EFL in Afghanistan, Part 2

Lisa in Kabul

Lisa and I met twenty-some years ago when both of us were teaching English as a Foreign Language in Seoul. While I stayed at my university, she moved on to teach in several different countries, earn a doctorate in Australia and do research in educational issues. She is now the director of the English Language Institute in Jackson College in Jackson, Michigan.  We spoke via Skype. During the interview she frequently chuckled at memories of past difficulties.In part one she talked about teaching in a private university in Kabul, and in part two about girls’ education and her research on distance education.

Lisa’s story

You were going to talk about education for women?

Yes, girls’ education, basically. One of the primary US missions in Afghanistan is to promote girls’ education. They have been sending a lot of funding over, particularly in the last few years. This is based on research showing that promoting girls’ education has a significant impact on reduction of poverty within a country. Of course the Taliban don’t want girls educated. Unfortunately, girls still get attacked on their way to school. One of my friends teaches at an all-girls high school, one of the best in her province, and several of her students were attacked on the way to school. The attackers threw acid in their faces and burned them.

It disfigures them for life.

Yes. In Pakistan you hear that as well. They tried to kill the young Pakistani woman who won the Nobel Peace Prize, Malala Yousafzai, for speaking out on girls’ education and making herself very visible in the community.

Afghanistan is still ranked in the top ten countries in the world in terms of illiteracy. A lot of African countries like Gambia and Somalia—a lot of the countries with ongoing conflicts—have literacy problems. Afghanistan has not improved over the years. Statistics vary because it’s difficult to get an exact percentage of how many girls are illiterate. Girls in the cities like Kabul and Heart and Kandahar have more access to education than those out in the countryside. The country itself is very mountainous, as I mentioned, and a lot of communities are very remote and isolated. Under the Taliban they were not in school.

The UN guesstimates that about 20% of females were literate in the country before the US invasion. Now about 60% of girls are getting an education. So that might be one good thing that came out of the invasion. But 60% still seems a bit high to me because I know that within the cities it’s going to be higher than in the smaller, remote areas where people are more conservative.

This is so sad to say, but in my experience it’s very hard to convince people that girls are just as valuable as boys. The US Embassy asked me to choose the best students in my undergraduate classes to take part in a one-month training program in India. It was a really good program that we participated in every year. It required good English. I interviewed several students. It was easy to find the boys, but the families of the girls I selected wouldn’t let them go. The State Department still wanted me to find girls, so I continued the interviews, but the girls who went weren’t necessarily the top performers in my class.

So it was frustrating. You have a very good student, but the family is too conservative to allow her to go outside the country—or even to another city. When I was working in the western part of Afghanistan, a lot of girls couldn’t even go to Kabul.

Lisa in a saffron shop in Herat

Even though women have more freedom under the new government, there’s still the problem of cultural values. If a female is out at night and is not accompanied by a male, her reputation is at stake. She’s not a good woman, so girls just don’t go out a lot. And it’s still unusual to see a female driving. Kabul University was running a driver’s education course specifically for females, My Afghan friend went and got a license, but she didn’t drive in Kabul because of the harassment. Even Western women driving got harassed on the road. The harassers would drive really close. They’d pass you and intimidate you as you were driving. Well driving for women is still illegal in Saudi Arabia, and women are still fighting for that right. In Afghanistan it’s still acceptable for men to try to hold women back in that way.

We certainly had discussions about child marriages. The Afghan government has outlawed it, but it still happens, again within those rural parts, those areas where girls are married off to pay off debts or given to the Taliban if they need wives. Girls eight or nine years old are married off to older men.

My very close Afghan friend got married when she was 14. She didn’t have a choice. She came from a wealthier family, but she still found herself getting married young. Her husband died two years after they got married, but even as a widow she lived with the in-laws for years. Women become part of the husband’s family. They don’t usually return to their birth family

How did you and your friend get to be friends?

I met Angela when I first started working at AUAF in 2006, and we’re still friends after eleven years. She started as an administrative assistant and slowly worked her way up to becoming a registrar. She’s at the University of Massachusetts right now, finishing her master’s degree in higher education.

Some of that we saw even in Korea, I mean the idea that women couldn’t go abroad or that they belonged to the in-law’s family. There’s change by now, but when I went to Korea in 1988 there were few options for most women.

Right. Well, Korea was very traditional. In China,  before the government started opening up in the 80s and 90s, few people were able to get out. So I guess it’s not unusual to hear that women can’t travel alone, I mean, very few males could leave Afghanistan under the Taliban rule, and very few students have passports. Saddam Hussein was the same in Iraq; very few Iraqis actually had passports. Totalitarian governments control their citizens very well.

Did you get the girls to speak up, or did you get any of the students to speak up?

Afghans are actually quite open. I wouldn’t say Afghan women are exceptionally passive, although a few are shy. They were pretty vocal, In my classes the girls were usually better language learners, and they worked harder. Several girls I would say were a bit feisty. If boy did something inappropriate, they’d comment. I had one young woman—oh my goodness, when I was teaching in Kabul—Lazma was my exceptionally feisty student. When she was on campus, she took her scarf off. If a boy made comments, she’d get in his face.“So what? You’re going to talk to me about it? This is my business. It’s not your business.”

