Narratives around what is currently unfolding in Afghanistan continue to centre around a largely accepted idea that Afghans have no one else to blame but themselves. Afghanistan armchair experts blame Afghan soldiers for the swift handover of power, pity the plight of Afghan women who are perceived as helpless and paint Afghan men as savage and barbaric. What these narratives fail to include are the nuances of how foreign interference, including from the U.S., U.K., NATO, Israel, House of Saud and Pakistan, have for decades directly contributed to destabilizing the country.
Foreign governments must be held accountable for enabling the humanitarian crisis that is unfolding now – and what has been happening for the past 20-40 years. Part of keeping foreign governments in check is for their populations to do their part in staying educated and vocal about Afghanistan. As an Afghan woman, I call for the public, particularly in the West, to take responsibility in learning and understanding how colonial history is at the crux of the inevitable abandonment of Afghanistan.
I am the daughter of two Afghans from two different backgrounds, ethnically as well as socially, who were living in Moscow when I was born. They were living in Moscow for a set of reasons, one being the destruction of Afghanistan just 40 years ago, by the same forces that are destroying it now. The U.S.S.R. had just fallen. I then spent the first six years of my life living happily in the new Russian Federation. I even experienced visiting the very first McDonald’s in the U.S.S.R. — a joyous moment in a time where capitalism was seen as a beacon of opportunity, innovation and security.
Eventually, after my parents separated, I moved to the U.S. and quickly learned that everything that was apparently so great about the capitalist West was a facade. My father worked in sustainable farming counter to opium production (wherein he would introduce crops such as angora goats and saffron, which are more lucrative, to the market to counter the poppy trade), returning to Afghanistan right at the start of the American invasion, and what did his helping Afghans get him? Patriot Act-ed. Never allowed to return to the U.S. again, while myself, my mother and our entire family were constantly tailed by the F.B.I./C.I.A., our phones tapped, questioned for hours randomly.
Why would helping our people especially in such a holistic way get my father targeted by the American government? This marked the start of my critical analysis of the U.S., and thus an advocate for my Afghan people and the injustices they have faced at the hands of foreign forces.
All that being said: I am here to tell you, respectfully, that everything you have heard in the West about my homeland is a lie.
Like many other Afghans, I am no stranger to dealing with ignorant, prejudiced people in the West based on my ethnic background. I look Afghan, or at least to them, ‘Other.’ I get asked where I am from, asked about my story, (“oh, you lived in Kabul?! How was that?”) all the time. The amount of mis/disinformation and confusion people regurgitate about Afghanistan is terrifying. Terrifying because it is also a reflection of the failure of Western education and one’s own awareness of how their home country’s government has actively destabilized my family’s homeland, yet have spun propaganda to place the onus only on the Afghan people. It is also linked to the post-colonial, capitalist, white heteropatriarchy lens that the West perpetuates everything.
I share this condensed version of my story as a starting point for the world to start listening more closely to Afghan voices and mobilize with us as allies. So, what can you do to be a better ally to Afghan people not only today but into the future, knowing that foreign interference and falsehoods spouting from the West about Afghanistan will continue?
First, read. In particular, read “US-Imposed Post-9/11 Muslim Holocaust and Muslim Genocide” by Gideon Polya, read “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving” by Lila Abu-Lughod, “Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from Afghanistan War” by Svetlana Alexievich, and “Ghost Wars” by Steve Coll, and familiarise yourself with the outside perspectives of Afghanistan.
Second, humanise Afghans by consuming their arts and culture. Go online and check out darya.net and watch the Afghan film archives, the Afghan serials we have made in the past years, and humanise our people through their own art (I have no commercial affiliation with darya.net – it’s simply a wonderful way to view the type of Afghan media that Afghans themselves consume).
Third, follow Afghan voices on social media to hear Afghan perspectives on the current crisis and what Afghans want for their country’s future. If you don’t know where to start, I encourage readers to check out my Decolonial Therapy – Unpacking Afghanistan’s History series on Instagram (@blingistan), where I have essentially compiled a crash course on everything you need to know about Afghanistan through a decolonised lens. I regularly feature other Afghan voices, including Mina Sharif (@missminakabul), whom you are also encouraged to follow.
