Mountain to Mountain – A Memoir Launches

Holy shit I wrote a book!

That’s the phrase running through my head as I saw my book listed on Amazon, IndieBound, and Barnes and Noble websites yesterday.  Available for pre-order.  Releases September 16.

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The book hits bookstores nationwide with St. Martin’s Press in one month, but my publisher sent me the link yesterday that the pre sales had started and a sneak peek of Chapter One was available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.  After two years of writing, editing, and working through the final publishing process with my editor at St. Martin’s Press, there is a book and soon it will be in hand of family and friends, colleagues and strangers.  Its a strange feeling.

Made more so by the fact that this is a deeply personal memoir.  This is not a story about my work, or Afghanistan’s history, its a story about my call to activism, my journey as a survivor of gender violence, and the other side of Afghanistan and it’s people beyond the war most Americans see on the news.   It’s road trips and prisons, motorcycles and mountain bikes, kindness and terror, adventure and activism.

Amazed to have the vocal support and blurb for the book cover by  New York Times bestselling author and perhaps the most famous Afghan in America, Khalid Hosseini, author of the Kite Runner and The Mountains Echoed.

“Shannon Galpin’s lovely cycling saga is an inspiring and illuminating window into the lives of modern day Afghan women and their continuing struggle to ride their own path to freedom, recognition, and equality.”

Washington Post Journalist, Anand Gopal who authored No Good Men Among the Living generously took time to read the book and wrote:

“Mountain to Mountain reads like one of Shannon Galpin’s bike rides, fast-paced and unpredictable. It traces her intimate journey as a survivor and her travels across a rugged terrain, in the process bringing alive a vital and poignant message: Equality for Afghan women means more than just voting rights or access to parliament—it means having the same basic freedoms as men.”

Then last night, I was sent a shot of Bicycling Magazine’s latest issue, which starts hitting mailboxes and newsstands this week , and this review is inside!  Its real.  Its out there.  Holy shit.

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Even bigger, the support from the legendary multiple world champion cyclist, Marianne Vos – who sent me her blurb for the book two days before she won La Course at Le Tour in Paris.  Making history on the final day of the Le Tour de France.

“Read this touching story from Shannon Galpin, who utilizes her unique position as a western woman to immerse herself in Afghan culture. She had the courage to leave everything behind and use the bike to as a tool to lead a physical and political movement – a way towards freedom for the women of Afghanistan.”

4 time World Ironman Champion, and one of the women behind the push to get La Course at Le Tour this year, Chrissie Wellington wrote:

Mountain to Mountain is nothing short of phenomenal. This captivating, inspiring, and heart-warming memoir shows us all that, with unbounded and unwavering passion, determination and courage, change can happen and mountains can be moved, one pedal stroke at a time. Shannon Galpin, and the women of Afghanistan, I salute you and your illimitable strength.

Holy shit indeed.  Yeah, I’m getting all the swears out now, because my editor edited most of my swears out of the memoir!   Having the support of these amazing men and women makes it a little less daunting to have my very personal life become very public.

Book tour starts in New York City on September 16th and here’s the tour list – I hope to see many familiar faces there!!

New York – TBA September 16-20

Frisco, CO – Next Page Bookstore – September 27

Portland, OR – Powell’s – October 3

Denver, CO – Tattered Cover – October 6

Boulder, CO – Boulder Bookstore – October 8

Chicago, IL – TBA – October 15

Los Angeles – TBA – October 18

Austin, TX – Austin Book Festival – October 25

Edwards, CO – Bookworm – October 29

Moab, UT – Back of Beyond – November 1

Durango, CO – Maria’s Bookstore – November 13

 

Bike Culture in Afghanistan – 2 Wheeled Culture Revolution

Everywhere you look you see men and boys on bikes, in the mountains, in villages, and in city centers like Kabul.  But never women. For the past four years, I’ve been riding my bike in Afghanistan every chance I get.  When a local offers up his bike, complete with pinwheel and three horns, I don’t hesitate.  Ever.

It was October 2009 when I first put two wheels to dirt in the mountains of the Panjshir Valley, no big deal if you live in Colorado, but a first for any women in Afghanistan.

