Women’s Rights: Thoughts from Afghanistan
Thanks to a project with Mountain2Mountain I had the opportunity to travel to Afghanistan to help produce a series of public art exhibits. Afghanistan certainly isn’t the top pick destination for most people, and before my departure the mention of it would inevitable spur a handful of emotions and comments, somewhere along the lines of “are you sure that’s safe?” One of the common reactions also had to do with women’s rights, reminding me that the state of affairs in the far off country was different than the one I had at home. During the two week trip I had a lot of time to think about women and women’s rights, and I came up with the following essay, reprinted from the Moutain2Mountain blog. Hopefully it spurs some thought.
“Remember that being a woman is different in Afghanistan.”
I was getting yet another opinion on my decision to travel to Afghanistan. The statement was made out of love, wanting to remind me that I should be aware of my surroundings and behavior, that just because I was a strong, independent woman, I should remember to respect local culture. But it was also coming from someone that had never traveled to Afghanistan.
In the day and age of the internet and television we can know a lot about the rest of world, without ever leaving our homes, and that gives us the illusion of being informed. Like many of my peers, I too had a certain view of what “women in Afghanistan” meant. Visions of burqas and limited rights came to mind. But I also knew that on the other side of the world, we often only hear one side of the story. We are limited by what mass media feeds us. So I made an effort to go into Afghanistan with an open mind an open heart.
Before ten days ago, I had never worn a headscarf.
Before ten days ago, I had never really contemplated what my own assumptions about a burqa were.
Before ten days ago, I had taken my own personal rights as an American female for granted.
Between 1999, under Taliban rule, and 2010, the number of girls enrolled in education rose from 4% to 79%. When it comes to women’s rights, in Afghanistan there are many obstacles to be tackled, but there is also hope. This is a country where recently a woman was beheaded by her mother-in-law for refusing to go into prostitution, but it’s also a country where the youngest member of Parliament is a woman. Assuming that we know what women’s rights means in Afghanistan means closing our minds to what is possible.
Enter just a handful of government offices and you will inevitably find a few of them where a woman in charge. The women bureaucrats that I have met are strong and efficient, but also welcoming. They are the kind of people that get things done. Seeing them in action in a male-dominated society is inspiring. The streets of Kabul may be predominantly filled with men, but there is a real movement here to educate and empower women, both internally from the government, and externally from the support of non-profits.
Kabul is home to women’s shelters, learning centers, even a women-only Internet café. In the heart of city, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs runs the Women’s Garden, a huge enclosed space that includes classrooms for learning English and how to drive, Internet access and a restaurant. A space where women can interact in the safety of each other’s company. We brought the exhibition to this space, knowing that often, the majority of people out and about in public are men, and although our exhibit at Babur Gardens was shown to many families, we wanted a space where we knew women could interact with the pieces.
Set up was quiet and peaceful. After three days of producing public photo exhibits, it was nice to be in a space where I could freely sit and interact without the stare of a group of men; there’s no denying that being a foreign woman in Kabul draws attention. Women of all ages passed through the garden, either on their way to classes or just passing through with friends. A group of women gathered in the grass around a group of tea. Stoic and serious faces warmed up with a salutary “salamalaikum” – an acknowledgement of our similarities despite our differences. One woman told me that she was happy to see the photos because there are many exhibits in Kabul but it is often hard to go to them as a woman because of security. She was happy to see the beauty of her country portrayed in these images.
A group of young women stood in front of an image of a girl amidst burqas, the deep blues contrasting with their more modern headscarves. They snapped a photo of themselves in front of it with a cellphone camera. Two minutes later a woman walked past, her burqa pulled back over her head exposing her eyes. I was again reminded how we all have expectations and assumptions.
Just a few days before, we ate lunch at a restaurant, sitting in the separated section for mixed couples, sectioned off by shimmery green curtains. As I entered I saw a woman again with her burqa pulled up over her head. She wore a noticeably large wedding ring, sparkling with diamonds. Her eyes were outlined in thick black liner. I was taken aback by how beautiful she was. I paused, realizing my own reaction. Quite frankly, I was appalled at my surprise at her beauty. Even for me, out on the streets, burqas seem to float by like ghosts, sometimes forgetting that underneath it is a woman, a mother, a sister, an individual. No matter how much we know, we all have our own assumptions and hang-ups.
Being here as a foreign woman, a mirror is held up, forcing me to think about my own role as a woman in my own country.
Is the westerner that conforms to societal gender expectations and wears form-fitting clothing and high heels because that’s what she believes makes her beautiful and wanted any more empowered than the woman that covers herself because of a duty to family honor? That is a complicated question, and one that requires an intimate understanding of not only all aspects of two cultures and religions, but societal norms. It’s easy to play the “women’s rights are different in Afghanistan,” but in the United States, a woman is raped every two minutes; we too have room to grow and in the end it is just as important to remember our similarities as our differences.
Women’s empowerment, no matter where you are, is about access to education and the ability to feel safe. It is about having the right to pursue any career that we want and expect to be paid just as much as our male counterparts. It is about having the right to make the choices that affect our bodies.
I am immediately drawn to women here simply because of the fact that they are women, not because I want to know how we’re treated differently, but because at the end of the day, we are part of a global sisterhood, and positive change for one of us means positive change for the rest of us. We have to believe in the ripple effect.
How different is it to be a woman in Afghanistan? Very different. But that doesn’t mean that change isn’t possible. It’s taking place right now. In the form of women pursuing education. In the form offemale graffiti artists. In the form of women-run restaurants. In the form of female activists. In the form of women members of Parliament. In the form of women police officers. Afghanistan, and its women, are more than you think.