Now, more than ever before, Afghans need their allies. If the West does not do its part to listen and support Afghans, not only will the 40 years of Western occupation in Afghanistan be in vain, but Afghan lives will continue to be in danger.
I have many happy memories of celebrating Diwali as a child in suburban Mumbai. Looking back though, I realise that my favourite festival stands on the foundations of patriarchy. At home, all the labour that went into making Diwali special was borne by my mother. She’d wake up early for weeks to clean the house, mop the floors, make the sweets and clean the diyas. In every household, it was always the women who did all the cleaning, cooking, shopping, prepping — so that their families could have the most amazing Diwali.
I’m single, a feminist and the founder of Masala Podcast — tackling those taboo subjects South Asians shy away from. I chose not to follow the traditional Indian path of getting married and having kids. This means that Diwali, with its usual traditions, can be a tough time for me. Because if you don’t meet the quintessential South Asian expectations of having a husband, kids and extended family, it is assumed that you’ll miss out on all the Diwali magic. Who do you burn firecrackers with when you don’t have kids? Who’s going to make all the Diwali sweets when you have a busy career and social life? Who’s going to fight you for the last chakli in the Diwali tin if you’re not that connected with your siblings?
Obviously, this made me a bit sad. So I sat down and thought about all the Diwali traditions I loved and just tweaked them to fit my single, feminist life. If like me, you don’t fit into the mould of a “traditional South Asian woman”, I hope you find my “Feminist Diwali traditions” guide useful.
Show your space some love for Diwali
I was taught as a child, that goddess Laxmi wouldn’t come into a filthy house. But whether you believe this or not, give your space a nice, clean scrub. For me, this literally gets me into a clearer space of mind. Whether you live in a little studio or a large house, I do believe that when you create space in your home (and in your mind!) good things come into that space. So go grab that dustpan!
Light up your world with diyas
The sight of glowing diyas (candles) on a dark night is incredibly beautiful. Make your home as bright and beautiful as you can by lighting as many diyas as you can. I literally have around fifty diyas lighting up every corner of my flat. It makes me feel sort of “lit up” from within. Because we want the power of light over darkness, in every area of our lives. And yes, that includes our work lives as well as our love lives.
Create your own kind of rangoli
Rangoli is traditionally used to decorate homes, usually made of intricate patterns using a variety of powdered colours. No rangoli powder? No problem. Just grab whatever you have at hand — from flower petals to beads to marker pens — and make your own version of a rangoli. If you’re using marker pens, you might want to do your rangoli on a sheet of paper or plastic though. Just have fun creating your own kind of rangoli, be it traditional or alternative.
Give yourself a warm oil bath on Diwali morning
I love this Diwali ritual. I’m a South Indian, so growing up my mother would wake me up bright and early on Diwali mornings and give me an oil massage, gently rubbing warm oil all over my body. Then she’d send me off to have a hot shower or bath. I now try and re-create that sense of love for my body by warming up sesame seed oil (you can choose any oil you like!). I light a few diyas, turn up the heaters and give myself a beautiful oil massage, taking my time to care for every part of my body. It feels nurturing; it feels loving to myself. As a woman in the world today, we need all the self-love we can get.
Dress up to ‘Diwali Dazzle’
I love Indian clothes — the dazzle and the shine of it all. Depending on my mood, I might wear a shimmering sari on Diwali day; I love how sexy saris make me feel, how they “fit” my body in a way other clothes don’t. If I want something easy, I wear a glittering salwar kameez. I also like to mix things up. One of my favourite outfits is a business suit made with Indian brocade fabric and I wear this with a gorgeous bright fuchsia top. So pick whatever suits your Diwali mood. And wear it your way!
