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Talking about Sexual Attitudes and Behaviors: A cultural and Social Taboo in Afghanistan

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Photo Credit: Rumi Consultancy/World Bank

In June 2018, Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies (2018) published its latest survey entitled “Transition to Adulthood; Sexual Attitudes and Behaviors of Youth in Afghanistan.”The survey has been conducted in a conversation with 1,350 people aged 15 to 34 in 10 largest provinces of Afghanistan. Sediqa Bakhtiari, one of the researchers (2018), articulates that in the survey, the attitude and sexual behavior of youth and adolescents after childhood have been examined.This study echoes that most Afghan youths do not have information about the healthy sexual relationship.In this survey, 36% of the interviewees had no information about AIDS, and only 20% were familiar with safe and healthy relationships. And, 90 percent of those interviewed in this study said that there is a pressing need for sex education in Afghanistan.

The research shows that ignoring the debate on sexual issues has led Afghan young people to go to other sources for obtaining information about sexual matters that do not provide the right information to them. For example, according to this study, 60 percent of Afghan youths use sexy content such as movies and photos that address their sexual instinct. The researchers of this survey argue that using such objects for tackling the sexual needs can have personal and social damage. Its personal damage includes imitation of patterns of misconception, depression, and frustration, mental disorders, and addiction to such content and social damages are encouraging the youth toward committing rape, violence, street harassment and, in some cases, avoidance of marriage (Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies, 2018)

Studies project that widespread rape, honor killings, sexual violence, and child abuse in Afghanistan are the malicious results of lack of information and public awareness about sexual attitudes and behaviors. According to Ruhollah Amin, a psychologist in Afghanistan (BBC, June 29, 2018), talking about sexual needs and issues has a very negative connotation in Afghan society. He argues that even among couples, talking about a sexual relationship is interpreted as bad, embarrassing, and heinous and should be kept secret. In his opinion, this social and cultural censorship has become a self-censorship that causes disorders for a person, and finally, the consequences of such self-censorship rise in other ways that are inconsistent with the cultural and social norms of the society. For instance, jokes and poems that have sexual content and violence are indicative of such cultural censorship in the society (BBC, June 30, 2018). He emphasizes the need for a social and cultural campaign in Afghanistan regarding sexual attitudes and behaviors so that individuals can become aware of their sexual needs legally as a human.

Lack of Sex Education at Afghan Schools

Afghanistan is a traditional country and its people are religious who strongly believe in the traditional Islamic and religious principles. The contents and subjects of school curriculum in Afghanistan are also designed based on these Islamic principles and traditional values of the people(Compilation & Translation, 2003). In 2016, the city of Kabul witnessed a public campaign that broke many of the taboos and traditions in the country.This campaign was specifically talking about sexual attitudes and behaviors of youths and the problems and inadequacies surrounding them in Afghanistan (Horizon News Agency, Oct. 23, 2017).Holding such public awareness programs are very pivotal and vital in this regard but not adequate. Because, first, such campaigns only take place out of schools by private organizations in Afghanistan. Second, these kinds of social and cultural public awareness programs occur in big cities of Afghanistan where far-reaching provinces are not witnessing such campaigns. Third, schools that are considered to be the main training centers for children don’t have any clear and specific programs regarding educating the students about their sexual attitudes and behaviors, unfortunately.

Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission’s annual report (2017) shows that violence against women in Afghanistan has increased by 8.6%. The report states that 5575 cases of violence had been registered in 2017. This figure was 5132 in 2016. Of the total recorded violence, more than 1,500 cases of physical violence, more than 360 cases of sexual violence, more than 1,800 verbal and psychological violence, more than 1,100 cases of economic violence and remaining violence have been reported in response to behaviors that are traditionally are disgraceful. In the reported physical violence section, more than 1,200 cases of beatings, 10 incidents, 57 injuries, 45 forced labor and 234 deaths were included. The Independent Human Rights Commission argues that the statistics do not show the full reality due to the extent of this problem, and many cases of violence against women are likely to remain hidden for reasons of custom and lack of security.

Given the above reasons, it is argued that one of the key factors of violence against women increase in Afghanistan is the shortage of sex education at Afghanistan’s schools. For example, several studies echo that presenting guidance by the teachers about sexual attitudes and behaviors of students at schools will reduce the occurrence of sexual assaults and gender violence in the society. Because girls and boys as teenagers will learn about their sexual attitudes at schools. In other words, sex education will help students how to tackle their sexual problems appropriately, how to respect their opposite sex’s sexual characteristics and not to look at their opposite sex as a physical and biological object but as a human being(Raphael, 2015).