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Fear Doesn’t Live Here

I am sitting at my kitchen table, my front door and windows wide open to let in the fresh mountain air, enjoying a cup of coffee and conversation with my best friend, Christiane, on the other side of the country, when the topic of fear came up.  “You should write about Fear, you have experienced it so deeply, and live daily with it nipping at your heels.”  I laughed wryly, “Yeah, Fear is definitely camped outside my door waiting for an invite to come on in.”

Pausing to think if Fear is rabbithole I really wanted to dive into today, two dogs burst into my kitchen.  Neither one of them belong to me and as I chase them out Christiane hears me shout, “Get out!  Out!  This is not your home, you don’t belong in here!” 

“Hmmm”, she smiles, “It’s as if they arrived on cue to spark that response!  Those words could easily apply to Fear as much as to the those dogs.”  A cosmic sign?  Or just two overly curious and cheeky canines looking for some free food?

To me, Fear is the summation of all the undefineable things that throw up resistance to change, roadblocks to experience, and an inability to love unconditionally.  Not a fan of roadblocks of any kind, Fear is not a companion I am willing to share my time, or my coffee, with.  I have experienced it keenly as rape victim – brutal violence and violation that left me in a broken heap in the dirt.  I endure its nearby presence daily as the founder of an international non profit that hasn’t yet turned the corner financially, and as a single mother that risked everything to fight for women’s rights in conflict zones like Afghanistan and at times has to choose between groceries and phone bill.  I know how closely Fear is shadowing me. 

The trick is to recognize Fear, to say hello as you would to the paranoid Tea Party supporter you see at the coffee shop every day, but to not make friends with it.   If you simply try to ignore it, it tries to engage you in conversation, sucking you into the abyss.  But acknowledging it sets boundaries.  “Hi, I see ya, but I’m too busy to chat today.”  Move along.  I’ve got things to do.

It’s the same on a mountain bike.  I have donated my fair share of blood and skin to the Gods of Dirt and Rock along with a cracked rib and broken elbow.  One in particularly pricey donation came while bombing down the backside of Hall Ranch chasing a much faster, and experienced, friend.  I washed out on a slab of rock covered in a veil of loose dirt and ripped the better part of my forearm and elbow off.   I spent the rest of the evening trying to figure out what was me and was rock, and I know that by continuing to ride donations like this are part of the contract.   Fear whispers, “Slow down, use your brakes.  Dismount before the rock garden.  Don’t try to lift your wheel over that ledge, you’ll get hurt again!” But what Fear doesn’t realize is getting hurt is part of the game.  No one is invincible, we’re not built that way.  Life is meant to PLAY!

The therapy I get from two wheels, one gear, and miles of singletrack, overwhelmingly outweighs the risks.  The combination of a clear head, burned out quads, and dirt in my teeth is far exceeds the occasional bodily appeasement to the deities.   

The irony is that by conquering Fear on my bike, I keep the daily Fear of life at bay, much like the old song, by Little Richard, “I hear you knocking but you can’t come in”, I call out. The little victories on the bike translate into confidence and courage and than equals bigger victories off the bike.  Choosing to get back on the bike knowing it may draw blood is a choice, and one I make willingly, even happily knowing that 95% of the time I’ll come off my bike, sore and dirty, but also gloriously happy.

I embrace the risks I’ve taken, without them I wouldn’t have ridden my singlespeed across the Panjshir Valley in Afghanistan.  I probably wouldn’t have started mountain biking in the first place.  I wouldn’t have lived abroad for ten years.  I wouldn’t have started a business, or a non profit.  I wouldn’t have entered the fight for women’s rights.  I wouldn’t vacation in war zones.   I wouldn’t have fallen in love.  Twice.  I wouldn’t have lived abroad for ten years.  Hell, I wouldn’t have even become a mother, by far the scariest thing I’ve done to date, as anyone that has stared down a three-year-old’s tantrum can attest to. 

Sorry, Fear, but you have to stay outside with the dogs. 

Miniskirt or Hijab? The Clothing isn’t to Blame.

It’s not about the clothes.

