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According to Western democracy a married woman can have a boyfriend, while this kind of democracy is not acceptable in Afghanistan.

  • Male teacher, urban Kabul

We have copied some democratic values from Western countries and Afghanistan has signed some human rights declarations, but I don’t think they are adoptable in our Islamic society.

  • Female community leader, Kabul

The role of Islam and perceptions of its stance in opposition to Western values will be discussed in a later section. However, it is interesting to note here that the topics people choose to talk about when discussing the potentially negative effects of the spread of democracy in Afghanistan by and large involve the nature of social and family values or practices. The observations and perceptions about “Western democratic” culture appear to come from increasing levels of exposure either to that culture itself, in the form of trips overseas (or knowing people who have taken them), in seeing the activities of foreigners working in Afghanistan firsthand—and especially by way of the media. As post-2001 reconstruction efforts increased access to electricity in urban areas, it opened increased access to visual media that had previously been tightly restricted by the Taliban authorities. The influx of images coming from overseas this brought—and the relative inability to control these images—has thus contributed to the negative perceptions of Western culture and the (not unfounded) worry that they will infiltrate throughout society. There exists a certain double standard, however, as soap operas, movies and pornography remain as popular as they are easily available, and are not imposed on those choosing to view them. Furthermore, in a context in which the unbridled critique of “Western culture” is common, even in vogue, in Afghanistan, it is unsurprising to find respondents attempting to distance themselves (in public) from a lifestyle widely perceived to be

immoral.

Nimroz: a dissenting voice

In rural Nimroz Province, where there is limited electricity available, it is notable that those giving definitions of the word “democracy” tended to

Deconstructing “Democracy” in Afghanistan

view it in a different light to respondents in other provinces:

Democracy means freedom in the way people live, and freedom of speech. In democracy we should consider the rights of women, children and citizens in general. In my opinion democracy means freedom in all areas of life.

  • Female teacher, rural Nimroz

It was a long time since I was at school, and I have forgotten a lot. But I know that democracy means freedom of speech, where people can advocate for their rights...For the moment there is no democracy in the government.

  • Female housewife, rural Nimroz

Democracy means freedom so that people can talk freely and transmit their problems to the government.

  • Male head of NSP shura, semi-urban Nimroz

These statements come from educated respondents who do not have ready access to television in their homes. They are all the immediate responses to the final interview question, “What is democracy, in your opinion?” Although respondents often qualified these answers by highlighting the need to situate democracy within Islamic norms and traditions, almost no one talked about it as threatening in terms of a cultural or imperial imposition. Reflecting some of the views of educated respondents in other provinces, such as Kabul and urban Nangarhar, most did not view the current government of Afghanistan as a functioning or “real” democracy. However, they stressed that the government should be aiming toward a more democratic and equal society in which there were fewer warlords in power, less discrimination between ethnicities and elections without fraud.

Evidently there is more to this anomaly that the lack of access to television, since even those in Nimroz who did have more direct access to local media had broadly the same ideas and were not openly hostile to democracy as a cultural imposition. Two other significant variables also need to be considered: geographic location, and the lack of ISAF forces and generally limited foreign presence.

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