Say Afghanistan, and a whole range of difficult issues comes to mind, at the forefront of which is the position of women. In the next edition of Radio Prague’s special edition on Afghanistan, we wanted to know how Czechs in the most far-off parts of that country work with and among the women of Afghanistan. Christian Falvey joined the Czech aid organisation People in Need in the field to find out.
Markéta Novotná is one of three Czech women currently working with People in Need in Afghanistan. In the financial office in Mazar-i-Sharif, she leads a team of educated men and women not so very different at first sight from the kind of collective you might expect anywhere else.
“It’s of course easier to work with Afghan women, because with the men, it’s much more natural for them to cooperate and speak with other men than with women. So when I need to resolve something with a man, I face an initial phase of mistrust, I have to justify my position, and so on. So for me it’s quite difficult. But in the office with the men with whom I work every day it’s easy. They talk to us in the same way, whether we’re men or women. So it is a problem when you begin working here, and when you’re in the field, when you want to resolve or discuss something with men in the villages, where they never see foreigners.”
Have you experienced men feeling uncomfortable with you telling them they have to do something?
“Eh, no. They can be less patient than Afghan women, they don’t want to listen to me for so long [laughs]. That has been one experience. But no. Not with my closest colleagues in the office, no.”
“Do not look an Afghan woman in the eye,” I was told by most every website, “do not speak to a woman, do not ask after her or, god forbid, touch her in even the most well-meaning way.” Reality is slightly less severe, but it’s not bad advice to bank on for your first trip as a roving reporter. But Pavel Přikryl of People in Need will be in Afghanistan for 18 months, and his food assistance projects will be quite impossible without the day-to-day communication with his female staff-members in Mazar-i-Sharif.
“It’s quite complicated actually, you have to approach a woman in a certain way, for example you never shake hands with a woman even if she is your colleague, but on the other hand, the women on the team, those who work in the main office here in Mazar-i-Sharif, there are about five and they are all young and emancipated. So you can speak to them normally, they don’t wear burqas on the street, one of them is even my teacher of Dari, and it’s ok that we sit together alone, only the two of us in one room, for her to teach me – that’s no problem.”
Such is the reality as relayed from a kebab shop in Mazar-i-Sharif. But most of the work of People in Need does not take place in the relatively worldly confines of Mazar, it is done in the high mountain communes of Afghans of various ethnicities who rarely see a foreigner, let alone a foreign woman, and with whom the necessary communication can be impossible without a liaison of the proper sex. Just a few days later we would be far, far away from any kebab, in villages reached only by driving for four hours through a river and canyon, or perhaps more expediently by horse.
“In the villages, you basically don’t even see a woman, being a male and a foreigner. So, I mean, if you enter a room, the women just leave, or they cover their heads so that you cannot see them, you definitely cannot speak with them. So it’s quite complicated, and you have to be able to work in this environment by always having an intermediary when you need to communicate with women. And it’s important in the projects, because you need to get the female side of the story: about their livelihoods, about what they need, whether a beneficiary was selected correctly… And there are some things that you need to ask women even from the practical point of view. Women are the ones who carry the water for instance, with the children, so they know how far it is for them to carry the water, and things like that. The men you ask about farming and such things, but the females, they know other things.”
One of Pavel’s liaisons is Farida Rahimi a 37-year-old woman who had started working for People in Need just a couple of days before our first trip into rural Afghanistan. When I spoke to her first, she hadn’t yet ventured into People in Need’s remote Uzbek, Tajik and Hazara, villages known only to very few strangers.
Do you feel comfortable working among men, as an Afghan woman among other Afghan men?
“I don’t have any problem between men and women. It is because I have more than 18 years experience working in the field and in the office.”
That’s uncommon in Afghanistan, no?
“Yes it is difficult, we have a bad culture and custom about the female going to the field without any male, without her brother or father. They will think badly about that. But I know there are other female staff, and when I go to the field with them I will not have any problem in the future.”
But Farida had no other women, nor any brothers or a father to rely on when we arrived at our final destination, a village of mud-slapped houses deep in a canyon valley called Margzar that a handful of Afghan workers from People in Need call home for their sojourns in the field. The emancipated Farida eats alone and walks behind us men, and so I didn’t notice immediately that she had donned a burqa for our visit to the village beneficiaries.
Could I ask you - this would be the first time I have interviewed a woman in a burqa – why are you wearing a burqa now?
“[laughs] Because of the culture, the custom, of this village. In this village, they don’t like the female staff coming without a burqa.”
“Because of our custom, I’m relaxed. It is a bother, but I have to do it.”
And can you see well?
“Not well! It’s difficult for me, because I go to the city and wear a veil, this is the first time I have worn the burqa.”
And is it hot?
“Yeah, it is hot!”
We were indeed lucky to have the courageous Farida for our discussions and negotiations with the women and the men of Margzar, but when it came to male bonding we needed her as well and she was made to wait elsewhere as we sat on the floor with the village elders.
“So now you see the difficulties: we have been invited for tea with the men – to sit with several men in this room – but our translator, who is a woman, is not allowed to enter such a gathering. So now we are facing a problem that we can’t understand each other, but that’s ok with them apparently.”
Farida however ultimately negotiated her way into the room, ultimately facilitating a discussion of manly pursuits between us, namely the contents of Afghan and Swedish chewing tobacco (the Afghan variety being made with unslaked lime). After we left, her Czech colleague was curious to know how she had won admittance.
“No, now they think it’s okay, but when I came they were saying ‘oh, it is not good for a female to sit among foreign people!’ And I explained to them, ‘Yes, sometimes you are wrong in what you think’… But they are not educated. For people who are not educated it is bad, and they are wrong in what they think, and these things are not clear to them.”
Even with the unflagging Farida by our side it was sometimes every bit as difficult to speak to the local female beneficiaries as promised. In the region of Shortepa on the Uzbek border, project manager Abdul Jamil and one of the female field workers named Fatima explained why I had been flatly rebuffed.
“This is the custom and the religious practice here, because her husband does not allow her to speak with other people.”
Is that the case in every household here, or are some households more conservative?
“No, not in every house. Some are very open. But in our marketing training for example, they didn’t allow six of the women to come to the workshop, even though it was organised by a woman.”
“No, they want their women to work inside the house, but they don’t want them to go outside the house or to the other people’s houses.”
And can I ask your field worker a question? Maybe she won’t want to answer in front of all of these men, but does she feel like women’s lives here are more difficult than those of men?
“Yes, they face more difficulties than men, but she accepts that.”
What would you like to see happen in this area in order for women’s lives to be better?
“First of all literacy and education - that is what is needed for these people. And security... psychological security. When the Action Aid office held a marketing workshop for women one month ago in Kaldar, someone burned it down in the night. The women are afraid that if we have a similar workshop, they will set fire to our office too. Psychologically it is too much for them. They need security, and they need education.”
Afghan women can accept an awful lot, I found. What they wear, how much they work or what is demanded of them is often further from their minds than many Westerners would presumably expect, and as Fatima says, their most earnest needs are much more basic than that.