The smell of ghee in the air is one of my favourite smells during Diwali. I don’t have the time or the skills to make traditional Diwali sweets. But I live in a cosmopolitan city, so I head to a fabulous Indian sweet shop nearby and stock up on all the Diwali treats. I do however, cook one tasty Diwali meal and invite other women friends to join in. This year, I’m in New York during Diwali. And I’ve literally just invited a few amazing women I met last week. I plan to make a simple yet delicious Diwali lunch for them. I do have to go hunting for ingredients and diyas in New York, and I’m sure that’s not too hard; us desis are everywhere! But I’m excited about sharing my Diwali tradition with a bunch of new women friends in a brand new city.
Give yourself a Diwali gift because you are worth it
Traditionally family and friends visit each other and exchange gifts during Diwali. Now I don’t have a big South Asian network or an extended family, but I still treat myself to that Diwali gift. I buy myself something nice. Something luxurious that I’ve saved up for, something that gives me joy. After all, that Diwali gesture of love and goodwill applies to me as much as to anyone else.
Have a chit chat with goddess Laxmi
I don’t usually go to temples or do religious rituals. However, over the past few years, I’ve found a little murti of goddess Laxmi that I love. So I light lots of lamps in front of her, play music that I connect to from the heart, and then just, you know, chat to her. Prayer is a conversation, after all. Goddess Laxmi and I, we usually have a good old chat on Diwali mornings. I might tell her about technical problems with my podcast or moan about relationship issues. She is a great listener. This Diwali, I might even ask her for that holy grail — happiness. Or a gorgeous silk negligee if I’m feeling sexy!
Make this Diwali your own kind of Diwali
Through my podcast, and my feminist platform Soul Sutras, I’ve spent the last five years asking South Asian women to challenge patriarchal systems within our culture. As well as inspiring them to own the most beautiful parts of our culture. Whether that’s our ancient erotic arts like the “Kamasutra” or “Tantra”, or our beautiful festivals like Diwali.
Sustainable development practices can be utilized as a model for addressing gender inequities worldwide. Empowering women with the resources to gain opportunities, learn skills and collaborate in a safe and welcoming environment is crucial to women’s growth and development as individuals.
After witnessing the first-hand effects of gender-based violence growing up in Guyana, Menakshi Babulall founded the Canadian nonprofit A Different View Project (ADVP) to promote and implement sustainable development methods across Guyanese communities. Vaksana, which means “nourishing/refreshing” in Sanskrit, is a branch of ADVP exclusively aimed at developing Guyana’s first eco-friendly women’s retreat center. The retreat will offer wellness activities, training services, regenerative farming and community outreach programs.
Babulall was inspired by Guyana’s rich rugged beauty as a child. Her dual passion for preserving the environment and aiding underserved communities contributed to her studying International Development at Toronto’s York University before launching a public service career. This eventually led her focus back to Guyana. Babulall talks to BG about her journey as the founder of ADVP, the progress of Vaksana and her perspective on sustainable and ethical charity work.
How and when did you create ADVP?
“ADVP was founded in 2016 with the vision of empowering communities and fostering sustainable development. The idea stemmed from my desire to create an organization that could address pressing social and environmental issues through innovative and collaborative approaches. One thing that fills me with immense pride is ADVP’s unique ability to bring together diverse stakeholders, including those from the diaspora, to create impactful projects that make a tangible difference in people’s lives while also providing them with an opportunity to connect with their homeland.”
ADVP has worked on projects within Guyana’s fertile Pomeroon-Supenaam region, a vast expanse of hills and villages that dot the Essequibo Coast. Past projectsinclude building a centralized outdoor recreation space for families and facilitating peer tutoring groups for children affected by COVID-related school closures. They also engage with the children of Queenstown Village through storytelling and interactive activities to nurture their passion for the environment. Overall, the focus of ADVP’s projects is geared toward education and sustainability while developing meaningful and positive relationships with the local community.
Babulall’s remigration to Guyana during the pandemic to oversee Vaksana was a humbling experience. Living in rural Guyana allowed her to witness the benefits that wellness and eco-tourism can bring to a community, but also highlighted entrenched socio-economic struggles. It heightened her senses of resilience, adaptability and empathy; all key facets she believed essential to an effective leader. She soon realized the importance of cementing Vaksana as a catalyst for positive change in the region, particularly as a safe haven for women and gender non-conforming individuals who may face discrimination.