Since there is not any formal education about sexual attitudes and behaviors at schools in Afghanistan, most of the Afghan teenagers and youths obtain information about sexual issues secretly via internet or friends. The Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies survey(2018) projects that this kind of approach toward knowing about sexual matters leads to watching porn movies that eventually result into porn addiction.Moreover, researchers believe that the lack of education at schools and the lack of proper education of parents regarding sexual attitudes and behaviors of youths may create serious cultural and social problems for the health of the entire society. They argue that embedding the topic of sex education in school curriculum can acquaint the children from the stage of childhood to sexual issues. When they grow up, they don’t feel shy talking about their sexual problems and needs in families, among their friends, or referring to a doctor because of their sexual problems. Furthermore, addressing sex education in an integrated education system may provide information for children and adolescents that won’t provoke them toward inappropriate solving their sexual needs. Additionally, providing sex education through schools can help students not to look for other misleading channels for obtaining information about their sexual attitudes and behaviors.

Afghan Society and the Taboo of Sex Conversation

Traditional values that may restrict access to knowledge about sexual attitudes and behaviors might be the main barriers on debating regarding sexual issues among the families and youths in traditional societies(Heinemann, Atallah, & Rosenbaum, 2016).In Afghanistan, there are many reasons that why parents don’t educate their children about sexual issues. First,only 31.741 percent of Afghan adults aged 15 and above are literate that is why most of the parents are not aware of sexual issues due to not being able to read regarding sexual topics (The World Bank, 2011). Second, parents feel shameful and discomfortable of conversing about sexual issues with their progenies thus they have a negative attitude to sexual attitudes and behaviors. Third, most of the parents in Afghanistan feel that if they talk about sexual issues with their children, the respect between them and their children is broken, thus, they neither want nor can to talk about sexual matters with their progenies.

Lack of information about sexual attitudes and behaviors often lead to misconceptions about sexual issues. This ignorance usually manifests itself in the form of shameful, impolite, and culturally abnormal conversation among the families in Afghanistan. Dr. Haidari Nasab, a consultant and member of the family and sexual health group (2017), believes that the question of how to answer children’s inquiries about sexual attitudes and behaviors is a cultural issue. It depends on the culture of each community and the family how to respond and to get acquainted with sexual issues. He argues that the crucial point is that parents and teachers step by step should acquaint the teens and adolescents with sexual attitudes and behaviors. Sexual information provided to a 3-year-old child is very different from that of a 13-year-old girl. On the other hand, the lack of awareness and refusal to answer of puberty and sexual questions can provoke the curiosity of the newly-raised teenager, therefore, the family is the most important social elements that should give enough information and guidance to their teens in this respect.

In Afghanistan, since there is no formal sex education at school, and parents are not talking about sexual attitudes and behaviors with their progenies either, there is a risk that Afghan youths may become familiar inappropriately with sexual issues out of the home. Studies hold that educating teens and adolescents about sexual issues by parents and schools is a safe and healthy way. While gaining information about sexual needs and issues via friends and Internet may provoke teens and adolescents to commit sexual violence, rape, teasing their opposite sex in the society, and other abnormal deeds.

Recommendations for Policy Implications

First, as schools are the main hubs of education for children, scholars are in this belief that school teachers should instruct the students that sexuality is a natural, normal, and healthy part of life. They should provide value-based education and offer students the opportunity to explore and define their individual values as well as the values of their families and communities. The discussion between teachers and students should include a wide variety of sexuality-related topics, such as human development, relationships, interpersonal skills, sexual expression, sexual health, society,and culture. The conversation should be based on the accurate and factual information.

Second, since most of the families in Afghanistan, particularly in the countryside, don’t have information about their sexual attitudes and behaviors, Ministry of Education in collaboration with Ministry of Public Health through school administrators should start public awareness campaigns in this regard. These campaigns should be held at schools and mosques. The campaigners should discuss the importance of knowing sexual attitudes and behaviors with the local people. They should tell the families that having information about sexual issues is not shameful and bad culturally and socially, but very vital and important for the health and social safety of their families and communities. Because, it is necessary for the parents and teachers, first of all, to receive the appropriate information for instructing teens, and then they can answer their questions related to sexual attitudes and behaviors.

Finally, parents and teachers should create a sincere and faithful relationship with children in conversing with them regarding sexuality and sexual issues. Because as long as there is no trust between parents and teachers, teens and adolescents can’t share their sexual problems and issues with them. Doing so, parents and teachers can reduce the risk of referring teens and adolescents to illegal and inappropriate channels for seeking the answers to their questions related to sexual attitudes.