Following a spate of unsolved sexual assaults in Brooklyn, New York City Police are asking women to show a little less skin.

According to a Wall Street Journal article, an officer explained to women on the street that such clothing could make the suspect think he had ‘easy access.’  You’re exactly the kind of girl this guy is targeting.”   Apparently the reason the officer felt compelled to spell it out so bluntly is that the previous victims were often wearing skirts at the time of their attack.

One woman’s online comment to the article hit the nail on the head, “This is why several handicapped women in diapers at nursing facility were raped recently.”

What a woman wears is not the issue.  Sure, you could argue that miniskirts, stilettos, and midriff baring tank tops are provocative.   Does that mean women are ‘asking for it’?  Is it right to focus on the clothing when attention should be focused on advocacy and education?  Blaming the victims is getting old, as the international success of SlutWalks is proving.

While, I’m not personally a fan of using the word slut as part of a national movement to fight for women’s rights, I understand the desire to take possession of the word and throw it back in the face of those that dare call a women slut or whore because of who she is dressed.  And the controversial word in a marketing sense, has created a global movement.  Elizabeth Webb, the organizer of SlutWalk Dallas said it best,  “If someone breaks into a house, do you blame the owner for having a house that looks appetizing?”  Indeed, a crime should be blamed on the criminal, not the victim.

And let’s face it.  If simply covering up would solve the problem, countries like Afghanistan should be one of the safest countries in the world to be a woman.  Yet in a country where women are often shielded from prying eyes so completely that you can’t even pick one woman out from another in a line up, rape is just as prevalent as in countries where women flash their breasts at college frat parties to get on the latest “Girls Gone Wild” video.   The land of headscarves, hijabs, and burqas, Afghanistan is repeatedly ranked as the number one worst place in the world to be a woman.  The worst.  In the world.   In Afghanistan, many rape victims are in jail under morality codes, while their attackers walk free without even disapproving look.  If the victims live in a rural community away from an urban center, ie. the majority of Afghanistan, then its more likely that the family or community leaders will ‘take care’ of the problem themselves, which doesn’t mean a lecture on covering up or jail time.

Now granted, there is an enormous distinction in how the victims are blamed in a country like Afghanistan, but it doesn’t negate the fact that the victims are still blamed here in the West.  In New York, the police ask women to show a little less skin.  In Toronto, a policeman stated to legal students, “I’m not supposed to say this, but to prevent being sexually assaulted?  Avoid dressing like sluts.”

In other cases women are made to defend themselves in court against their attacker having their previous sexual history trotted out as though its proof that she was complicit in the attack in some way.   Questioning even if they could have been actually raped wearing jeans, implying it must have been consensual due the logistics of access.  Women must defend their actions of owning vibrators, or getting drunk, or being sexually promiscuous instead of the attention landing squarely at the foot of the attacker.

Male rape occurs as well worldwide, it’s much less reported, but common in countries like Afghanistan with their ‘dancing boys’, and as a weapon of war in countries like Congo. It is no less horrific or humiliating, but not once have I ever seen or heard comments about how the man was dressed, his sexual proclivities, or how often he masturbates.  Men are not asked to cover themselves up to be less tempting.

The time has come to stop the gross inequity between how men and women are perceived sexually.  Men in Afghanistan should be lectured to ‘look away’ if they feel tempted by a women’s beauty, not force the women remove his temptation by hiding under a burqa.  This implies that sexual assault is about sex, temptation, and desire.  More often its about power and control.

Stop blaming the sweet little corvette for being to tempting to carjackers and start arresting the carjackers.

What’s Blonde Got to Do With It?

According to Gateway Pundit, Jim Hoft, “Lara Logan is lucky she’s alive. Her liberal belief system almost got her killed on Friday. This talented reporter will never be the same.”

I almost spilled my coffee when I read this on Media Matters this morning. Thinking it must be a mistake, I read on:

Why did this attractive blonde female reporter wander into Tahrir Square last Friday? Why would she think this was a good idea? Did she not see the violence in the square the last three weeks? Did she not see the rock throwing? Did she miss the camels? What was she thinking?

