Clad in blue from head to toe, with a tiny mesh where the eyes should be, the Afghan woman goes about her life in the war-ravaged country. Let’s give her a name- Nazia. Nazia’s day starts as early as before sunrise, when she wakes up to start her day with the first round of prayers. She then bustles about, waking up her children, sending the boys out with the men in the house, to the mosque to pray. Nazia puts together meals for her family, helping her children get ready for school, her husband get ready for work. When the front door finally closes, Nazia has chores to do. She cooks and cleans, prays and prepares the home for her family. Nazia goes to work in the fields, but save for that, she seldom goes out. Whenever she does go out, she must go under a sheath of blue- the chadri. Though this isn’t mandated under the present Afghan Regime, girls like Nazia need the sheath of blue canvas for their own safety, from miscreants in society. Nazia saves every penny she can get from her long hours in the field, so her little son and daughter can be educated, and become strong, empowered individuals.
What sets Nazia apart from her numerous counterparts world over? Her spirit of resilience, and her ability to rise above the turmoil that life in Afghanistan has put her through. Her courage and her penchant for empowering herself, and for passing on that determination to her children.
Though the Karzai administration, post 9/11, has relaxed a lot of harsh policies concerning women, the prevalence of warlords and the looming fear of the rise of the Taliban keep women confined. Nazia and women like her, live under conditions where domestic violence is perpetrated liberally, where women find themselves leered at and harassed on the streets by miscreants, where the threat of rape looms large, where women must cow down to men in a tautly male-driven society. Despite the cumbersome burden comprising a heady mix of fear, threats and penury, women in Afghanistan are firm in their resolve, to rise above the thumb that pins them tight to the ground.
Afghanistan leaves every Afghani girl’s marriage as a decision for the men in her family to make for her- to the point that sometimes, girls are engaged before they are born, or even married off to men who are much older than them, in exchange for economic benefits in the form of bride prices. Post marriage, a girl hasn’t a choice, and is virtually a chattel in the hands of her in-laws. Domestic violence is oftentimes perpetrated and women bear the yoke of physical and psychological trauma, what with her in-laws assuming the right to determine the course of her life. Getting out of a marriage is not easy for a woman, for divorce is something only a man is entitled to do, even if his wife does not consent to it. The aftermath of a divorce is messy- a woman is allowed custody of her young children only until they reach majority, and lives a life where she is forced to bear the stigmatic pockmark of being a social pariah for the rest of her life.
But even as the clouds look grey, there is a silver lining.
Since 2002, women in Afghanistan have been working towards making their presence felt in the economy and polity. Meena Rahmani became the first woman in Afghanistan to open a bowling centre in war-ravaged Kabul, a considerably number of women became members of the National Assembly of Afghanistan- which is the Afghan Parliament- like Shukria Barakzai, Malalai Joya and Fauzia Gilani, to name a few. It is also creditable that the National Police, National Army and the Air Force have some female officers, and even as we write and read this post, more are being recruited into the ranks of these institutions. Agriculture is one of the biggest sectors which has most women workers- with about 80% of the total Afghan population employed in Agriculture and allied fields, 30% of that sum are women. About 50% of the total Afghanis in the field of medicine are women, although this is largely need-driven, since women are encouraged to visit female physicians for their medical complaints. There is quite an increase in the number of women taking to media, justice and education as career options.
The broken economy that weighs down Afghanistan has led to a bout of massive unemployment and poverty, and it is a natural consequence that most employment opportunities don’t quite offer a sufficient pay-packet. Consequently, the Afghani woman is obligated to have to single-handedly run a household and work, without an extra hand to help. Nevertheless, the sheer resolve to break the glass ceiling and rise above the odds is definitely overwhelming.
There is a leeway for women, and there are myriads of them that are clutching at the straws of hope. The indomitable urge to rise like the proverbial phoenix from the ashes in some women, could prove to be a breath of fresh, redolent air, for many of their counterparts in Afghanistan- who may not be able to empower themselves on their own. The ones who have risen are a beacon of light for those that are still looking for empowerment. The women who have risen above the claustrophobia of a parochial society are not just inspiration, but also scions for those that are still confined to the claustrophobia of the chadris.
True, the Afghan woman lives a life of poverty.
True, the Afghan woman lives under constant fear of the men-folk in her family.
True, the Afghan woman fears the return of the Taliban.
True, the Afghan woman is a feminine fish swimming against the patriarchal tide that is a confluence of culture, policy and warlord clashes.
But it is also true that the Afghan woman has hope, has resilience, and has every iota of all that it takes to emerge a force to reckon with.
Watch out for the Women in Blue.
· Rosemarie Skaine, Women of Afghanistan In The Post-Taliban Era: How Lives Have Changed and Where They Stand Today.
· Batya Swift Yasgur, Behind the Burqa: Our Life in Afghanistan and How We Escaped to Freedom.
· Sally Armstrong, Veiled Threat: The Hidden Power of the Women of Afghanistan.
· Elizabeth Rubin. 'Veiled Rebellion', National Geographic Magazine. December 2010. (http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2010/12/afghan-women/rubin-text/3)