Photograph via Flickr by ISAF Media.

It’s 2003, and I am in Kabul working as a minister’s assistant to help him rebuild the Ministry of Irrigation, Water Resources, and Environment. The minister chose my resume out of the stack primarily because I could speak the local language. In the short period that I have been here, the experience has been marked by paradox and contradiction. The paradoxes occur most often when tradition and necessity collide, like co-ed bathrooms in the ministry or the Nike hats that soldiers in traditional dress use to block the sun. Often, however, it is Afghan women who cause these collisions, questioning the assumptions about who they are and what their role is. Each day, the notion that women can’t be respected here is both undermined and reinforced. This constant movement forward and back reveals itself at various moments during my year in Afghanistan.

On Afghan Independence Day I wake at 5:30 to attend the celebrations at the stadium. After a cold trickle of a shower, my roommate and I put on our long linen tunics and headscarves and wait for the car to pick us up. The car arrives and we drive through the palace compound with all its gates and roadblocks to the festivity grounds. Not only are we the only women, we are also the only attendees not dressed in military attire. Hesitant, we inch our way out of the car.

We are led to the women’s section after our bags are checked. Before us, mountains stand above a mosque. A crumbling wall stretches out interminably on both sides of the mosque. In front of the mosque is a huge field with a track covered by parading soldiers. The sight is overwhelming in its scale.

“There are thousands of men here and not even a hundred women,” she declares.

But the real excitement occurs around me. A woman, dressed in general’s uniform and hat makes her way to sit near us. The gold medals on her uniform are so weighty that she leans to one side when she walks. Her blond hair is pulled up into her hat and her eyes are decorated with excessive amounts of mascara and eyeliner. Everyone stares.

Soon our attention moves to another woman’s entrance. She is dressed in a long black skirt and a white short sleeved shirt with nothing but a ribbon in her hair. She seems practically naked. She is in her mid-fifties. The whispers about her are a growing humming sound. She parks in front of us and begins to ask where all the women are.

“There are thousands of men here and not even a hundred women,” she declares.

The women respond that there were not enough invitations. She moves to the front of the section and pulls out a small camera and shoots pictures of the crowd of women in the stands. After a few shots, she takes her seat on the bench. As if her behavior and dress was not defiant enough, she pulls out a cigarette from her purse and begins to smoke. My friend and I watch in amazement. The woman behind us leans forward and asks us if we can believe a woman would dress like that.

Silence comes over the stadium. A woman begins to sing the national song over the intercom. For years, a woman’s voice in a public forum or song was banned by the Taliban. Despite the whispers around the female soldier and the outspoken woman smoker, everyone listens calmly to the melodic voice as it echoes against the mountains.

A month later I accompany the Minister to look at the effect of flooding on villages in Kunduz in the north. We fly over snow capped mountains, dry desert, and green covered hills. We land in lush Kunduz, a different country from the dusty roads of Kabul.

After attending a polio vaccination event at the local hospital, a group of military commanders, generals, police, and our provincial irrigation specialists prepare to take the Minister to a lunch at the mayor’s house. In the parking lot, I stop them and explain that we cannot go to lunch because we have to go out to the river to look at the erosion and flooding. Due to security curfew at 6 PM, we can’t go after lunch.

As anyone who has traveled anywhere from Russia to Asia knows, skipping out on offer of hospitality is an affront to the hosts and a sign of disrespect. I am acutely aware of this, but I am tired of customs and politics getting in the way of work. As we argue, neither the men nor I seem to notice that I am a woman. Our debate comes to an end when the Minister announces that we are skipping lunch to go to the site.

We drive to the river and the village elders show us how the sides, roads and bridges are eroded by the snowmelt. They describe the direction of the flow while we talk about temporary solutions, in the form of gabions—net boxes filled with rocks that can give structure to the river.

