Posted by: Drew | April 2, 2009

Ishmael Beah Lecture & Afghan Women

 I went and saw Ishmael Beah speak today (well by now I guess technically it was yesterday) and it was a very interesting and affecting experience, to say the least. I’m about 70 pages into reading his memoir, A Long Way Gone, and am now very eager to finish it. Beah was extremely articulate and eloquent in talking about his experiences writing the book and what he has been doing since. He also had quite a remarkable sense of humor, something I cannot say I was expecting.


Beah was very clear that he felt he needed to tell the story of his experiences as a child soldier (and just a person affected by war in general) in order to bring hope to others like him and recognition to the global issue of child soldiers. He mentioned how Sierra Leone, his homeland, was not by nature this war-torn, chaotic place. The civil war there was not its whole history – not in the slightest. I found this to be one of my favorite points that Beah made throughout the course of his discussion. You need to understand the context of these things, he kept repeating.


I thought I’d peruse my Google Reader feeds to find articles that might have something to do with what Beah talked about and ultimately come up empty-handed, forced to make some half-baked connections to the war in Afghanistan.


Surprisingly, I came across a Real News video segment detailing the plight of women in Afghanistan. Mavis Leno of the Feminist Majority Foundation is featured in the piece; she has fought gender apartheid in Afghanistan since 1999.


The “institutionalized abuse of Afghan women” (as Leno puts it) under the Taliban was not always the case in Afghanistan. Before the Taliban’s rise to power, women operated as equals to men in Afghan society. The Taliban changed things. Now that it has regained some of the power it lost, things are as bad as ever. Leno says that not until the Taliban is totally defeated and gone will women be safe to function as equals in Afghanistan.


This is exactly what Ishmael Beah was speaking to about Sierra Leone. He said that people in America saw the images of the raging civil war in the country and just assumed that that’s the way things were and always had been there, that there was no way to change things. That is simply untrue, just like women have not always been systematically abused in Afghanistan. It isn’t just “the way things are.” Things can be changed for the better if we are aware of the problems and make a conscious effort to help fix them.



  1. I find the connection you made between Sierra Leon and Afghan women’s trouble something very important to point out. As Beah and Leno are trying to convey these cultures aren’t inherently violent or oppressive towards women. Much of the fighting we hear about in other nations is not an accurate representation of their cultures. Often times, as pointed out in your post, there are external causes that shift the culture. Just from reading Beah’s account of Sierra Leon it is clear the culture was a respectful, community oriented, and peaceful culture.
    I think it is easier for people in America and other western countries to look at violence in other countries and just accept that as the way things are, as you pointed out. Another possible reason is that most of us are used to associating Africa was violence and wars and associating the Middle East with suppression of women. That is really what we have been taught from the media. We do not often get historical portraits drawn for us of other nations and their rich, unique cultures. If we did, maybe we would have a better understanding of how different cultures are affected by external pressures that may not be a direct result of something within the culture.
    This was a good post. I really enjoyed the connection you made.

  2. Drew, I enjoyed this post. Part was the interesting connection, and part was envy. I wanted to see Beah speak, but had class—a class I had already skipped for another reading… Anyway, you did a nice job of bringing this together with other happenings in the world. You stated:
    “This is exactly what Ishmael Beah was speaking to about Sierra Leone. He said that people in America saw the images of the raging civil war in the country and just assumed that that’s the way things were and always had been there, that there was no way to change things.”
    And this happens constantly. Not just Sierra Leone, but all over Africa, the Middle East and South East Asia. I think it makes us—well, I should really only speak for myself—me feel better to believe there is some cultural corruption in those places around the world constantly warring. Even if something was tried, some radical *GASP* solution-based initiative, it would inevitably fail. Not because we didn’t try. We (I) would feel good about the attempt, but I (we) know it’s as you said, “just the way things are.” Which is sad, when things are so bad, but it sure makes for a great excuse to do nothing…

  3. I really wish I’d gotten the chance to see Beah speak, but unfortunately I had other more pressing obligations I had to tend to. Either way, I really enjoyed his memoirs, which might be a strange thing to say considering the weight of their topic. I think it was his writing style and the incredible truth of it all that really captured me though. His story is one that you really couldn’t make up if you tried. Although i just recently read an article dealing with the possible exaggeration of some of the details in the memoir, but to link it to “The Things They Carried”, it’s not really pertinent that all the details are correct…just the fact that it happened.

