I know that you are probably very curious about the women in Afghan society and the stereotypes surrounding them, and since that’s been on my mind lately, I wanted to share some thoughts.
Women definitely don’t enjoy the same status in Afghanistan that they do in most countries I’ve lived in, nor are they given the freedom that American women are used to. All women must wear long pants and long sleeve shirts when going out in public, along with a chadar, a head scarf, that covers the top of the head and neck. Our shirts should go down to our knees, tunic style, to cover our backsides. We follow the “95% rule,” meaning that only 5% of our skin (faces, hands, and tops of the feet) can show. We aren’t supposed to laugh loudly in public, play sports, stay out after dark, etc. When we meet men for the first time, they shake hands with all the guys in our group and either ignore or simply mutter “salam” to the women. We aren’t supposed to stick our hands out and initiate the handshake either. Men and women don’t touch each other in public, and women aren’t really supposed to make eye contact with men on the street, particularly strangers. A man and a woman cannot be alone in the same room unless the door is open.
The restrictions aren’t easy to remember. I’m a rather independent girl (you might have noticed…), and for the last two weeks, I’ve been chafing under the many rules. But, I knew what I was getting into when I first came, so I’ve tried my best to follow them. I wear my long sleeved shirt and pants any time I leave my bedroom, and my scarf goes on any time I want to go outside the house. I’ve learned to eat with the scarf around my head, although that took some practice!, and I no longer spill food or water on it during lunch.
Some of the other rules are hard to remember. My chadar falls off on a regular basis, and I usually don’t notice, so my debate teaching partner is constantly saying “Rachel, your scarf is off.” I am accustomed to looking into people’s eyes, so I usually forget to look demurely at my feet. I try not to initiate handshakes, but sometimes I forget.
The funniest social blunder I make is purposeful- I play soccer every chance I get. Until today, I had only played in the yard of our guest house, which is hidden behind a thick compound wall, so nobody sees except the staff. After they saw me play, they told another guest that I played surprisingly well… for a girl! Today, we went to visit the gardens that belong to the man who worked in the government for many years, for the Ministry of Borders and for the Peace Corps, and now owns a beautiful peace of property he is turning into a guest house. We toured his gorgeous gardens, ate watermelon with our hands while seated cross-legged on a gazebo, and then played soccer on the lawn. For the first time, I played with some Afghan men, and my team won 5-2. I scored four times, even with my head scarf knotted around neck! Afterward, several of them told me that I played well, and they sounded so surprised. It was great.
The interesting part about these cultural rules is that I’m beginning to accept them and even appreciate some of them. I’ve heard that women who wear burqas are usually forced to do so by a family member, but some of them enjoy the anonymity that it provides. I wouldn’t like to wear a burqa, but I was thinking today how nice it is that I wear such loose clothing that I don’t have to worry about what I look like. You never see flesh between a girl’s shirt and pants, and the dress that covers the backside is so loose that guys don’t bother trying to check us out. It really is rather freeing. I put my hair in a French braid every day and forget about it, and although I’m not getting a tan, I also don’t have to worry about getting sunburned.
Although I can’t say that I like wearing the chadar, many girls have told me that they don’t mind it. One friend didn’t even take hers off at the wedding or in other places where she’s allowed to do so, and she says that she feels safer and more comfortable when she wears it. More progressive college students have pushed theirs so far back on their heads that it’s almost like they are wearing a scarf around their necks instead. Even I have gotten used to mine; we threw a surprise birthday party for Rachal the other day, and I wore my chadar all through dinner because I didn’t even notice that I was wearing it.
Honestly, being a woman here is annoying sometimes, but it’s not as bad as we think. The original culture warnings they sent before we came told us not to speak in public, to walk submissively behind our male co-workers, to never address a man if he didn’t speak first. None of that is enforced or realistic. Yes, fewer girls go to school here than boys, and yes, the girls are required to wear hot and heavy clothing out in public. But overall, this is a society like any other. I watched a little boy and girl push their brother down the street on a two-wheeled bike, one holding his seat and the other his handlebars, jogging alongside as he wobbled down the pavement, and I thought about the normalcy of it all. Some things are different, but Afghanistan is a country like any other, and its women and its culture have a beauty all their own.