Geography prof.'s research takes her to Afghanistan

by Ana Bowens | 4/16/09 2:25am

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Professor Jennifer Fluri
by Sarah Irving and Sarah Irving / The Dartmouth

"It is an Afghan tradition to have sweets and tea ready for company," Fluri said, explaining that she often benefited from such hospitality during the time she spent doing research in Afghanistan.

Fluri began studying Afghanistan as a graduate student, and has continued to do so as a professor at Dartmouth.

Fluri, who came to the College in 2005 and is also a member of the women and gender studies faculty, said she can connect the subjects she teaches, which include classes like "Women, Gender and Development" and "Gender, Space and Islam," with her research, which addresses gender roles in Afghanistan and the effectiveness of international development organizations.

"I began wanting to see how groups and organizations were using education as a form of political resistance -- specifically the Taliban," Fluri said. "The Taliban refused education to all women."

Fluri's earlier work as a Ph.D student examined the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, a local, "independent political/social organization of Afghan women fighting for human rights and for social justice in Afghanistan" that began in 1977 and operated covertly under the Taliban's rule, according to the group's web site. The organization does not rely on foreign aid.

"I wanted to research how RAWA operated spatially," Fluri said. "Not only where they were physically located and where they operated from, but how issues of space and gender interplayed in their daily operation. They were one of the organizations running secret schools, acting essentially as an underground organization in many ways."

Writing her dissertation on the RAWA inspired her current research on the effectiveness and influence of foreign development organizations in Afghanistan, Fluri said.

"I am also looking at how more indigenous, Afghan-led development organizations differ in impact and approach in comparison to international development or aid organizations," Fluri said. "I talked to many workers that worked for the internationally funded development organizations."

Fluri said she has found that change must sometimes come from an indigenous organization rather than from an organization that acts internationally and receives foreign aid, particularly when the change involves women's rights in Afghanistan.

"RAWA believes that an increase in women's rights cannot be from a foreign power because then it would be a foreign idea and it would not keep," Fluri said. "Many countries that sent their aid organizations here have their own national interests and geopolitics at heart."

Fluri's fieldwork in Afghanistan has allowed her to speak with people involved in the international aid process, whose points of view, she said, have been under-represented in other similar studies of the region.

"It is interesting because no one really stopped to talk to the workers themselves and see how they perceived the work they were doing," Fluri said. "I interviewed aid and development workers from the U.S., Canada, Australia, white workers from South Africa, India, Pakistan, Germany, France -- they were very often critical of the aid process. They said there seemed to be a split in what the policy reports said they were doing, and what was actually getting done and where the money was realistically going."

Fluri said she has also found that many communities resist the efforts of foreign aid organizations because the organizations are ignorant of local cultural issues, including gender roles.

"Many organizations that come in and try to employ a general change do not understand what a delicate issue gender relations is," she said. "Gender relations mostly operate on a household level. Any attempts to change that have been met by much resistance because it seems like an attack on the country's autonomy."

One of Fluri's research assistants, Karima Akbary, is a year-long exchange student from Afghanistan. She has been taking classes at Dartmouth this year after attending Kabul University for two years.

Akbary said she has personally experienced this disconnect between aid organizations and Afghani citizens.

"They should ask the people and know the background of the area before they try to help," Akbary said. "They should not just do what they believe should happen, they should create more communication with the people."

Akbary said she has been frustrated since coming to the United States because she believes many Americans have a skewed perception of the situation in Afghanistan.

"People listen to the media too much, and the media is not focusing on the people of Afghanistan," she said. "People need to find real resources and decide for themselves what is going on, not listen to the media's idea of what is going on."

Akbary said she plans to return to Afghanistan to obtain her degree at Kabul University this summer.

Fluri said she hopes to inspire Dartmouth students to think about research's potential impact on individuals.

"It is important for us to step back and think of where we are in turning out our production of knowledge," she said. "How can we make a difference and make a radical shift in our thinking?"

Fluri graduated in 2005 from Pennsylvania State University, where she got her masters in geography and a Ph.D in geography and women's studies. She received her undergraduate degree in fine art and sculpture from Rosemont College in Pennsylvania in 1991.