Documentary Galleries: Afghanistan
Emerging from the Shadows:
The Women of Afghanistan
It is Friday, a Muslim holiday, and a day off for everyone in Afghanistan. Shops close, it is a day of rest. Most of the men in Kabul go to Qaragha Lake, to lounge in tents and smoke; young men swim and boat; the boys fly kites. I saw very few women, and I soon discovered where they go: Bagh-E-Zanana, commonly called the Women’s Park. No men allowed. It is a small and unkempt publicly owned area of land, yet a sacred space for women. The high concrete walls are draped with barbed wire; an armed soldier guards the front door. Husbands wait outside to pick their wives up at nightfall. The fact that this park even exists is a testament to the small freedoms women are obtaining since the retreat of the Taliban from Kabul six years ago.
As I had moved around the countryside and cities of Kabul, Bamiyan and Mazar-e-Sharif, women threw their burkas over my head like small private tents. Ensconced in our own private world they kissed me three times on my cheeks. I was often invited back into their homes where we would share a cup of cardamom tea. It was such an honor to be admitted their private world; they were so beautiful, so strong, and so inspirational. First they had lived under the heavy hand of the Taliban, and now they continued to be strong-armed by their often-abusive husbands.
It was only six years ago that Afghanistan’s girls, began attending school again. It is encouraging that the literacy rate is slowly climbing in the country. But what the girls do with that education remains to be seen, as they face the on-going challenge that women are still rarely allowed to work outside of the home. There are a few small projects that are teaching women a vocational skill. Sometimes they are teachers, they work in hair salons, or do some sewing. A few weave carpets in their homes, earning about $120 for two months’ work. Never do you see a woman vendor in the markets, rarely are they in an office, and certainly never outside of Kabul do you see a woman behind the wheel, driving a car.
There are backstreet, clandestine meetings such as the Afghan Widows Women’s Educational Project, where a small gathering of women meet daily in a bare room. Sitting on the concrete floor they learn how to read, do math and embroidery together. Just being able to learn how to count change for a taxi is a form of empowerment for them. At the Afghan Institute for Learning, the women were training on computers. In Bamiyan, I met a small contingency of six women police officers, as they practiced shooting their AK-47s and handguns at the rifle range. The town of Bamiyan even supports a woman governor. In Kabul, I met a woman teaching judo to young girls.
Freedom for these women is earned in small steps.
I also visited the Red Cross Center for Rehabilitation and Prosthetics. With six centers across the country, they have treated 39,000 patients for prosthetics in Kabul alone. A woman was helping her child to walk as he was fitted with braces for his club feet. Congenital deformities are rampant due to the intermarriages so common in this Islamic culture.
I reflect on the strength and resiliency of these women as I walk around the Bagh-E-Zanana Park. Despite their dire circumstances the women are determined to express their individuality. I have shopped with the women in the markets and seen the elaborate glittery material they buy to make their own dresses, which are usually hidden beneath their burkas from public view. The women take immense pride in how they look and are putting on their best fashion show for each other, adorned in brightly colored outfits, long painted fingernails and heavy jewelry. They bring small picnics and snacks, beat tambourines, dance and gossip. They trade makeup, sunglasses and beauty tips.
The young girls express themselves in clothes they would never dare to wear in the streets: hip-hugging jeans and tight blouses¬–and they literally let their hair down. One girl even shows off her bright blue contact lenses. This is their little democratic safe haven, a place where they can experiment with being themselves. It is here, on that one day of the week, on one dry little patch of land in the corner of Kabul, that the women of Afghanistan are free to throw off their burkas and dance.