September 17th, 2013
10:31 AM ET

'Americans should try to understand what it’s like being in path of U.S. power'

By Gabrielle Chefitz, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Former GPS intern Gabrielle Chefitz speaks with Rafia Zakaria, a columnist for DAWN Pakistan and author of the upcoming ‘The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan’, about the challenges facing Pakistani women, and what life is like in the country. Rafia is not related to Fareed Zakaria.

What is the role of the journalist today? How do you paint a realistic picture of life in Pakistan?

It’s not an easy task, but I think we must be devoted to exploring the ambiguities that exist in all of these societies, and very intentionally looking at stories that question this clash of civilizations idea, these dualisms of Pakistan as backwards and barbaric and the United States as progressive. Rationally, we all know they are generalizations. But at the same time, these generalizations appear again and again in the writing on both sides. So that’s what I see as the role of the author in today’s media environment. Someone that has the responsibility to explore ambiguities.

Some of this is being aware of where, as a journalist, we speak from. Whether we like it or not, the context we speak from informs what we write about. For American authors and journalists I think it’s very difficult to imagine being in a small country in south Asia as opposed to being in New York city, or DC. And I think part of that is to balance in journalistic writing with an aspect of empathy and emotional understanding of the consequences of policy decisions. All the consequences of war, the consequences of intervention – they affect millions of private lives. And that’s a narrative that has to be present.

One example of ‘consequences’ could be the demise of the Lady Health Care Worker Program. Can you explain what this program does?

The lady health worker program is a program that takes women who have a high school education and trains them in basic health care provisions. And these were taken from the community in which they were going to work. So they took them, trained them, and went door to door. And because they were women, they have access to the private spaces in Pakistani households. This was an incredibly successful program. It was taking girls from the communities, training them, giving them an income and enabling basic health care for millions of Pakistani women. They were instrumental as a grassroots healthcare system.

And when the CIA was collecting data on Osama Bin Laden, one of the fronts they used was this program. They set up a fake office that had a doctor and a lady health care worker. That lady health care worker was [supposed to get DNA from one of the family] to confirm his identity.

What was the impact of this within Pakistan?

Now the lady health worker program has essentially become pinned entirely as a CIA project. I went to Pakistan immediately after the raid and there were educated people in urban areas that were refusing access to lady health care workers as well as vaccinations for their children because they were convinced that the program had somehow been tampered with. The long term effect of this is that the Taliban and other extremist groups have made the lady health worker program a target. I think we’ve had over 20 kills, and of course that has created an extreme deterrent to joining this program. In the rural areas, people aren’t allowing the lady health workers into their homes. So using that lie, in the Pakistani context, has essentially destroyed the credibility and legitimacy of this grassroots health care system that was working really well.

This was a program that was trying to do its best with whatever funding it had. They don't have the resources. And they’ve tried to do strikes and sit-ins. The leaders of the program have tried to draw attention, but ultimately you’re talking about a context that’s ridden with conflict and where the resources are few. Women’s healthcare is just not a number one priority. So no one is really interested.

You’ve also talked about lack of acknowledgement in popular culture.

Everyone saw Zero Dark Thirty. The movie does a sort of slick job of painting an American woman as the heroine of the whole story, which is appealing on feminist terms to a lot of women. But at the same time, it essentially erases everyone who was not American and who was good from that narrative. You see maybe a five second shot of a health worker going into the compound in the movie. But really those health workers were the ones who’ve borne the brunt of what has happened. And of course the further effects are that a lot of poor women are not getting any health care at all because the program has been suspended in so many districts.

Why is this story not better known?

I’ve been trying to write about this ever since the aftermath of the raid on the bin Laden compound. It’s been extremely difficult to find outlets for this because it’s a story that takes away from this black and white heroic narrative that exists about the raid on the compound. Most publications weren’t willing to touch this story. It's a story that says we did this, but there are collateral consequences to this that are very far reaching in Pakistan.

He was the most wanted man in the world, this was a political victory. But this has been a cost that is being paid by the poorest of women in a country that is lacking in resources. So what are the moral dynamics of that choice? Its issues like this that shake up peoples frame from the Pakistani side or the American side.

So how can Americans better understand what is really going on inside Pakistan?

If I could make every single American do something, I would really encourage them to take a moment to understand what it’s like being in the path of American power. The U.S. is the biggest military force in the world. We live in a world which always looks at the question of whether or not there should be an attack, not what it feels like to be under attack. And I think that from an emotional perspective, a moral perspective, it would serve Americans well to consider for a moment what it’s really like to be in the path of that power and have your daily life, and your home and your security and your ordinary joys and sorrows be in the path of this massive military regime that doesn't see you as individuals, doesn’t see the specificity of your history or your culture. I think that it would change a lot of Americans views of the world if they took a moment to do that.

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soundoff (2 Responses)
  1. j. von hettlingen

    The author wrote that since the bin Laden raid in Abbottabad in May 2011, people weren’t allowing the "lady health workers into their homes" in rural areas. What's unclear is that who funded or is still funding this project? It looks as if it could have been a foreign aid, or else the "credibility and legitimacy of this grassroots health care system" wouldn't have been questioned by the locals. Pakistani officials should have done more to enlighten the public by insisting that the "lady health workers" were sincere in their mission.

    September 21, 2013 at 9:33 am | Reply
  2. Connor Beck

    Last paragraph = gold

    October 16, 2013 at 2:43 pm | Reply

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