An Interview with Fariba Nawa

Fariba Nawa is an award-winning Afghan-American journalist and the author of the book ‘Opium Nation: Child Brides, Drug Lords and One Woman’s Journey Through Afghanistan’, a mix of memoir and reportage about the drug trade in Afghanistan. In this interview, she talks about her book, about the drug trafficking in Afghanistan and the impact it has on the the Afghan population and especially on the lives of Afghan women.

Being born in Afghanistan and raised in the US, your identity is defined by two diametrically different cultures: the eastern and the western. How did this double identity shape and change your perception of both cultures?

They are different but not completely. The core values are the same: kindness, tolerance, virtuosity. While I did struggle to define an Afghan-American identity, that struggle made me a stronger person and more able to serve as a bridge for both cultures.

In the Opium Nation, you depict how the opium trade in Afghanistan can both be beneficial for the economies of certain provinces and local people and destructive for some other people at the same time. If you were about to propose a radical reform of the current drug policy in Afghanistan, where would you place drugs and their use in relation to  their huge significance in people’s lives?

I think the current drug policy is on the right track. Eradication is minimal and the focus is on alternative livelihoods for farmers and other victims. The problem is that traffickers are in charge of the border areas and Afghanistan needs a stable government that is not heavily invested in the drug trade, like the current government. As long as there is an ongoing war, drugs will remain the big business. Alternative employment and security must be considered most important as the drug trade is being tackled.

 In few words, could you comment on the implications of the opium trade in Afghan Society today and compare it with the production of opium before the Soviet Invasion? In what way did the historical conditions throughout the last 30 years change the drug trade?

Afghan opium cultivation before the Soviet invasion was primarily for Iran's consumption. Farmers may have planted 100 tons then. In 2007, the highest output of opium came out of Afghanistan -- 8000 tons. Afghanistan now supplies 90 to 95 percent of the world's demand for opium and heroin. Drugs and war go hand in hand, illegal narcotics breed in lawlessness. The 30 years of war made Afghanistan the ideal place for cultivation and trafficking of drugs. Afghanistan had a negligent addict population but now a million Afghans, including women and children, are suffering from drug addiction. Young girls and boys are being bartered into slavery and prostitution to pay off drug debts. Young men die crossing borders as drug mules, either caught in crossfires between rival smugglers or killed or captured by neighboring countries' law enforcement.

 In the ’Opium Nation’ you convey the strong message that the poor and disadvantaged parts of the Afghan society are mostly affected by the drug trade. What does this imply for the Afghan societal structures and how could the international institutions intervene in order to protect the vulnerable people-including women- in Afghanistan?

Intl community including NGOs are already intervening.  More drug treatment centers are needed, a program to help farmers pay off their debts is needed so that they don't sell off their children, more shelters for girls who are bartered as opium brides are needed. Societal structures, such as the family, are hurting. Fathers are ashamed to sell their daughters to traffickers. Young girls are committing suicide more to escape these forced marriages. Widows are left in charge with no job but their dead husband's drug debt to still pay off.

 Would you say that the expanded drug trafficking in Afghanistan, affecting young women and female children, through the exchange of  young girls for their fathers’ opium debts, is the clear cause of this situation of slavery or simply the symptom of other cultural causes and deeply unequal power relations between the sexes?

I stay away from culture arguments. I believe culture is fluid and changing. That said, certain customs have throughout history subjugated women as property. Girls were traded to settle disputes before but now it's thousands of more girls and the reason for the increase is that drugs are a big business with high risks. The fact that in Mexico, girls are not regularly traded as wives shows a cultural difference. But then again, they are sold as prostitutes in Mexico.

 It is a fact that the War on Drugs clearly targets ethnic minorities and communities of colour in many places across the US. How would you interpret this tendency of the US authorities to humiliate, arrest and mistreat those minorities under the disguise of the War on Drugs?

My research is not US based so I'm not comfortable talking about this issue. Only 10 to 15 percent of Afghan drugs reach US streets.

 In case the Taliban participate in peace negotiations and form part  of the Afghan government in the near future, how would this affect the lives of women and the evolution of the opium trafficking?

They will legalize trafficking and processing of opium as they did before -- if they are left to work unchecked. I don't think that will happen though. I think the international community will stay more engaged this time -- I hope. If the Taliban are as united as they were before, they can actually have a positive impact by enforcing bans and implementing policies without the high level of corruption existent now.  However, that will happen if they have an alternative source of revenue, which at this point is donor aid. There's needs to be an economy outside the drug trade and donor aid money. As for women, it will be dismal. They may get security overall but they will suffer individually. Urban women will be imprisoned in their homes again.

 In ‘the Opium Nation’ the story of Darya is really shocking. The whole concept of ‘opium brides’ undoubtedly reflects an oppressive and cruel patriarchal society. However, in the book’s prologue, you mention that many girls like Darya, can be really powerful and are not ‘voiceless victims’, despite the fact that they do not claim their individual rights, a term developed and used in the West. Could you expand a bit more on the power that those women can show without ‘borrowing’ any kind of western terms? And finally, in this context of violence and abuse, would you ever defend a certain kind of cross-cultural, universal values?

I just wrote an op-ed on this issue and will send you the link when it is published. I see self-immolation as a form of protest, a refusal to be told what to do. Western values go against this concept and so do Islamic values, but Afghan women do this in desperation and many don't realize they will die. They do it to protest, thinking they might survive. Only 20 percent who burn themselves do end up living. Women seek refuge in safe houses more now. They are reporting violence more in the last 10 years. They are influenced by the booming media in Afghanistan which is raising awareness about their rights.