It’s almost like you had to be a strong woman to avoid being walked over. Unfortunately, women become targets. They’ve been killed. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs has reported several assassinations. Female journalists are targets.

Tell me about your research.

I wanted to see whether Afghanistan could develop distance education like the programs in similar countries. India in particular has a very refined system of programs throughout their country, including in remote areas with little access to schools or universities. So I did semi-structured interviews with education administrators in order to find out what the Afghan decision makers thought. I asked chancellors, people in the Ministry of Higher Education and in the Ministry of Education how they perceived distance education. What might work and what might not work—online, television and radio. Educational programs had been available for a long time on television and radio, and some projects were using mobile technology.

After interviewing all these people, I did on site visits and read their reports. A lot of the reports didn’t match up with what was on site. For example, I heard a lot about educational TV being broadcast to all the provinces. There was a program by a master teacher giving teachers tips, but I couldn’t get it in Herat. Finally, I went to the director in Kabul and asked who exactly was receiving the channel. He said, “Well, unfortunately, it’s only in Kabul at the moment.”

During our interview, the power went on and off four or five times, but he didn’t seem to notice. It’s so common that a lot of Afghans don’t blink an eyelid. The power fluctuation is just crazy, which is probably why it’s so hard to get technology outside the capital.

I put together a hybrid model that might work. India was trying to implement their own program in Afghanistan, but one-size-fits-all doesn’t work. You have to consider the context.  My interviewees were concerned that Afghan students weren’t self-directed, active learners. Education was still very teacher-centered. Both ministries tried to train teachers in new methodology, but it often didn’t stick. People didn’t see that distance learning would be helpful, and I had to agree. I did some online practice with my students, but I don’t think it would have worked it I hadn’t been in the classroom. They had a hard time navigating online, they weren’t used to sitting and watching a lecture, they had questions and some language problems.  With the more active learners it might work. Anyway, the Ministry of Higher Education doesn’t accept degrees done at a distance. They still believe face-to-face is the better approach, and I would have to agree. Maybe with the better Internet—a lot of countries that still struggle with it. At least now the major cities are connected by fiber-optic cable, so the ministries can use it for conferencing or seminars. Most Afghans, if they have anything they have a phone. So if we could develop mobile education, I think that would be the best bet as a teaching tool.

There are NGOs doing great work in places like Nepal and India, like One Laptop per Child, which brings laptops to small villages in different countries. They want young people to play around with them and get used to the technology, they’ve had problems. I think now the laptops are kept at the school. There’s also the question of how you charge them when electricity isn’t reliable.

I saw a big improvement in English proficiency between when I first went to Afghanistan in 2006 and when I last went there a couple of years ago, A good number of Afghans spoke English on a very high level, especially in the universities. That’s also in part because of the number of returnees from Western countries—Afghan-Americans, Afghan-Canadians, Afghan-Germans. But there’s still a bit of a gap between those who get into university and those who don’t, the haves and have-nots. If you’re in the city, chances are you’ll take the Concord Exam, the national university entrance exam. If you’re out in the rural areas, chances are you won’t. So there is still a big divide, but that’s true even in the US, where some American students don’t have Internet.

We both know there can be an enormous gap in understanding between travelers and non-travelers. Do you get a lot of people wondering why you’re going to places like Iraq and Afghanistan and Korea?

Well, I’m around mostly ESL teachers now, who may or may not speak a foreign language and/or have overseas experience. I think everyone in this profession understands the benefits of living in other countries and experiencing other cultures. I do get questions about my work in Afghanistan and Iraq, and I say what I told you, that regardless of whether I agree with US foreign policy, people in those places need education to make their countries strong and eliminate poverty. I like to be part of the solution.

Recently I went to Lebanon because I’m interested in education for refugees. When I arrived back in Detroit, an immigration guy at the airport grilled me. “What were you doing in those countries?”

“I was working on an educational project”

“Why were you in Lebanon?”

“Well, sir, I was working with refugees.”

“Oh, really?” He was being a jerk. “The US government should interview you.”

“I’m not that important. I don’t know anything.”

He was holding onto my passport and wasn’t going to let me come in. I was so freaked out. It’s just that the whole Trump administration has brought—this racism. We have a fairly large Muslim population in this city. I don’t feel bad just because of this asshole at the airport. I’ve never been treated that way coming back from the Middle East before. God knows what they’re doing to Muslims and everybody else who is slightly darker.

So right now my focus is on trying to run an educational project that will bring education to the refugees in the host country that they’re in. I’m looking at Kurdistan, actually, because the refugees there have it worse than in other places. So I might focus my work there. I’m still in the process of collecting information in the Middle East and Europe.

I’d like to listen when your project has gotten to a point where you want to talk about it.

A reader writes:

I liked the interview a lot. Lisa, you are very brave and are doing important work. Keep it up. Here is a book recommended for you: FARISHTA by Patricia McCardle, a former US State Department employee. I was horrified by your treatment at the Detroit airport.