Hamidullah Bamik is a Fulbright Scholar, education policy analyst, and a social development researcher. His research focus is on girl’s education and women empowerment, gender equality, good governance, and socio-economic development in South Asia but particularly Afghanistan. He has worked with World Bank Capacity Building Projectsat Supreme Audit Office of Afghanistan from 2013 to 2018 as a capacity building consultant. Currently, he is working as a social development researcher at Asia Culture House, a non-profit cultural and art organization based in Kabul, Afghanistan. Additionally, he is a frequent contributor on sociopolitical, socioeconomic, and social developmentissuesto Outlook and Etilaatroz, the two leading Newspapers in Afghanistan, and Modern Diplomacy, a leading European opinion-maker with far-reaching influence across the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.

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New Social Compact

Musings of a journalist – Part 3

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The entire idea of writing this is that as journalists we find ourselves finding and scratching other people’s truths. However, we often escape from our own. The idea of writing this is to come closer to my own truth and to stay connected with it.

Some good things have also happened since January. I believe I fell in love with someone for a while, fell out of love with them recently and am waiting to feel in love with them again. The strongest learning I’ve had about love is that it’s not permanent. It comes and goes in tides and we must persevere to know when the next tide will come. People who expect love to be permanent have either lost themselves in love or are blinded by it, both of which might lead to delusions. I think my style of loving is more like a realist who gives into delusions once in a while but gets back to reality. Might sound sad, but this is the sad reality of long relationships. People can fall out of love and fall in love with the same person at different points of time. Lovers just need to wait for the right timing. And don’t let this fool you – there might be no right timing for lovers, but that doesn’t mean that love does not exist between them. It simply means that the timing was, is and never will be right.

One more messed up thing about me is that there was once a time I had no friends and I wanted friends more than anything else. Now that I have friends, I think it feels like a burden to be responsible for people’s emotions. To build these connections and promises of a lifetime when I might not even be in the same country after 3 months. But does that matter? Some people might not be in this world after 3 months! Some people might be terminal. Should that stop us from connecting with them at a deeper level? Maybe some connections are deeper because we know they are short lived. Maybe some connections are not so deep because we know they ebb and flow like tides, with different intensity of feelings at different points in time. What is a good measure for judging connections? Depth or time? I think both measures fail. One of the mysteries of this world is how to judge the quality of a connection. I am yet to understand how.

Another realization I’ve had these past few months is that without love we are little. But without self respect we are nothing. Without alcohol, I do feel a sense of anxiety every once in a while. Coffee makes up for that. We move from one vice to the next. I also know that coffee is not the best for my health, but I still know it’s better than alcohol. A good sense of creating better addictions is something I’m trying to incorporate in my life.

Since the last few months, I have been afraid of death. And I have learned to overcome it. I’ve learned to live in the present moment. I’ve learned to live by projecting a future I want into this world. I’ve learned to trust myself and rebuild myself. And with this piece of writing. I’ve rebuilt a sense of trust and truth in myself.

In the last six months I was also selected for an apprentice hub where I was mentored for my NGO by Priyanka Jha, Miss International 2004 and Miss India top 5. I also had the privilege of being selected for the Global Governance Initiative and am impressed by my attendance and participation in the fellowship. I wrote a five thousand word thesis about the negative impact of social media as a part of the fellowship. I cannot imagine having written a five thousand word thesis ever before. Now I’ll be starting a course by MIT in May called MIT bootcamp. I’m building my start-up on the side and also working for my NGO – Coral Warriors. I’ve also been interviewed by some publications for my NGO and have been working on expanding the board of directors. I’ve tried to get an internship in consulting but have failed quite strongly till now. I might not have to continue failing if the opportunity arises. That’s the beautiful part about failing – we fail back to back and one day life surprises us. Some more things I really want to do is develop a sense of routine, build my sense of peace, go for treks, feel more connected with myself, not agree with people blindly to ensure a continued relationship with them and get more political like I was before. Perhaps while reflecting on the first six months (almost six months of 2022), I cannot help but reflect on what I want the next six months to look like.

I want them to be filled with a deep sense of purpose and belonging. I want to be humble. I want to feel more connected. I want to feel like I am creating a positive impact, like my life has meaning. I also want to work towards getting a Masters degree. Most of all, I wish to stay connected with my truth through all this. To not forget my past in a fury of this madness. To remember what pain feels like and live everyday with gratitude. Being a believer of manifestation, I want to manifest my goals and dreams for myself, but only those that bring me peace.

This is my truth and I am glad to be sharing it with you.

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New Social Compact

Musings of a journalist – Part 2

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The entire idea of writing this is that as journalists we find ourselves finding and scratching other people’s truths. However, we often escape from our own. The idea of writing this is to come closer to my own truth and to stay connected with it.

