Although not the most beautiful of Afghanistan's cities, Kabul is by far the most cosmopolitan: the social and cultural Afghan equivalent of New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. melded into one metropolis. And although Kabul boasts very little in the way of glamour, investment capital and strong governance, you can find here educated female professionals who wear Western garb (although always with a head scarf) and compete successfully with the menfolk. Yet the streets of Kabul also provide reminders that most Afghans live by a familial and social code much different from what is acceptable to an urbane Westerner. Perhaps this cultural divide is best exemplified by the burka worn by many women here.
My most unnerving moment so far in Afghanistan was when I passed within a foot of a woman wearing a burka who was walking the direction opposite of mine. I know that I am not supposed to stare at these women, and I didn't; but I felt myself transfixed as I had difficulty believing that what I saw coming toward me was an actual person. That's exactly the response the burka is supposed to elicit in a man, I suppose. I would not be acting properly if I acknowledged her in any way, as she is someone else's property and not considered an individual at all. The burka was effective in negating her as a person as I passed.
Other women comport themselves in public completely covered except for their upper faces, but I don't find that garb at all disarming as you can see the woman's eyes and they acknowledge, even if they don't look at you, that a human being exists under the robes. Not so with the burka. You cannot see through the mesh covering the woman's face. With their feet hidden and the sheets of the burka loose and flowing, these women are blue apparitions coming toward you. Sometimes you can see bony hands and fingers jutting from under the burka, but that only adds a grotesque, skeletal component to an otherwise sad and somewhat frightening scene.
This week I attended a lecture at the Afghanistan Ministry of Public Health. Outside the ministry building sits Massoud Circle, a major intersection in Kabul. I stared through a second-story window as I waited for the lecture to begin, watching Afghans as they walked, biked and drove around the circle. Several women I saw wore burkas, but two women held my attention more than the others. They were both in burkas, accompanied by one man, and sitting together several feet off the circle. The three looked as if they were awaiting transportation; and even though already fully covered, the two women faced away from the busy circle toward a stone wall. (See photo above.) They spoke to one another, but their clothing and position made it impossible for them to interact at all with the people around them. They took every measure available to hide their existence from the other people scurrying about near them.
The physician giving the lecture was a female Afghan physician who worked with the aid organization CARE to improve maternal-fetal health in Kabul. She explained how community educators, themselves literate local Afghan widows, tried to reach and educate expectant mothers. Many females in Afghanistan marry older men soon after the women (girls, really) reach ten years of age, even though the legal age for matrimony is sixteen. In order to educate a pregnant woman on nutrition, pre- and post-natal care, and the local medical services available, the community workers first gain the sanction of the local mullah, the Islamic leader, and then the woman's mother-in-law. (Often, an entire community of older women will meet as a shoura, an estrogen-soaked community council, to decide if they will accept the educators into their homes to speak with the younger pregnant women.) Usually, if his mother decides that an educator should speak to his pregnant wife, the husband will consent to an intervention in his home. But the husband alone determines if his wife will leave the house to visit a hospital or physician.
The social pressure for conformity and the engrained traditions found here can even overpower parents who want their daughters to educate and liberate themselves. I know a physician who helped sponsor a very bright young provincial woman so she could study law in Kabul. She was a stellar student. Her parents, who were quite proud of her learning and accomplishments, shocked everyone when they announced recently that they would be marrying the woman, who is twenty, to a man more than twice her age. They explained that they truly did not want to give their daughter away and force her to abandon her studies, but the pressure from their extended families was so great that they had no choice but to agree to the betrothel. The marriage will ensure that the aspiring lawyer returns to her village to spend the rest of her life as a virtual recluse.