Kabul, Afghanistan - After a week visiting Bamiyan, a rural Afghan Province, one thing has been made abundantly clear to me: the experience of being a woman in this country is much different than being a woman in the United States. Here, the inescapable and indelible fact of gender colors social interactions, far more so than back home. But being a woman has also created safe spaces of inclusion within the village’s maternal system, from which I would have otherwise been kept at a distance.
Time and time again, after meeting with the men in the family, I was led into a separate room to visit with the women, who had gathered there and were waiting eagerly for us with their children. Immediately, an exchange began, a series of greetings, smiles, thanksgivings, and comments about the style of my clothes, quality of my hands, or strangeness of my backpack. Daughters and granddaughters would join us, children at their feet, each little face more beautiful than the last.
When we met with women and men together, the men tended to be the focal point, dominating the conversation. In the absence of their male counterparts, the women, adorned in vibrant cloths, filled the sparsely furnished rooms with stories and laughter. In this conservative Afghan village, one woman shared with us the heartbreaking experience of having her husband kidnapped and killed by the Taliban - and raising her kids, now teenagers, without the breadwinner of the house. She looked down at her wrinkled hands and paused before telling us of her struggles with depression. “We age so quickly here” she reflected, looking up at me, circles under her eyes. Her skin was weathered and worn, bearing the years of harsh living conditions and inadequate nutrition. I would have guessed she was in her late 50s – she is in fact only 38.
A doctor who has been living in rural Afghanistan for eight years spoke with us about the medical realities these women have to face – lives burdened with the physical manifestations of the recollections of war. They have developed strong coping mechanisms to handle the severe headaches, depression, and anemia that plague their daily lives.
While sitting alone with Afghan women, we learned much about their way of life and the disappointments they share as a result of living in an occupied land. While in the past, village women were married around 13, many now marry at 19 or 20 and then move in with their husband’s family. Nasreen, a young woman who was recently married, told us of her “half happy, half sad” feelings of leaving her family for an arranged marriage in a neighboring village. The women only leave their village once a year and then only to go to the market; they make this trip clad in full burqas. For generations, these women have been identified by the existence of their children, spending their time tending to the needs of their large families in a pastoral culture. “We are all illiterate”, said the 38-year-old mother, “so we harvest potatoes.”
However, three of the young women we met now go to school and revealed to us in English their hopes to become doctors. Their mothers and aunts looked on, smiling. All of the women think things will be better with an education. And as we asked about the war, it was clear that memories of fleeing from the Taliban rushed into the room. But the women certainly did not communicate their favor with the ongoing U.S. and NATO occupations of their country.
“It’s all rhetoric and words that America is defending the rights of women”, said an articulate young woman named Zerghuna. With women and children dying daily not only from being caught in the crossfire, but also from the effects of poverty, malnutrition, and lack of available health care, they are skeptical about the justifications used by foreign forces around women’s rights. Zerghuna wishes that the world would see to it that the efforts to improve the rights of women were actually implemented, and that the billions of dollars allocated to aid organizations would reach the intended recipients – the poor. “They should come here and see that something happens, because nothing does.”
When asked about the system of government in Afghanistan and what they would request of it, the women asked for a few more hours of electricity a night. Other than that? “Help us find good, dignified work to take care of our families”, said one of the mothers. The others nodded in agreement.