  4. I was fortunate enough to see him speak, he did give a little more insight to what happened after wards than what the book did for an ending. He tended to restate the end of the book and how he got to America and what happened during the whole visa process. Good thing most of the people there had read, or said they had read his book, so that he did not go over the same stuff he wrote about. It seems like everywhere in 2nd and 3rd world countries they seem to have trouble with their human rights and keeping the power of the government in check. The afghan women are particularly oppressed, not necessarily coming from the government as much as sub national actors. The Taliban is a big player when it comes to keeping the rights of women down, they will kill maim and rape to keep the men on top. It is sad but their are some people trying their best too help the girl children get schooling. There may be hope yet and education is the best way. Over all though i like how you were able to make the connection between what had happened in Sierra Leone and Afghanistan with the women. Nice post.

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  6. I really wish I would have had the chance to see Ishmael speak in person, unfortunately, my schedule would not allow it. After reading his story, It would have been intersting to see him in person and actually hear him speack about his experiences of war and as aboy soldier.

    I think that there was a really good connection made between the war in his town and the trouble that the afghan women are facing. Oustiders can never turly understand what the expereince was like. Often times people just don’t understand the nature of the war or place, and they may think that that is sjust the way things are in that country or village. Which is one of the points that Beah was trying to make about his town.

  7. […] The Impurification of Precious Bodily Fluids […]

  8. I also saw Beah speak, and it was staggering to see how after all that trauma and violence, he has become the very educated, passionate young man that he obviously now is.

    In response to the post, and specifically the abuse of women in Afghanistan under the Taliban, I think that there is a lesson to be learned from allowing countries to wallow in poor conditions that invite radical regimes like the Taliban.

    Afghanistan has not always had such a ruthless policy against women, and it seems radical even to most Muslims that they should be treated in such a way. But without very much political power in the first place, what are women supposed to do in the face of the Taliban to stand up for their rights?

    Just as Beah discovered when he was forced into military service at such a young age, it is hard to say no in the face of a loaded gun. The international community must make sure that countries don’t reach such a dire situation as Sierra Leone and Afghanistan did, and then there will be no reason for these travesties to occur. In a successful society, there is no need for religious law, abuses, or child soldiering, as the industrialized world has seen in the past decades.

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  11. I went to see Ishmael Beah before I had a chance to finish his novel. I, too, was shocked by the connections he made to cultures all over the planet. The comments he made about how similar his childhood in Sierra Leon was to our lives growing up in America was very interesting. He is right in thinking that American’s tend to think of African people as ‘bush dwellers’, but he strove, and in my opinion, succeeded in representing his life in Africa as a life that could have been lived in any country, on any continent. I really liked the way you connected his comments on media representations of Africa to those of Afghanistan. It is sad that in America we do not have more background knowledge on happenings out side the Western World. Especially given our military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, it would be beneficial to teach the history of these countries in American schools. It is important to note that the women of Afghanistan have lost their rights, which in a way makes their suffering more poignant, because they have lived outside of this stringent regime. The fact that many Americans are unaware of this severely skews the ways in which the American public think about Afghanistan and the war there.

  12. I believe that people in general are awful at understanding the context of anything. I am a firm believer in the saying, “not everything is as it seems.” People assume many things about other people and situations all the time in everyday life. I think of this especially for Africa. In history the other day we observed an old “cartoon” that justified slavery. It showed on the left side the “barbaric African” out in some field half dressed and carrying a bow and arrow. On the right side was a well-dressed African American in the home of a rich plantation owner, and it was obvious that the man was saved from some horrible life. I am sad to say that I think most people still view Africans in this way. Poor, unhappy, uneducated people with no means to support themselves. I would not call Americans stupid but I would call them ignorant, including myself. I have not taken the time to educate myself about this vast continent, so when I see news stories it is hard for me to critically think about them or form an opinion seeing as how it would be completely one sided. I think that being completely educated about something (especially in this society with the way that news is broadcasted) is very important when decided to cast judgments or conclusions.

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  15. […] Ishmael Beah Lecture & Afghan Women […]

  16. Interesting piece of writing. Many thanks for sharing

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