between myself and people in the field), my cultural awareness (between myself and the sensitivities of the Afghan people) and my contextual understanding (of the country’s past, its politics and how it is shaping the law reform efforts of the present). I think confidence is also a skill and that was constantly put to test; I had to believe I could conduct this research with a tolerable level of professionalism; and Afghanistan is not an easy environment. I was researching a very technical subject; briefly the ways in which the laws on the Afghan Shia family law and domestic violence were drafted. Here I had to collect all the drafts of each Bill (in English) and analyse them separately. But I did not want to evaluate them on face value (i.e. just based on the way their provisions were written); I also wanted to evaluate them based on a prediction of their implementation. I wanted to produce a holistic analysis. Thus I consulted a series of documents on similar laws in various other countries which through their years of tested-experience had developed jurisprudential and scholarly analysis of what works in practice. Then I had to ask myself on what basis am I evaluating the Afghan law? What criteria am I using for this evaluation? What benchmarks? This necessitated a very comprehensive comparative analysis between the Afghan law and foreign laws that have ‘worked’ in practice for the protection of women’s rights. I had to handle large amounts of information, cross-referencing between them and re-organising them as I went along. How was I going to use this information? Was it relevant? At one point I became so confused about the purpose of my research that I saved my research title and objective on my desktop background as well as got it printed and pasted on my desk. I have to keep going back to my objectives as I collect and read information so as to catch myself when my mind drifts towards other interests.


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