Swapna Kona Nayudu
Job Title: Scholar of Peace Academic Fellow, Women in Security and Conflict Management Practices (WISCOMP), New Delhi, India.
Field of Work: Kabul, Afghanistan.
Dates: March, 2008.
In 2008, I was awarded the Scholar of Peace academic fellowship by WISCOMP. The project was to study the representation of gender in the lower house of the Afghan National Parliament (the Wolesi Jirga). At the end of one year, I had written a monograph discussing my findings and had called it The Veiled Wolesi. The monograph achieved a good deal of circulation, and I was content to have made a dent on thinking on these issues, especially given how Afghanistan and its women were perceived in academia and in media. Some of my research dealt with myth-bashing (at the time, Afghanistan had the highest number of women Members of Parliament in the world, even more than Scandinavia) and some of my research dealt with particular and localised understandings of gender in the region (the levels of political articulation amongst women Members of Parliament was unexpectedly high). This is the context within which I worked for that one year. I had never done any work on gender previously, but had worked extensively on Afghanistan. I had never done any fieldwork before, but had worked with pre-gathered data. This project was, thus, a personal and a professional journey on many accounts.
The most interesting aspect of it was that this was the first time I was working entirely on my own, with no organisational restrictions, or support. In that sense, I was the leader of my project, but I was also its sole follower. I was taking instructions from no one, but had to make decisions constantly, on every level of operation. Some of these decisions were rather lofty, like when I decided to do my fieldwork without any security arrangements (budget constraints). Other decisions were more quotidian (like deciding to eat along side my driver in the “family” section of Afghan restaurants). But all of them were to be taken by me, as it was impossible to consult with people on-the-go.
This experience was very helpful for me to understand leadership as a process essentially based on mutual accommodation. At the time, I was 25 years old and had very limited experience of leadership as anything but a chain of command. By being both the leader, as well as the person following the leader’s decisions, I was made more aware of the weight that decision-making carries. When I was invited to interview a woman Member of Parliament who was underground in Kandahar, I had to consider the offer, the possibly grave consequences for my personal safety, the budgetary allocations, the logistics and how the interview would influence the shape of the project – all within an hour’s time. This sort of immense pressure opened me up to the idea that leadership roles are not always enviable positions and that they deal too often in decision-making based on hypothetical situations, perhaps with some degree of statistical support or polling, but mostly on the instinct of the leader. It is a useful lesson to keep in mind, even in less militarised contexts. It helps me view others’ leadership in a wider context now, and to consider the balance of probability they are dealing with. It has helped me understand that being a team player is not just about being actively engaged in furthering the goals of the team; sometimes, it means taking a step back, engaging in passivity, and using that time to ideate and recompose. Very often, a good leader sends you back to the bench so you might play stronger when you return. When we work solo on projects, it might be a good idea to do that to ourselves too.