Well, Jim, here’s a newsflash: this is sexist BS, pure and simple. Lara Logan didn’t wander. She wasn’t in Tahrir Square because she took a wrong turn. She knew exactly where she was and why. Lara Logan was in the square on purpose, covering the revolution in Egypt because IT’S HER JOB. What in the world does attractive and blonde have to do with it? Are you suggesting that she was inviting rape because she is an attractive blonde? Did anyone suggest that Anderson Cooper was attacked repeatedly in Cairo because he is handsome or that Google executive, Wael Ghonim, was kidnapped because he is young and “cute”?

I am tall, blonde and the hardworking founder of Mountain2Mountain, a nonprofit organization working to advance gender equity in Afghanistan and create opportunity for woman and girls. Some may say that I am attractive.

I read most of the online commentary and media coverage about my work in Afghanistan and the comment “tall and blonde” is a frequent lead to stories about me. I get it. I’m tall and blonde, and I stand out in Afghanistan. Does this make me, or Lara Logan, ineffective at what we do? Does it mean we shouldn’t go about our work because of how we look? Judge us on the work we do, not on what we look like.

Even more despicable is your use of a woman’s attractiveness as an excuse for sexual assault. My own rape and assault was a long time ago, very few people knew about it, and I wasn’t a public figure like Lara. Luckily for me, years later, when I did talk about it publicly, it was not front-page news. You should not castigate Lara Logan because she’s an “attractive blonde female reporter.” She is a reporter who, while heroically covering one of the most important events of the decade, was the victim of a terrible crime. Period.

The other thing that disturbs me about the coverage is pinning the attack on culture. The Daily Beast articlestates: “Logan faced an ugly side of Egypt that Egyptian and foreign women here are all too familiar–and fed up–with.” I can only imagine how the Fox News coverage will spin this into the Islamaphobia-sphere.

Women all over the world are facing the “ugly side” of culture, and we are fed up with it. Congolese women are raped as weapons of war and as a means to frighten and control them. Afghan women are jailed or ostracized for being raped and brutalized and, to add insult to injury, often victimized and assaulted inside the prison by male guards. Women are raped systematically in war zones and developing countries for a variety of reasons that dehumanize them.

But let’s not forget what happens right here at home.

My own rape was in Minnesota. My sister’s was in Colorado. Every two minutes, someone in the United States is sexually assaulted. That’s 1 in 6 women. While rape victims are not routinely jailed as they are in some countries, neither are their attackers. The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) estimates that only 6% of rapists will ever spend a day in jail.

News came out this week that Donald Rumsfeld and Robert Gates are being sued over their failure to deal with the cases of rape and sexual assault in our own military. A group of American servicemen and women accuse the two of failing “to take reasonable steps to prevent plaintiffs from being repeatedly raped, sexually assaulted and sexually harassed by federal military personnel.”

Sexual assault is not a problem that belongs only to the Middle East, the developing world and war zones. This is a systemic problem that spans the globe, including our own backyard. It is rooted in how we value women. How do you change perceptions of value and respect? Things will never change until violence against women moves from a women’s right issue to a human rights issue that EVERYONE gets behind. Using World Bank data for 2008, there were 2,982,865,203 women of all ages; approximately 44.3% of the total world population. Nearly 3 billion mothers, daughters, sisters, and friends.

Recently, Ben Affleck said, “As long as violence against women, sexually or otherwise, remains exclusively a women’s issue, it will always be an issue. We men must own this and we must recognize it as vital to our own survival. And we must help our brothers see it as such.”

Rape is a weapon of control and of power. Until we all stand up and take a hard look at the realities of perception, accusation, and systematic dehumanization that occur all around us, this “problem” will never be resolved.

Jim. You owe Lara Logan an apology. And another three billion for every women in the world.

 

A New Kind of Afghan Fighter – Enter the Women!

“Afghan women are like sleeping lions, when awoken, they can play a wonderful role in any social revolution.”

– Meena Keshwar Kamal(1956-1987)

“If elected I will face up to the old men with guns that destroyed our country. Now it is our turn to fight with them.”

