Women Last
May 22, 2007

My colleague from Kenya went to the cook of her guest house recently to order her breakfast. He began making it, but when a male guest came in and ordered his breakfast, the cooked stopped Anne's meal and began making the male guest's order. Needless to say, Anne FLIPPED. She let them both have it. The male guest turned around and left without saying anything and without his food; the cook went back to preparing her meal. No apologies offered.

One of my international colleagues (non-Afghani) staying at Assa 2 who is from a culture a lot like here in Afghanistan announced one morning at breakfast that we would all be leaving 30 minutes earlier than usual, starting the next morning. I told him no, I would NOT be leaving then, and unless there was a security alert and we had to go to work early, I would be going to work at the same time as usual. He told me that he and another male colleague had already discussed it and decided it. He didn't try to explain the reasons for his decision - he just kept saying that they had decided. Finally I told him I didn't want to hear one more thing about their decision; MY decision was that I was staying at the guest house and another car would come for me later, that I was NOT leaving 30 minutes early, and he wasn't my father nor my husband, and even if he was, they don't make decisions for ME. He was stunned. But it finally shut him up.

A couple of colleagues at work - some Afghan, some from cultures a lot like here in Afghanistan - don't pay attention when women speak. A man - even a Western man - approaches them and he is greeted, listened to, and responded to. A woman -- *me* approaches them and they go right on talking, taking their time to finish their conversation while you stand there awkwardly and obviously waiting to ask something.

When I need a car in the middle of the day, I get a quicker response from the Afghan drivers when one of my male colleagues is with me than when I'm by myself. When I go by myself, I sometimes have to wait several minutes while the drivers chat among themselves, or look out at me from the driver office and then disappear for several minutes. One of the drivers fussed at me for being five minutes late one morning and I let him have it - I know he didn't understand most of what I said, and yet, I think he did... if the guys I work with are late (which is *often*), the drivers *never* say a word.

A group of local men staying at my guest house met in the dining room and spread themselves out such that, when I came to get my dinner, they were in the way. I stood there, waiting for them to move. They went right on talking. Finally I said, in a loud voice, "You have to move so that people can get to the buffet table! I'm not going to try to squeeze by you!" Two of the guys reluctantly moved, not looking at me.

Two Westerners here have told me they have witnessed domestic violence in someone's home - one said she sat in a living room pretending not to hear as a grown son beat his mother in the kitchen. I watched an educated, very well off Afghan man berate his wife all evening over the few small comments she dared to make; she gave up trying to participate in any group conversations and sat their silently, staring down at the floor.

Afghan men will happily tell you that women here are actually the queens of their homes. Afghan men will tell you that women have very happy lives, and that there are just very isolated cases of men mistreating their wives, daughters, mothers and sisters, "just like in the USA, and just like in Europe. It happens, but not very often" They will tell you that women like the burka, like not working, like getting married at 14, and aren't really interested in higher education. They will tell you that it was their sister's choice not to pursue a medical career after completing her university education, per her father's "encouragement" to stay home instead and find a husband. Ofcourse, they won't let you talk to their female family members to find out what the WOMEN say...

But what really infuriates me is that Afghan men will tell you that women here are much more respected, honored and protected than in the west. I certainly don't feel respected nor protected in this country. I've never felt so vulnerable in my life. Ask a Western woman here how many times she has had her crotch, butt or boobs grabbed by passersby, how many times she has been rubbed up against by someone in line in front of them or even someone at the office (it's happened to me, including by local government officials), how much she has altered the way she interacts with people in public - you won't hear much about being respected or protected. You will hear about constantly being on the defensive.

I don't think women who come here for just a couple of weeks *really* see what this country is like for women, nor experience most of the above for themselves. I certainly didn't see it during my first weeks here. You think, "Hey, there's some women on the street, many without a burka. There's some girls going to school. It's not so bad." But once the novelty of Kabul wears off, once this becomes a day-after-day experience, you start to encounter it yourself, and you start to notice more things. At first, you think, oh, the guy behind the grocery counter didn't see that I was here first. Or that the Afghan guy who broke in front of you at the French Bakery and started giving his order perhaps didn't see that you were in the middle of your order. Or, I probably wasn't called for that meeting because they aren't used to me being here yet and they forgot. Or, that guy just accidentally walked/fell into me. Oops. After all, all of that *sometimes* happens in the USA or Germany or various other Western countries.

But then it keeps happening. And keeps happening. And your girlfriends all have the same stories.

What's disappointing are the international men, who either don't see it or don't say anything when they see it. What a huge difference it would make if they would say, "Excuse me, but she was here first" or "Ms. So-and-so isn't here at this meeting, and she should be. Please call her. We shouldn't proceed until she arrives." Or, "Please don't talk about Ms. So-and-So that way. She's your professional colleague. How would you feel if I talked that way about your sister?"

As a woman in Afghanistan, you have two options - you put up with it or you say something. If you say something, you further contribute to the image of the demanding, unpleasant Western woman, no matter how sweetly you tell the guy, hey, sorry, I was here first, and you are just going to have to wait.

Guess I'll be further contributing to that image... 'cause I'm not a second class citizen, here or anywhere. I'll wear the headscarf outside my guest house, work and restaurants, I'll make sure everything but my toes, hands and face are covered, I'll refrain from singing or dancing in the presence of anyone but fellow Westerners, and I'll look straight ahead and not smile at anyone as I walk to the Ministry building or even through the corridors of my guest house. But that's my limit in my compromises for this country. Break in line in front of me or attempt to feel me up at your own peril.

And before you write me and say I'm causing trouble and I need to be more culturally respectful: would you have said the same to a black person in South Africa under Apartheid? (it was certainly said to slaves in the 1860s and black people in the 1950s in the USA, so I won't even think of using those as examples).

I'll end with two links, a new one and one I've posted before:


If you have read this blawg, PLEASE let me know.
Comments are welcomed, and motivate me to keep writing --
without comments, I start to think I'm talking to cyberair.

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