Deborah Orr: How I walked alone in a Kabul street – and scandalised everyone around me

Share
Related Topics

I've just spent a week in a deeply conservative Islamic culture – always wearing a headscarf and always covering my body in the loosest of clothing – for the first time in my life. I thought appropriate dress and hidden fair hair would protect me, and on my first day in Kabul, one of the most liberal cities in Afghanistan, I walked to a meeting 40 yards from my hotel, by myself.

Stepping through the metal, guarded, hotel door was like stepping into a water cannon of aghast male attention, with all eyes swivelled towards me, and staring faces pressed up to the windows of kerb-crawling cars. I scandalised the street, and it was overwhelming. It wasn't because I was Western – though that didn't help. It was because I was a lone woman. After that, I went nowhere without a male escort.

I can't say I felt much resentment. It was just what had to be done, under the circumstances, in order to get on with my work. On the contrary, I was unreservedly grateful to the men who gave up their own time to facilitate my freedom of movement, whenever I asked them to, without a hint of complaint.

As for the dress restrictions – leaving aside, for the moment, the burqa – they didn't seem as oppressive of women as they do in Britain, because they applied equally to both genders. Afghan men also dressed modestly, in loose traditional clothing, with their heads and arms covered. There is equality in that, at least.

It was the women, far more, in Kabul who pushed at those boundaries. An Afghan actress, with her eyes outlined in black kohl, had piled her hair high, and covered it in a chiffon, polka-dotted scarf to match her stylish pink jacket. She looked like a classy Islamic Amy Winehouse.

An Afghan entrepreneur had dyed her hair magenta, swathed her body in hot cerise, vivid orange, and zippy purple, thrust her feet into four-inch heels, and perched punky orange sunglasses on her nose. She travelled out to the villages as a volunteer, this fabulous woman, to teach her receptive rural sisters there that they should love their bodies, and love themselves.

Clothing, generally, wasn't seen as a pressing concern for the progressive Afghan women. What irked them, among other things, was Mehran culture, which decreed that wives had to travel with their husbands, or with men they could not marry – fathers or brothers.

One of the women I spoke to was working with an Arab organisation that campaigned to challenge this. "We try to get people to understand that it is not good for the men any more than it is for the women," she said, "because they have to leave their work too if they are to travel with the women." Which was exactly the difficulty that I was most acutely aware of myself.

It is Mehran culture that fosters the burqa, because it offers women the opportunity to travel outside their own small localities alone. Barbara Bush and Cherie Blair, when they suggested in the run-up to the invasion of Afghanistan that the removal of the Taliban would bring the removal of the burqa, were talking out of sheer ignorance. Mehran culture is older than the Taliban, older than Islam, and it won't disappear in a hurry, even though it must if the country is to get back on its feet.

All of the women working in advocacy organisations said the same thing: that the big issues for women were safety and security, access to work, access to education, and access to the political process. "There is no problem, culturally, with women working in Kabul," said one woman, a lawyer. "But there isn't so much work. We tried to make women owners of businesses, but it is difficult. Before the war, in Kabul, they had access to education. Now, they cannot write, they cannot count, they cannot keep records."

Another woman, an adviser in a government ministry, was more blunt. "People are fond of saying that before the war the government was 40 per cent women, and that even now it is more than a quarter women. But that's because they count the cleaners. Although I know my work is important, I think about leaving the ministry all the time. I feel so isolated because the men don't listen to me, or allow me to take part in making the decisions."

The Afghan women I spoke to felt that nothing that might liberate women could be achieved if it could not be squared with Islam, and much work is being done on teaching women what their true rights are, according to the Koran. But it was a Muslim New Yorker who really summed it up: "It helps in my work that I am a Muslim, and can hug the women, and talk to them as my Muslim sisters. Sometimes I feel like a fraud, though, because being a Muslim woman is quite different for me than it is for them."

My visit to Afghanistan was organised by the Birmingham-based international aid agency Islamic Relief. The man who runs the operation out there, Engr Dastagir, is committed to women's rights in Afghanistan, and describes his wife, who herself is deputy director of a women's organisation, as "a hero". For a Pashtun – a member of Afghanistan's most populous, most politically influential ethnic group – his position is highly unusual.

Changing the attitudes of the men is every bit as crucial to the women's and the country's future, as is changing those of the women, who themselves cling to the traditional ways. The emphasis in reconstruction concentrates almost exclusively on challenging the assumptions of the women, and hardly at all on doing the same to those of the men. Yet, the two tasks, like happy couples, go hand in hand.

For more information on Islamic Relief visit www.islamic-relief.com or call 0121-622 0663

A city of music, roses and ice cream

It's not all doom and gloom in Kabul. There's fun to be had, and relaxation. One afternoon, I bunked off with my Pakistani friend Niyaz, and we visited the Bagh-e Babur gardens, shot to hell in the war, plundered and mined, now beautifully restored by the Aga Khan Foundation, and the Germans.

There, amid the fragrant roses – the Afghans love their roses – lies the grave of Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur, the founder of the Mughal dynasty. He died in Agra, having conquered India in 1526. But it was his wish to be returned after death to this garden, the loveliest of 10 he had made in the city. It is lovely again, and an astonishingly peaceful oasis in that nutty, tumultuous place.

Next, we met up with Shqipe, an impossibly vivacious Kosovan I'd made friends with at our hotel. She had invited us to join her at a late-afternoon concert of traditional Afghan music at the French Institute, and six of us squashed into her car. The grand, shabby theatre, built by the Russians, was packed. ("Say what you like about the Russians," an American remarked, disarmingly. "But at least they could do infrastructure.")

The music, led by the celebrated vocalist Ghazal Shakil, performing in his homeland for the first time in 17 years, was wonderful. The sight of so many people, Western and Afghan, gathered in one place, defying the security situation, even though there had been a suicide bombing two evenings before, was the finest, most hopeful thing I saw in my time in Afghanistan.

On our way back in the dark – every visitor is told that it's mad to go out after nightfall – we stopped and bought aromatic Afghan ice cream, Sheer Yakh, and ate it in the car, feeling naughty. An old man loomed out of the manic masculine street life thrumming around us, hawking two highly realistic doll babies. Niyaz, for a moment, thought they were babies, and was shocked senseless. Cue loon-laughter all round. It was great to know that, even in Kabul, some sights are much too awful to be true.

* The occasional similarities between British and Afghan socio-political preoccupations were quite arresting. A big story for the Afghanistan Times last week was the one-day teachers' strike – with further action threatened – over salaries. Teachers in the state system get 3,000 Afghanis a month, which doesn't even keep them in flour. But instead of offering a pay hike, the government is launching a key workers' accommodation deal. Theoretically, in both countries, everyone is in agreement: Education! Education! Education!

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: We are currently looking for a Geog...

Tradewind Recruitment: Phase Co-ordinator for Foundation and Key Stage 1

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: Phase Co-ordinator for Foundation and Key S...

Tradewind Recruitment: SEN Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: SEN Teacher We have a fantastic special n...

Tradewind Recruitment: History Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is an 11-18 all ability co-educat...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

If I were Prime Minister: Every privatised corner of the NHS would be taken back into public ownership

Philip Pullman
 

Errors & Omissions: Magna Carta, sexing bishops and ministerial aides

John Rentoul
Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee