Present day Afghanistan is a country designed by, for and about men. Last week, I attended a going away dinner for NPR’s Jacki Lyden. In a beautiful garden behind the former Taliban headquarters in Kabul, we sat on pillows listening to a live Afghan band. Actually, the women remained seated while the men danced, pulled one another up to join, laughed and joked together. Only once did foreign women get up to dance for a short time. The men of course exited the floor quickly.
Sitting there, I kind of felt like a fly on a wall participating in a party that I was not really attending. I began to think about the presence of women in Afghanistan – covered up, close mouthed, quietly walking about. I’ve never seen a female driver. (Though I hear legendary stories of one female Afghan driver who rolls in a truck!) There are no female shop owners outside of a small women’s bazaar enclosed by high walls. Even women’s clothing shops are owned and attended by men.
For me, life as a foreign woman who is constantly confused for Hazara (one of the many ethnic groups here) is a double challenge. As a foreigner or khareji, there is the ever present security threat closely followed from the British embassy since an unengaging American one is overly conservative protecting legal behinds. As a woman often mistaken for an Afghan, there is the added risk of having acid thrown at me for not dressing or living within the appropriate Islamic code.
Therefore I do what I can – I plan. Spontaneity does not exist here for women. If Sarah and I want to go to dinner, we must find a man – international of course – in advance to bring us. We push boundaries by walking 30 feet to the food store across the street from our apartment. If the distance is any greater we must walk together in broad daylight and even then, we are subject to all sorts of harassment in Dari which neither of us understands anyway.
If a tree falls and no one hears it, does it matter? In any event, my Dari is good enough only to ask how their health is and to live long, not quite the message I’m hoping to get across to these men.
The issue of finding international men to dine with has gotten significantly easier especially since our initial housing fiasco that has forced us to take harbor with some expats from Internews. While I hold them in high esteem, I’ve often been frustrated by the great divide between the local and international community. Meeting Afghan women, the only viable opportunity, hasn’t been as easy as I thought it would be. However, I’m making good strides in a two steps forward one step back kind of way. So here’s what I’m learning:
(1) Always respect the chadar (head scarf). Foreign women are not expected to wear it, though we are significantly harassed without it. If you do, Afghan women have more respect for you and can be much friendlier. One day at AWN, I was plugging away on some project when we were called for lunch.
In my hunger, I started walking downstairs without my chadar and my arms exposed – practically pornographic in these parts. One of the workers took a book and hit me with it before I made the bottom. She told me to put something on since there were men downstairs. Actually there were only 2 men who work for AWN and they have already seen my arms from when I lived there. Regardless, I did without any problems.
Later, she asked me whether she was right or wrong and reminded me that Afghanistan is a conservative country. I realized that she thought my forgetfulness was challenging her. How could I answer? Yes, you were right to hit me for not abiding by an Afghan dress code. Or, no you were wrong because your dress code is wrong.
I felt that was the only way she’d interpret any answer based on her challenging eyes. So, I said neither. I said it wasn’t a matter of right or wrong since there was nothing wrong with the dress code and as a foreigner, I simply forgot. No challenge, no passive aggressive criticism just plain lazy forgetfulness.
She looked as though she didn’t believe me, closed her eyes half way and said “Ok” and walked away. Since then I have come to my own realization that the women in AWN fight staunchly for women’s political rights but shy away from social rights. They must remain conservative since they are pushing the boundaries of an entire country. They’re security risks are higher than some other NGOs simply because they are women.
(2) Afghan women love to be touched. When I ask someone for something, women are more responsive if I put my hand on their arm. Good morning is always accompanied with a hand on someone’s shoulder. I step forward when introduced to kiss women three times and it diminishes that uncertain confusing space between us.
My awkward attempts to speak Dari are then returned with giggles, laughter and propositions of friendship. I have heard that the men here are the same way with each other. But the genders never touch each other. As a Latin American who basks in the open and unspoken communication between men and women, this is pretty hard to get used to but I respect it, engage in it and thus far, it’s proven very helpful and educational.
Case in point, last week, I was invited to see a dam in Kabul with Sarah and John. There we met an Afghan family who was also trying to find the water’s edge where elaborately decorated motor boats will take you out for about 200 Afghanis (AFG).
While maneuvering through the small hillside, the mother took my hand in hers and surrounded by the giggles of her 3 daughters, we walked altogether. She asked whether I was from Germany and I told her she could come back with me to America. It’s amazing how much you can communicate without speaking one word of each others’ language once the physical barrier of space is removed.
Later I went to dinner with them while Sarah returned for our Dari lesson. We ate chick peas by the roadside on a cliff and I learned that her entire family had moved to Pakistan after she and her son were beaten for not wearing proper Islamic dress. She walked outside without a full burka and he had shaved his beard. This happened one year after the Taliban came to power.
They have since returned and their 2 younger daughters are in 7th grade one hoping to become a doctor and the other to be a journalist. They looked older than the requisite 11 years of age but such is the case for most girls in Afghanistan. Unable to attend school during the Taliban years, it’s common to find girls 5 years older than the age expected for any grade.
Back in the states, I think many people would have given up, but not these women. Every morning on my way to work, I watch numerous groups of girls in black uniforms with white chadars holding hands together while walking to school deftly maneuvering through open sewers, endless piles of trash, unwelcoming men and chaotic traffic operating in anarchy. As hard as it can get here, they keep me grounded every morning.
Posted By Ginny Barahona (Afghanistan)
Posted Jul 8th, 2004