“The idea of Vaksana was born out of extensive research and a deep-rooted passion for creating a transformative space that combines wellness, eco-tourism and community development. The journey began with a vision to create a place where individuals could experience holistic well-being, connect with nature and promote sustainable living.
Vaksana’s foundation is built on three essential elements: tourism, community outreach and regenerative farming/agriculture. These elements were thoughtfully chosen to ensure a holistic approach to personal growth, community empowerment and environmental stewardship. By integrating these pillars, Vaksana becomes a powerful force for positive impact, both within the retreat center and the wider community.”
Vaksana is an ode to Babulall’s Indian heritage that was originally displaced and irrevocably transformed upon arrival to the Caribbean. Like its namesake, individuals have the opportunity to reclaim and reinvigorate themselves. Future plans for Vaksana include a kitchen/restaurant alongside sustainable farming, a workshop/training facility and a multipurpose room offering wellness classes such as meditation and yoga in consultation with a behavioral psychologist and holistic therapist. Collaborations with local businesses and partnership with the University of Guyana ensures that Guyanese citizens are actively involved in every aspect of the project, providing employment opportunities and allowing them to take on leadership roles.
What is the current progress of Vaksana, and where do you hope to see the project in one year?
“As of now, Vaksana is in an exciting phase of planning and development. We have made significant strides in securing the land and are eagerly awaiting the approval of the lease for our carefully chosen site. Our dedicated team is diligently working on the architectural design and construction plans to bring our vision to life.
In one year, we envision Vaksana having completed its initial construction phase, with the retreat center standing proudly amidst the natural beauty of Guyana. We anticipate being fully prepared to open our doors and welcome our first guests to experience the transformative journey that Vaksana offers.”
Babulall believes in transparency regarding the difficulties faced with running a non-governmental organization. She has overcome several obstacles such as limited resources and bureaucratic hurdles by seeking collaborations, leveraging available resources and engaging in open dialogue with members of the community.
When asked about the misconceptions of running an NGO, she replied, “Many NGOs actually strive for financial independence by implementing income-generating initiatives and fostering partnerships that create long-term sustainability. Another misconception is that NGOs are not as efficient or effective as for-profit organizations. In reality, NGOs often have lower administrative costs and are driven by a strong sense of purpose and commitment.”
She also disagreed with the belief that NGOs only focus on aid/handouts and says, “Many NGOs prioritize community-driven development approaches, working with local stakeholders to identify their needs/strengths and supporting capacity-building initiatives that enable communities to thrive independently.”
By debunking these perceptions, NGOs such as ADVP can continue to attract like-minded individuals to participate in the diverse work they undertake to address social challenges and advance a more equitable future.
How would you suggest those get involved in ethical public sector/charity work?
“I would recommend starting by identifying your passions and areas of interest. Research and connect with organizations that align with your values and goals. Volunteer your time, skills or resources to make a tangible impact. Stay informed about social and environmental issues and advocate for positive change. Collaboration and learning from others in the field are also crucial for personal and professional growth.”
What is your ultimate goal and future plans for ADVP and Vaksana?
“My ultimate goal is to continue building ADVP as a leading organization in sustainable community development, promoting social and environmental justice. With Vaksana, we aim to establish a renowned wellness and eco-retreat center that serves as a model for sustainable tourism, community empowerment and holistic well-being. We envision expanding our impact, fostering collaborations and creating positive change at both local and global levels.”
Guyana’s raw and authentic lifestyle has left a profound impact on Babullal as an individual and a leader. While embarking on the Vaksana project has not been without roadblocks, she is grateful to have gained the strength to confront difficult realities head-on in hopes of creating a safe place for individuals to learn and flourish. She has found contentment in the beauty of Guyana’s lush surroundings and hopes that others find its premise rejuvenating and inspirational.
To learn more about ADVP visit their website here or follow them on Instagram.
To donate to the Vaksana project, visit their GoFundMe page.
Featured Image: Menakshi Babulall | Photo Courtesy of Menakshi Babulall