– Sabrina Sagheb – age 25

Sabrina Sagheb represents the sleeping lion now awaking for a fight throughout Afghanistan.  This 25-year-old parliamentary candidate in the 2005 elections campaigned on a platform of liberal reform and gender equality, with a campaign poster that raised more than a few eyebrows across Kabul.  The term ‘charm offensive’ sums it up best.  A beautiful and modern young woman, educated in Iran, she hoped to make the wearing of the burkha a matter of choice for all women and advocates an end to forced marriages.  She lost, but became a symbol of women’s rights a mere 4 years after the Taliban were pushed aside.

In a time where female candidates, activists, and leaders are routinely targeted, attacked, and assassinated, its hard to not swell with pride when more young women like Sabrina stand up today and publicly voice their dissent.  When conservative critics voice their disgust with her campaign and call her ‘un-Islamic’ in hopes of getting her to back down, she calmly replies, “If you are not happy with me, then don’t vote for me.”

But there are men that will be.  Young men like Muhammad Naseen, who are ready for a change, regardless of gender.  “We have already voted in a lot of men. Now it is time for change.”

Change like that of another candidate in Herat, Nahid Ahmadi Farid, a young lioness of one, who enters the fray armed with a political science degree from George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

“We don’t want regrets and we don’t want to suffer another five years. We don’t want the same problems again,” Farid says. “I have stood up because of the problems Afghan women are facing. We have been behind walls for the past 30 years and no one was listening to our voice.

These women, and others like them across the country are taking enormous risks to themselves and their families to fight for equality and a brighter future for their country.  They fight against the decades of oppression forced upon them during the Soviet and Taliban times.  They fight against the corruption and abuse in the current government that only last year signed into law a bill that essentially legalized marital rape.

They have a role model in Meena Keshwar Kamal, the passionate founder of RAWA, Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, assassinated in 1987.  She was an outspoken activist and feminist that founded the organization in 1977 when she was still a student at Kabul University.  RAWA’s manifesto is to promote equality and education for women and strive to “give voice to the deprived and silenced women of Afghanistan.”  The organization still operates today, underground, under great risk, but also with great success, running orphanages and schools under different names to avoid attack.  Meetings are held in secret locations, always changing, to continue the work Meena started, despite the risks.

Meena’s assassination at only 30 years old, did not deter RAWA, and their statement regarding her death demonstrates that her warrior spirit lives on.  “The enemy was rightly shivering with fear by the love and respect that Meena was creating within the hearts of our people. They knew that within the fire of her fights all the enemies of freedom, democracy and women would be turned to ashes.”

That fire is sparking again after the Taliban systemically fought to repress it and the Karzai government refuses to enforce the constitutional rights afforded them since their defeat.  Women activists are breathing life into the dormant coals and finding that there are others ready to fight alongside them.  It is up to all of us to not just encourage that fight, but to take up arms alongside them.

The Barrette

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today was a first.

Saying goodbye to the women in prison in Kandahar, I felt hot tears welling up in my eyes.  Glad for the cover of darkness that had fallen while we were talking with the women, I turned from the last woman dressed in vibrant purple who was still holding my hand, thanking me for coming to talk with them, as the tears coursed tracks down my cheeks.

I have yet to cry in Afghanistan.  I have visited four different prisons multiple times, meeting with the women and their children that are spending years in jail for crimes they did not commit.  Women who are in jail because a male family member raped them and the family had to save honor, and thus accused her of adultery.

I have met with streetchildren that walk an hour to and from schools, selling gum and maps in the streets, trying to avoid kidnappers that roam Kabul streets.  I have sat with families that have needlessly lost their wives, mothers, and daughters, because they died during childbirth when they wouldn’t take them to a male doctor five minutes down the road.   I heard stories of acid attacks on young girls walking to school, political leaders assassinated outside their family home, and women beaten to death trying to cast their vote.

All of the stories worth shedding a tear for.

Yet I never have.

All the stories move me, and I am truly touched by the heartache and injustice.  Yet I am resolute in finding solutions to help, understanding that there are a million of these stories all over the world.