Since I’m writing this to come to terms with my own reality, it’s also a good idea to reflect on how I feel when people ask me – “How do you manage your time?” or “You are doing so much!” or “Your story is inspiring.” To be honest, people are saying this to me to encourage me and motivate me, but as someone who is used to doubting and second guessing myself, the only impact that words like this have on me in the short term is – IMPOSTER SYNDROME. I remember battling it at university where I felt like a constant imposter amidst people who were doing so much more than me. I know we must not compare ourselves to others but it’s a mistake of the past.

Today, I feel like an imposter where people feel like I am doing a lot and being a lot, when I don’t perceive myself to be doing anything at all! For someone who spends their day feeling like they’ve wasted their time, there’s a cognitive gap in their understanding that they might have actually done something productive. I struggle with feeling productive and feel like a fake version of myself on most days where people can’t see the real me. Most people might see a list of things I’ve done and imagine I’m being my best self when perhaps I’m not. Someone please tell me – What’s a good way to tell someone who pedestalizes me that I don’t deserve to be pedestalized? What’s a polite way to ask them to not look up to my achievements because I have none.

The last six months of my life have been hyper stressful. I got rejected from the IVY League university to which I had applied and life hasn’t been the same since. It’s taken a while for me to accept the fact that I might have made some decisions in the past, which are of course reversible in due course of time, but it will take time. However, on a positive note, I did not see myself here one year ago. I got into a university in the UK which is still over the caliber my grades represent. I have realized one thing about academia. There are no second chances, you need to start from scratch.

In the last six months, I also believe the usage of my social media has increased, thereby causing a decline in my overall wellness. Perhaps, my university roommate has been smart in deleting the app overall but I am aware she lapses every once in a while when she feels the urge to check the internet. But her lapses exist once in six months. And mine from social media would be like twelve hours. I want to be immune to social media and delete the apps eventually. But of course, Instagram is a tool for business and I do believe in my ability to monetize the application, perhaps like others who want to be influencers but have no future in the field. Ouch! But yes, honestly, either put yourself out there and start now or never.

Since January began, I have watched the entire Oscar nominations list, almost, barring five movies I’m going to have to pirate because selections on Netflix suck. Despite accomplishing my almost 52 movies/ series and 52 book goals (26 books by June and 26 more by December), despite being on track, I feel flung off. There is no sense of pleasure in doing it anymore. Why does someone even read 26 books in 6 months? Someone might read one book and derive enough information out of it which someone who reads 26 books might miss out on. I find the reading 52 books goal displeasurable right now. I don’t see the meaning in it except knowing that it creates a good sense of ego. Yay, I’m reading more than most people. Yay, I probably know more than them about this world and how it works. Or yay, I’m not as dumb as I thought three years ago.

Honestly, the first time I read 52 books a year, last year, it was like an achievement. But now it feels just like another addiction to keep my day going. I really need other better hobbies to keep me engaged. Reading is not the only important thing. Lately, I’ve realized we need to apply what we read. And the truth is when we start applying our readings to the real world, there is very little time for reading left. I wonder is this realization why most people stop reading in their twenties? Is this why my father stopped reading in his twenties? I seriously wonder why people who were avid readers and dreamers once have now stopped reading. Did life hit them or did they realize they had to get up from books and start hitting life?

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New Social Compact

Musings of a journalist – Part 1

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The entire idea of writing this is that as journalists we find ourselves finding and scratching other people’s truths. However, we often escape from our own. The idea of writing this is to come closer to my own truth and to stay connected with it.

I’m writing today to be honest with myself about the last six months of my life. As an adult, we often start to build different personalities around different people and lose our real selves in the process. This is a documentation of my truth so I can remember it for myself. In January, I went to the Maldives, came back as a master scuba diver. That was the highlight of my month. If you ask me to look back and think about it, rarely will I be able to remember any specific moment of any month. Rather I remember the feelings and some key moments overall, without remembering a timeline. That is what most of our adult lives might look like. We play them back in highlights.

As a 23 year old, I often feel the guilt of not having a full time job like other traditional people my age. Despite running my own venture, I am often faced with general ups and downs that come with entrepreneurship. People fantasize being your own boss, but it is harder than it seems. On most days, when people look up to me and praise me for having started my own venture, I feel a deep sense of self doubt, more like imposter’s syndrome. Life isn’t as easy as it looks. People might see the ups because it’s easier to share them but they rarely see the downs.

