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Afghan Women and the Fallacy of Liberation

In 2002, I flew to Afghanistan with $20,000 down my pants. I was 27 years old — enthusiastic, naive, and…terrified.

The journey took 17.5 hours. The money in my pants was funding I had been given to start my work.

When I arrived, Kabul was an exhausted and malnourished city. Twenty-three years of conflict had taken a toll. Occupied by the Taliban in 1996, Kabul was previously the stage for much of the fighting between factions following the Russian withdrawal, and subsequent collapse of the Communist government. Damage to infrastructure was clearly visible, despite the city’s saturation with international agencies and good intentions. Kabul looked brown and parched, like a dusty old mountain man very much in need of a drink.

I was fortunate to find the Mustafa Hotel, a large nondescript structure with white barred windows — a decorating style I later dubbed “asylum chic.” A fossilized bat sat above my door. Bathrooms were at the end of the hall, where a young ex-Talib with an AK-47 leaned on a 3-legged chair and snored.

Once I stepped outside the hotel, chaddari-clad women begged for money. Many were widows, with sad-faced children in tow. They squatted in the gravel on the side of the dirty road, tattered garments wiping the ground. I could see nothing but the deep crevasses in their worn hands, and dirt ground forever in their fingernails.

“I want to tell you about my tragic life,” one woman cried.

“I’ve spent days in hunger, nights in the darkness,” added another. “Maybe you know about the life of an Afghan woman, filled with that much pain and difficulty that I’m not able to express it.”

“Please help me. I have a baby that I can’t feed. There is no milk in my breasts,” a woman called out as she tried to hand me her malnourished child.

The women seemed weathered and war-weary, with whole lives lived in each wrinkle on their young faces. Some of them were hardly 20 years old. I knew nothing of their world. I must have looked like a child to them, uncomfortable with how much power I had.

The story I saw was one of poverty — and of dignity. It was not about the chaddari, the blue garment that falsely came to symbolize oppression for Westerners. Such facile constructions led us to believe that all those in Western clothes are ‘liberated’. Although more Afghan men abandoned salwar kameez for jeans in those early days, denim did little to change their views.

These women needed support to get off the street — and stand on their own feet.

Want to read more? Here you go:

#Activism #GenderEquality #AfghanWomen #Women #Afghanistan #Feminism #WomensRights #ViolenceAgainstWomen

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