Tonight was different.  We walked through the prison gate into a large courtyard to seeing children swinging on some playground equipment.  Women scurried back to cover their heads.   We slowly went over and asked them their names.  My limited Dari was of no use, as they all spoke Pashto, and I felt frustrated by not being able to convey the basic niceties.  Luckily they were okay with my male translator joining us and we soon were chatting away animatedly.

They clustered around, kids pulling at skirts or running around in the dusk.  They showed me their rooms and seemed quite willing to talk opening in front of the commander.   The first woman I interviewed was dressed in vibrant purple.  She talked openly of the accusations against her.  She was in the prison, accused of killing the son of her husband’s other wife.  He blamed her, which she denies, and who is to really know what happened.  She is the fifth wife of her husband.  He is 65 and she is 20, they have been married for 4 years.  So when she was 16 she was married off as the fifth wife of a 61 year old man.  The first three wives are dead.  All killed by his harsh beatings.  She shyly pulled up her sleeves and showed us multiple slashed scars and said they continue all over her body from the beatings he gives with a knife.

Another woman we speak with has four daughters.  She was married for ten years, then her husband moved to England for eight years and she divorced him.   Now her daughters are educated, the eldest a teacher, the youngest only seven years old and he is insisting that they be sent to live with him in England.   She refused, saying they were divorced, and she had raised these girls on her own for over eight years.  The reason is unclear why she would be sent to jail, but sure enough there she is.  Awaiting her fate for an unknown crime so that her ex husband can take her daughters away.

It goes on and on.  Heartbreaking, and unfortunately typical of many of the stories I’ve heard before.

I  asked my translator to please tell these women I wish them all the best and that my heart is with them.  Then I clasp their hands in both of mine and thank them in Dari, knowing they will understand.  One of them in a beautiful flowered scarf, presses a silvery jeweled hair barrette into my hand.  She has taken it from her own hair to give to me.  I smile and try to refuse, not wanting to take anything from these women, but she insists.  Then the group turns me around and takes the rubber band out of my ponytail, a comb materializes, one of the women smooths my hair and clips it neatly with the silver barrette.   They hand me back my simple rubberband while laughing gently and smiling.

That’s what did it.  I felt the hot liquid in the back of my eyes and smile broadly as the one with the barrette kissed me on the cheek.   I turned sadly to leave with the commander and turned once to wave and say goodbye again.  My attempts to verbally convey my true feelings felt inadequate.  At the door, the woman in purple was there.  She clasped my hand tightly, speaking and not letting go.  Thanking me for taking the time to visit them, for listening, and for giving them a chance to talk and share.  I held her hand for as long as she let me, squeezing lightly, hoping she could feel how much I was feeling for her.

Politics is Lying

wardaq-interview1Dr. Roshanek Wardak is one tough cookie.  Here is a woman that stares down the Taliban daily and I got a heady dose of how intense that gaze is today.  Dr. Wardak is a female member of the Afghan Parliament, representing the tumultuous province of Wardak.  This is a province still fighting, and with a large number of Taliban living there it is not likely to quiet down anytime soon.  It neighbors Kabul and its hard to comprehend the difference in security between the two provinces.  Harder still to imagine that the Taliban willingly stay put under Dr. Wardak’s intensity.

Dr. Wardak is Pashtun, the same ethnic group as the Taliban.  She is also the province’s only female OB/GYN – and as such is quite important as the one that delivers the babies to the women of the area.   During the Taliban’s time, most women wore the burqa, but she insisted she could not do her job wearing one and instead simply wore her black headscarf so that her face was covered except for her eyes.   She worked throughout those difficult six years in Wardak and then when the Taliban were removed and elections were held, the people of Wardak encouraged, and pushed, for her to run as a candidate for Parliament. With very little effort, she ran and won.

Sitting across from her, her eyes probe mine, questioning my interest, questioning my knowledge of the situation, and questioning deep into my heart of hearts.  Her eyes search and probe as we talk, and when silences come, they are not for me to fill.  They are there for her to decide if she will continue and when she does, its with direct honesty.   This is a woman with no time for playing games.  Her mantra, “Politics is Lying”, is repeated often throughout our conversation.  She hates politics and says so openly.  She is a doctor, and loves her work, and loves her people.  “A doctor must be honest and direct at all times,” she tells me.  As a politician, she sees the falsehoods, the games, and the outright lying,  and has no stomach for it.