For almost 2 years, I had developed an alcohol addiction of sorts. Drinking a bottle of wine every week was almost normal. I didn’t think twice before doing it but it left me with a deep sense of guilt every time I did. Overcoming that guilt is a huge part of adulthood. And to some extent, I’ve realized I am what they call a ‘sober alcoholic’. I might be sober now, even since the last odd one year perhaps but that doesn’t make me sober. I find my mind drifting towards drinking every now and then and it takes a whole lot of effort to remind myself how privileged I am to have the life I have. It takes a lot to know that I might be surrounded by people who drink but might not want to do it myself. From the person who needed to have a glass of anything bitter when I entered a nightclub, I’m now perfectly comfortable simply being on a glass of water. I’m trying to enjoy life without any dependencies. It’s been hard but I’m incredibly proud of what I have achieved mentally by distancing myself from alcohol over the last eight months. Other people might not know a thing about the battles I’ve fought internally and they might not even be there to applaud me or celebrate it. But I’m glad to have done this for myself alone. It is truly something I have done alone and I am happy to take all the credit for it. My own parents, little do they know about this battle I’ve fought with myself. Little do they know about my journey towards greater self respect.

Diving had a huge role to play in my decision to quit drinking. I knew I was in a privileged position to be able to dive. How many people can experience the wonders of the ocean? The universe chose me and I could not let it down.

In January, I also found myself more involved in ISKCON, the Krishna consciousness movement. I have a weird relationship with God, on some days I believe in the universe more than anything else, on other days I struggle even to believe in myself. I don’t know what’s morally right and wrong even now. I’m trying to access it situationally but I’ve realized that coming back to the shelter of my parents house has perhaps disconnected me with the realities of the real world. Perhaps morals are not situational when we are in a privileged position. Perhaps the lines between right and wrong feel stronger than ever before because we find it even more difficult to empathize with what’s morally wrong. Perhaps people who are privileged might not need to engage in morally wrong activities and they might be able to dissociate with them more frequently. Is moral correctness a mere product of privilege? I am sometimes forced to wonder. Many friends I have at ISKCON have often told me about their thoughts on moral correctness however I find myself unable to relate to them since their morals are briefly defined. Do I really belong with them? On some days, I then remember that the Bhagavad Gita’s protagonist Arjuna fought a war endorsed by none other than Lord Krishna himself. Perhaps we might not understand the ways of the world and defining morals objectively is a modern debatable creation.

Joining the ISKCON temple did connect me with people who I am afraid to disagree with. I have a normally argumentative and disagreeable personality fueled by strong opinions on gender, international politics, global affairs, literatures, the sufi movement and breaking news. As someone who frequented arguments at university on politics and to some extent now chooses to associate with people based on their political leanings, the apolitical yet spiritual environment at ISKCON baffles me. I had read in some of my favorite books that we must not argue over politics with friends. Some even wiser books suggested that we must be aware and cautious about our friends’ political leanings because they might act on them. Perhaps thought is a dangerous thing too. Most people I have interacted with at ISKCON are largely apolitical, which some might argue is again a product of privilege. In a situation where onion prices don’t matter and we do form the Hindu majority of this country, or are anything but muslim, it is rather convinient to be apolitical. The calm aura of people I have met at ISKCON is largely baffling to me. The absence of political discourse, often a source of major conversation addiction between me and some of my closest friends, makes me feel comfortable yet strangely out of place. I sense that I’m beginning to inhabit spaces which I had long outgrown. Or am I just going back to my comfort zone which I was kicked out of in a liberal university atmosphere like Ashoka? I believe the monk at ISKCON would gladly agree that liberal institutions might have a long lasting negative impact on our minds. Nothing else explains why I feel out of place despite being comfortable and feeling a strange sense of trust, one which political arguments were never good at creating. I have built some great friends I trust at ISKCON and I am grateful to the universe for that.

Honestly, ever since I have joined ISKCON, I feel increasingly lost. I’m not sure if the feeling exists because I am more lost now than before or because I’m only beginning to accept my own sense of being lost which was present in me all along. I’m not sure which it is.

At university, I found myself connected with a certain loneliness I felt within and I was still able to operate, from a space of lacking. It did not immobilize me. Living in my parents home has given me a renewed sense of hope which scares me. The world is a hopeful place than what my parents house makes it seem. This false sheltered hope has really not prepared me for the real world – and this, my dear reader is what scares me the most. This might sound messed up but perhaps I am so used to being out of my comfort zone that it’s normal for me to not be comfortable. When I do find myself in my comfort zone, I am finally beginning to dread it. My comfort zone makes me uncomfortable and I think it’s because social media has convinced me that real learning happens outside the comfort zone. Is it just another cliche saying we might find painted on New York ghetto walls? Get outside your comfort zone, huh?

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