After this discussion we take a long walk. I don’t wear my headscarf, but this is no consolation as the sun’s heat permeates my long sleeves and pants. Along our walk, a farmer brings us a pail of water. He dips a cup in it, and he stretches his hand out for me to drink. I look at the minister for a cue, but he signals to me what I already know. I am terrified of what havoc the drink could reap on my stomach, but with all eyes on me I take a hearty sip.

Everyone smiles, the bucket is passed around, and then we head off for the long-awaited lunch. Around the large table, the men pull chunks of meat off skewers. They joke with me. “Is it okay to have lunch now, Khanum Maryam? Is this part of our program today?” I joke back. Again, neither me nor my counterparts seem to be conscious of my gender.

The next day we have breakfast at the mayor’s house. I sit on a doshak to the left of the minister. The village leaders sit to his right. They talk to the Minister in Pashtu and the other men in the room direct him to speak in Dari, so I can understand. The window is open and the sun hits my face. I forgot to put my scarf on, and I feel a little uncomfortable with my neck showing. I was the only woman in the room, among 40 men.

He says he is Afghan and being Afghan is different, that men and women do not talk like that with each other.

That afternoon the village elder, a bearded man in a turban, vest, and the standard loose cotton pants hands me a white lace scarf as a going away gift. “Now you are an Afghan girl,” he says. I smile and wonder what kind of girl he means.

After seven hours of bouncing on the unpaved road to Bamyan, the car parks on a plateau. I walk out expecting more of the yellow brown rock and dusty terrain but over the edge I see a blue green body of water. There are waterfalls falling from the plateaus that surround the water. It is a magical sight, and I am breathless.

We make our way to the shore of the lake. A group of Bamyan women sitting on the side ask me to swim. I am shocked, I thought for sure, as a woman, I couldn’t swim. I ask them why they don’t. They reply that they don’t know how. I watch the men jump into the water and look back at the women staring at me. I borrow the cotton parachute pants of my driver and a large t-shirt and jump into the water. I swim away from the shore and look back. The colorful tapestry on the women and the dark skin and Asian facial features on the men line the shore. The children with their wide eyes watch in bewilderment, while the men smile.

Years later, Bamyan votes in one of two women governors in the country.

Eight months after Bamyan, I make my morning visit to a newly rehabilitated building on the ministry compounds. The building and what happens inside of it is the future of the ministry. It is being used as a training center for the ministry engineers and staff. In rooms where there were once gaping holes from rockets, there are now women and men behind drawing boards looking at irrigation maps and plans. Some of the best engineers are the women, although most everyone has a steep learning curve because of all the time lost during the wars and Taliban rule.

After my rounds, Vafa, the 18-year old deputy minister’s assistant, comes into the office and sits next to me. He is tired of the demands of work. Everything is piling up, but he feels that there are more significant issues that no one is addressing. I agree with him on this and more. Vafa and I have been sharing the burden of conflicting government and international donor needs for ten months now.

We talk for a while and eventually the conversation digresses to Vafa’s ranking of the new slew of international women in the ministry. I ask him the qualities he desires in a wife. After working side by side with him for so long I expect an answer unlike the one he gives me.

“I want an obedient wife.”

I prod him, refusing to accept his response. I ask him if he doesn’t want a woman to talk to about work, about life, a friend, someone to have fun with. He says no, those are not the expectations he has of his wife. He says he is Afghan and being Afghan is different, that men and women do not talk like that with each other.

He asks about the type of man I want to marry. A friend and a companion, I tell him. He is silent. Then he replies with a question that is increasingly relevant as societies battle with the progressive and regressive tendencies within.

“How can there be two different worlds on the same planet?”

Maryam Abolfazli

Maryam Abolfazli worked in Afghanistan from 2003-2004 at the Ministry of Irrigation, Water Resources and Environment, and has traveled to Central Asia, South Caucasus, Southeast Asia and North Africa. She is now the Middle East and North Africa Director at an international development foundation based in the U.S.

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