We discuss women in politics, gender equality, Afghanistan’s political climate, and most importantly, due to her unique insight, the Taliban’s role in the future of Afghanistan.  Unique I say because she is a woman who had no rights under Taliban rule.  A woman that was forced to cover her face.  A woman who would not have been allowed to vote, much less run as a candidate herself, were the Taliban to have held elections.  Yet, she realizes that the Taliban are Afghan, and as such, must be allowed their place in society under the Afghan constitution.  Like Hamas and Hezbollah, the Taliban are part of their own country and hold great numbers within Afghanistan.  Wardak believes that they need to be part of the process to bring peace, and others like Karzai, and our own government are coming to the same conclusion.

“Let them run candidates if they wish, the same as anyone else.  If they win seats, then we must honor that.”  But the trick is that they have to abide by the ‘rules’, women as their counterparts, perhaps even their new president.  Yet, if they are given the chance to run amok, isolated from the political system, and peace process, it will be to the destruction of the country and will put Afghanistan in the center of the war on terror.

When asked what is the most important priority for her work at Parliament her answer is immediate.  “Security.  It is the ONLY priority for progress.”  Achieving it is another story.  Yet, the Parliament, Ministers, and the people of Afghanistan need to work towards a peace process conducted with all of Afghanistan represented as a complete way to end the violent spiral.

Staring back into Wardak’s tough gaze, I realize that while she may hate being a politician, she is the politician this country needs.

photo by Di Zinno

Buying a Hat for Obama

_mg_9107Today, I went to see a man about a burqa.

I wanted to see how they were made, how they are worn, and understand why many women choose to wear, what to us in the West, is the archetype image of women’s oppression.

I knew going in that ‘back in the day’ village women sometimes chose to wear a burqa when going into town.  It was a symbol that due to its awkwardness, they were above toiling in the field.  It also served its purpose of keeping away unwanted male attention.  During the Taliban era in the late 90’s, the burqa became the fashion de rigeour as it was forced upon all females and became a symbol of the Taliban’s desire to make women invisible and irrelevant.

I see many more burqas than I expected to today in Kabul, the majority being the painfully beautiful bluebird color, but occasionally a pure white one emerges from a crowd.  So, I asked my translator, Najibullah to take me to a burqa maker to learn more.  A task even more important due to my dear friend, Christiane’s, request of purchasing one while here for her to use as a teaching tool with her work with Pennies for Peace.

We go to a quiet market, made quieter since the suicide bombing at the Indian Embassy that it shares a street with.  Upon entering – we see a row of burqas hanging on the wall – periwinkle blues, whites, and to my surprise, a vibrant purple alongside several shades of tangerine.   I am informed that the color is often related to the region.  Mazar-i-Sharif is famous for the white, the south holds the tangerine, while Herat and Kabul typify the bluebird.  The shopkeepers are happy to see us and take several down for me to look at the elaborate embroidery across the bottom of the front panel.

I choose my purchase for Christiane and look around the rest of the shop.  There is a table full of hats, and the first I spot is a round, flat hat, that Najibullah informs me is a buzkashi hat.  Somehow this round disk stays put on the player’s head during this ‘extreme sport’ of horse polo and rugby combined with a dead sheep carcass.  Several more hats stand out as the ‘Karzai’ hat…the hat of boiled wool that President Karzai has made famous.  Often a symbol for elders and usually quite expensive.  These are a lower quality and as such are quite cheap…but apparently they can go upwards of $1,000.  Najibullah suggests we buy one for Obama.  He was the one to officially tell me the news of Obama’s win when he picked us up from the airport.  We have talked frankly of Afghanistan politics and our joint desire that a new leader could look beyond military tactics and into the heart of this region’s difficulties.

Laughing, I ask Najibullah to model one for me so that I can get the full effect.  He looks regal and my photographer-in-crime, nudges me that its not a bad idea, hell, what could it hurt.  So… I hand over some money and buy a hat for Obama.

photo Di Zinno

The Third Gender

aina-meeting-2Being 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.