Being a foreign woman in Afghanistan is a unique experience. It presents a unique learning curve, operating within the parameters of a country where women are not equals. As a member of the female gender, I fall underneath certain ‘rules’.
The most visual rule is the headscarf. Looking around Kabul you see women wearing a variety of styles and colors. Large scarfs thrown over the head and shoulders in simple black or bright patterns, tight white hijabs, thin scarfs tied under the chin, and the bluebird colored burqa. On the first day three things became painfully clear. First, I could say goodbye to my peripheral vision. Second, it is ALWAYS slipping, and it becomes an exercise in repetition, tugging the scarf as it tries to escape down the back of my head. Thirdly it does nothing to help me blend in. My height and blond hair sneaking out around my face ensure that I attract a crowd.
Since the Taliban were kicked out, women’s rights have come back to the forefront and women hold positions of power in politics, military, and business. There are many female parliamentary members, I know of at least one military commander, and of course the well respected governor of Bamiyan, Habiba Sorabi. At the same time, there are women still wearing burqa and riding at the back of the bus. There’s an extremely wide range of acceptance and equality. Women in Afghanistan are often segregated, in schools where boys and girls are taught together, boys are on one side of the room, girls on the other. Traditionally women do not shake men’s hands in greeting, instead they simply place their right hand on their heart.
I arrived knowing some of these female pre-conditions, only to find that I am treated much differently as a foreign female. Men shake my hand, eat and drink with me, and speak to me as an equal. As a female, I am able to go into female-only areas where men are not allowed, yet can also mingle with the men where Afghan women do not. I am a hybrid of sorts, a third gender. Neither male, nor ‘only’ female.
There is the occasion where a man won’t talk to me, or instead of offering his hand he places it grudgingly above his heart. But that occasion is rare. I am greeted and treated as an equal, particularly as the majority of men I’m meeting with are educated and proponents of women’s rights. Men are happy to show me around construction sites like the one in Murad Khane, or even talk politics with me. We may discuss the importance of girls education, and often they may be the men creating and running those projects. Yet these same men serve me tea from their kitchen and do not introduce me to their wife, unseen in the kitchen or another part of the house, as though invisible.
Its exciting to play on both sides of the fence, but frustrating to know the same rules don’t apply to my Afghan sisters.