Afghan Women


It’s hard to discuss Afghan women, because one can hardly describe the subject concealed for the most part by the controversial blue or white veil, known as burqa or chadri. Islam, it seems, has different rules as to how women should be dressed in different countries. In Afghanistan, the prevailing view, as well as the religious requirement, is that women should wear the full-length burqa in public ever since they come of age. Or so it was until recently.

Young girls are no different from their coevals in other countries. They like to dress up, which holds true even for poor families, they like to chat, and, of course, they giggle a lot. It remains a mystery what happens in their minds when they are told it’s time to put on the ugly-looking veil that kills all personality and makes it hard, if not altogether impossible, to observe life through its mesh window.

Most of the knowledge I have gained about Afghan women is thanks to Engineer Imran, the Dari-Russian translator who helped my colleagues and myself get along in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif and its environs in February 2002. Imran was a qualified specialist on pests and pesticides, so I assume that made him the best expert on women as well.

One of the first questions I asked Imran on the subject of women was how children were supposed to recognize their Moms on the street. Don’t they all look the same? “No,” came the answer. “All the women are different, even though they are all dressed the same. Even a child can see the difference.” Fair enough. The answer effectively eliminated my second question about men recognizing their wives. I suppose when kids grow in a society of burqa-clad women, who, by the way, don’t have to wear the veil at home, they come to know how to see through clothes. I wish I had that magic faculty myself sometimes. I also have a feeling things are bound to change one day, the feeling that was strongly backed by the following incident in the Panjsher Valley in September 2001. My colleague and I were riding in a car through a small rural settlement when we noticed, without paying much interest, three blue ghosts of females standing near the road. As our car leveled with them, they all lifted their veils for a fleeting moment, giving just enough time for our trained, albeit tired, eyes to see they were young and beautiful. “Face-flashing maidens,” we called them in our ribald tale about the incredible occurrence that we eagerly shared, inventing more and more details, with our male colleagues from the foreign press corps, who had not seen even that much female flesh after weeks in Afghanistan.

Luckily, our driver Mullah, a devout Muslim and native of the same village, had only one eye on the wrong side of the face (the other one he lost fighting the Soviets), so he didn’t notice the girls’ disgraceful behavior that most certainly violated this or that tenet of Islam, and didn’t take any action to nip the emerging signs of religious and societal dissent in the bud. As a true mujahed, Mullah still kept his AK-47 in the closet.

The Holy Koran, Engineer Imran told me once during our long expedition outside of Mazar-e-Sharif, does not forbid a man to touch his wife’s genitalia as a way to enhance pleasure during a sexual intercourse. Or his wives’, I must add, because Muslim men are allowed to have up to three or even four wives. The Koran allows women to get pleasure out of sex, Imran went on to say, but there are restrictions. A woman is not allowed to give head, while a man should never attempt to enter a woman from behind. These restrictions on what otherwise must be Afghan couples’ happy and fulfilling sex life are not explicitly formulated in the Koran per se, but are obviously implied, so one should properly study the sacred scriptures for their hidden knowledge and advice. Both actions mentioned above would lead to an immediate divorce, Imran said. To call the process a divorce, though, would be a misnomer: all the man or woman has to do is to declare so in public three times. Forget about divorce, even marriage is not legally registered. “Why do you need to register your marriage when five hundred people ate at your wedding?” Imran argued. And he is right. With five hundred witnesses, who undoubtedly included a few hundred Kalashnikov-toting relatives on the bride’s side, hardly anyone would dare refuse to admit one’s marital status. Unless the man finds out on the first night his bride was not a virgin. In this case, the guests ate for nothing: the marriage is announced invalid and the dowry money should be returned. As a matter of fact, the Koran does provide detailed explanations and interpretations of many life events, including the following instruction: “And they ask you about menstruation. Say: It is a discomfort; therefore keep aloof from the women during the menstrual discharge and do not go near them until they have become clean; then when they have cleansed themselves, go in to them as Allah has commanded you; surely Allah loves those who turn much (to Him), and He loves those who purify themselves.” (2.222)

According to Islamic scholars, the Koran stipulates that women and men have equal rights, so it remains a riddle why females seem to be less equal than males in some Islamic countries. It should be noted, however, that some Islamic scholars, relying on the Koran, give men advantages over women by stipulating four situations in which a husband is permitted to discipline his wife by hitting her (lightly!). These are: not adorning herself when he wants her to; not responding when he calls her to bed and she is taahirah (pure, i.e., not menstruating); not praying; and going out of the house without his permission.

While in Afghanistan, I didn’t have a chance to be a guest of honor at a wedding party. But a colleague of mine did manage even to dance at one. Not that he was willing. Yura, a photographer for a U.S. West Coast newspaper, started clicking his two cameras immediately when he saw a wedding procession, consisting of several women. The future husband apparently got jealous and opened fire from his Kalashnikov rifle, hitting the ground near Yura’s feet. So Yura jumped, and jumped, and jumped. The cameras were “confiscated” but later sold back for fifty bucks each. Plus repair costs: wedding guests tried to find and expose the film with controversial images in Yura’s digital cameras.

It’s not that all Afghan women are incorruptibly chaste or that prostitution is non-existent. Flesh trading did exist even under the Taliban. Qala’s, or brothels, operated in Kabul and other Afghan cities, and kharabati, most of them unmarried girls or widows from impoverished families, offered the usual set of services to paying clients. This sphere of business was most likely unaffected by the change of government since the causes of the vice – poverty and pursuit of pleasure and money – remained.

Imran said one could easily get a fille de joie in any large town by asking a shop-owner, any shop-owner to this effect. According to Imran, that would not be a professional working girl, but rather a bored housewife keen on making some extra cash for pins and perfumes, or, perhaps, a fancy new burqa. Shop-owners are considered the best pimps who get a cut of the profits or are paid in kind.

The other option was just to look around. But how to find out which lady would correctly respond to one’s advances and would not refer them to her hubby and his Kalashnikov? What a silly question, as silly as those about children and husbands recognizing their mothers and wives, Imran sighed. Then he agreed to provide more details: a “good” woman walks with her head down and shoulders turned inward, while “bad” women stride with their heads up and breasts forward. One minor obstacle: you should speak some Dari or another vernacular to begin with. Also keep in mind what the Koran has to say: “Bad women are for bad men and bad men are for bad women. Good women are for good men and good men are for good women.” (24.26)

These problems, as well as high dowry rates explain to some extent why homosexuality is so widespread in Afghanistan. I was told that in Mazar-e-Sharif and other big cities a man can win a boy’s favors by taking him to a movie or just giving him some food.

Speaking of dowry payment, Engineer Imran had to sell his house to buy a wife. Ten years down the road, living at his in-laws’ place, he still believes it was a good investment.