Debating affirmative action overseas

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Afghan and American students came together through Skype on the morning of Feb. 6 in a unique international debate. Competitors tackled the question of whether or not the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan ought to adopt affirmative action policies similar to the United States’ in order to help promote gender equality in Afghanistan.

Two teams represented the government side, which argued that affirmative action ought to be implemented, and another two took on the opposing side, standing against the measure. Both the opposing and government sides touched on the cultural issues of Afghanistan’s position existing in a male-dominated society and families not allowing women in the family to attend schools.

Sadia Syed of the opening government side referred to numerous issues women face in obtaining equality, stating that 55 percent of Afghan women are not allowed by their families to go to school and that the literacy rate for women in Afghanistan is the lowest in the world. Her teammate, Abdul Khaliq Sherzai, also argued that affirmative action would be helpful in empowering women and motivating their families to allow them an education by developing more schools in rural areas and providing separate schools for women. In this way, issues of coeducation and distance to schools can be minimized.

“The problem in Afghanistan is not the problem of motivation,” Mohammad Dawood Safi responded. “Women are already motivated. But their families are not allowing them to go to the jobs, to go to the schools or to attend the universities, so the affirmative action policies are not really doing anything to motivate the families. The problem in Afghanistan is the problem of a 5,000-years-old culture, which cannot be solved by the affirmative action policies.”

His teammate, Abdul Wahab Qurishi, argued that affirmative action was itself a discriminatory policy, which his side stood against.

“[Our side] stands for equality, stands for a world which gives the rights of people based on their individual competence…[and] based on their personal abilities, not based on their gender, sex or any kind of preferential selections,” Qurishi said.

The closing government side disputed the claim that affirmative action is itself discriminatory.

“Affirmative action is an equalizer, it’s not a discriminatory policy,” Paulina Menichiello, a member of the second government team, countered. “The principle of equality sometimes requires that states partake in affirmative action in order to diminish or eliminate conditions of discrimination. It doesn’t give minorities just the option to be successful but the means to be successful.”

The opening opposition agreed with the intentions of affirmative action, but disagreed with its effectiveness.

“The goal of affirmative action is to help the historically marginalized, but the way it was set up, through quotas and preferences, it ignores the real issues today,” Jonathan Giebfried of the opening opposing team said.  “Socio-economic status is not taken into account.”

As an example he made the point that President Obama’s daughters don’t need a helping hand to have access to better opportunities in life.

He argued that fixing fundamental issues in education has proved more effective than affirmative action policies historically.

In the discussion sessions that followed the competition, participants on both sides of the debate stated that the experience was unique and positive.

“What you just witnessed is not an ordinary event. What happened in the past hour or so is extraordinary by any standards,” Shoaib Rahim, a debate coach at American University of Afghanistan and adjudicator for the competition from Kabul, said after the competition. “A thing as simple as debate and exchanging ideas can be very powerful and meaningful to a society, which unfortunately has not had the exposure it needs to.”