And finally: Gender in Afghanistan

Gender in Afghanistan? Pah! We don’t ‘do’ gender. It’s the Ministry of Women’s Affairs here – it’s women’s affair so us men don’t need to worry about it.

I’m exhausted. And not feeling too kindly towards Afghanistan right now. And trying to decide whether to come back here for another year or not.

Right now, I’d rather not, but there are some good job opportunities (I wrote something about the job market in Afghanistan the other day, but decided not to press ‘publish’ in case I do decide to return).

There’s a whole lot I’ve been bitching about with friends recently that I could write about (the National Solidarity Programme – Afghanistan’s flagship development programme – being left to rot for one). But there’s one thing that makes me really angry, and which I shouldn’t probably write about right now either, but hey ho.

I was walking down the road last week with a friend – a female expat. A young man passed us, going the other way. A few paces on, my friend says, with telling resignation rather than surprise, ‘he touched me.’ I stopped and turned around. He was staring back at us. At her. I wanted to shout out to all the men in the street looking on ‘would you do that to an Afghan woman? What if it was your sister? Have you no shame?!’ I wanted to hit him. I didn’t, and we walked on.

A young female Afghan was stopped at a police checkpoint in a remote province while on work. She’d forgotten her ID, and was escorted back to the office to verify who she was. The story that was told afterwards was that she’d been caught having sex. No basis for that, no evidence, no asking her side of the story. That was it. Condemned be men who, last I time was there, made laborious jokes about visiting prostitutes in Tajikistan.

The woman who was reprimanded by her male boss, professionally and morally, for showing one inch of flesh above her wrist. While otherwise fully covered up, in 40 degrees C.

The cases of sexual harassment battered away as unimportant, a misunderstanding, brought on because the woman was being friendly, thus asking for it. Like rape victims blamed for wearing too short skirts.

The woman who, out walking, complained to her male companion that a group of men were staring at her. And was told ‘well you shouldn’t be looking at them should you.’

The intelligent, kind man who, in a speech on International Women’s Day, said that even in the Koran, even in the Koran it says that if we are to hit a woman, we should do so only with a handkerchief. Someone I spoke to admitted the growing degree of racism she felt towards Afghan men: she didn’t trust any she knew not to beat their wives. I’m hugely glad to think there are men I know who wouldn’t, but I understood her point.

I could go on. And on. Stories of men who expect their wives and daughters to be paragons of virtue. Who stare unabashedly at un-burquad women. And, when asked, blame the woman for her immodesty.

The way women are objectified. Or perhaps, as someone argued, the way everybody is objectified; the lack of respect for people, for humanity in general. 30 years of war has no doubt caused grievous psych-social blah blah blah.

And the way many in the West used the suddenly found subjugation of women to legitimise military intervention. Lifting the veil with a bomb or two.

I’m exhausted and barely able to think straight and counting down the days till I depart. And my god the hypocrisy fucks me off. The insecurity, the lack of freedom I can cope with. It’s the gender relations that make me think this is not a country I could ever feel at home in.

I’ve been told, by a person better able to see than I, that attitudes are changing for the better. Perhaps it is the change that makes things so painful. At least in Saudi Arabia you know where you stand, right? A lot of that change – or rather the bit of it that I see – is to do with more foreign women about the place in international organisations. Many Afghan men don’t seem to be able to get passed the whole ‘well they smile and laugh and are friendly, and come from the West so are probably prostitutes, or at least it’s all right for me to touch them cause they do that kind of thing over there’ kinda thinking. Professional boundaries are fraught.

Why don’t I get this angry over the pay gap or abortion rights in Europe? Am I being hypocritical as well?

I wrote the above at two in the morning last night when I couldn’t sleep. Probably not a great idea but anyway. I’m uncomfortable with it. I don’t like passing judgment on an entire section of society. An entire country. But all those stories are true, from different sources. They are everyday occurrences. And it really does make me angry, the hypocrisy of it above all. So publish and be damned.


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9 Responses to “And finally: Gender in Afghanistan”

  1. Ahmad Says:

    Well that is a real problem in Afghanistan right now.

    But, dear we have more grievous gender problems in everywhere.
    You actually became a victim of Cultural shock, this happen with everyone coming into a inferior society or country than his/her own. Seeing men with bad cloths, unshaved, not very attractive as those in West, and so on…..
    Do you have information about rape rates in USA??? Do you know that in Italy men are teasing or flirting girls more than anywhere else?
    What do you do when you are in DESCO??? What about others? Do not you touch others or vice versa??
    As to my experience in west most of the guys in Night clubs are not going home without having sex with someone newly met.
    Just be cool and do not bother yourself. You may see a lot of serious problems in everwhere.
    You mentioned that women are molested and insulted by men here, but I remember a research indicating that more than 60% American female officemates are molested by their male coligues.
    Have you ever taught that you can buy a very young girl by a 1000$ in Thailand?????
    I am not arguing you here, but just wanted to refresh your consciousness to cope with realities in our world, so you will be able to sleep.
    We had a poor society, with nothing to compare it with WEST or civilized world. But, those civilized world wiped whatever we had.
    A very recent example is Iraq. Have you heard about Iraq. where is its location???????????
    Good luck and have a very comfortable life out there, with a society full of love and equality.

  2. steve Says:

    Enough of the hand-wringing. There’s nothing wrong with pointing how badly women have it in Afghanistan using your own limited experience as a touchstone. Sure, you could provide A LOT of statistics and research — and there is A LOT of it — that show how bad off Afghan women are. It’s no mystery. Cultural relativism will get you nowhere. What’s next, a defense of stoning adulterers to death?

  3. johan staewart Says:

    hey dear, its well known that in US harrasmen doesnt exist, and rape is an unknown things.
    An afghan should visit the hot neighborhood of chicago, and then say “all american are prostitute “

  4. johan staewart Says:

    You should stop beeing racist,

  5. steve Says:

    what’s racist about the post, exactly? silliness.

  6. ash Says:

    the responders are correct in saying that women’s rights is a problem everywhere. on some level and in some way. but the problems in the u.s., as devastating as they can be…women here, still have more rights than afghan women. right now in Afghanistan, it’s frustrating to watch that there are very few women who thrive on feminism and stand for the women there. it’s a catch 22 mostly bc of the modern religious belief. i think you should be angered by the treatment you see.

    but i’m curious, have you read or been to the “kabul beauty school.” i read the book this year by deborah rodriguez. she is an american woman who has attempted to bring some serenity to the women there through her school, giving them an outlet to be who they are, free to be just women and be something of independent. i encourage you, if you are wanting some understanding, to search the school out…talk to deborah if she is there. she actually married an afghan man and from her book has made an impact.

    it’s the little things that start when fighting for women’s rights. it never explodes in action…it takes time and hopefully we can pray that the government of afghanistan will begin to see these women as beautiful rather than to blame.

  7. Afghanatheist Says:


    An an Afghan I can only very humbly envy your arrogance, ignorance and hypocrisy. You sir, are my hero.

  8. Keeping your head down « harry rud Says:

    […] some (probably mis-guided) sense of cultural respect/modesty/not giving the wrong impression/pretty fucked up gender relations in this country in general kinda thing, eye contact with women can seem like some kind of […]

  9. Sexism at home, sexism abroad « Transitionland Says:

    […] I could work on the Big Things. I’d even grit my teeth and endure the inappropriate touching Afghan and expat women experience (though less expats now, because fewer expats of either gender brave the streets these […]

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