Big Tent

Camp Parsa, Khowst, Afghanistan, March 2009

In a year in Afghanistan I met and heard speak exactly one Afghan woman.  We held a big shura to discuss progress on the KG Pass Road and invited leaders from across Khowst and Paktya.  The woman I speak of, whose name I don’t remember, was something of a celebrity—a politician of some stature from Paktya.  How she rose to power, I don’t know, but she spoke under the big tent to the big crowd, and then gathered with the other leaders and speakers in a private room while they waited for helicopters to return them to their home districts.

For over an hour, I observed her interact with the 15 or so males in the room, me being the only American.  It was a rare glimpse behind the veil, a view of what life must be like within the family circles deep inside the thick kalat walls.  It was obvious the men in the room adored her.  She bantered, held forth, smiled, laughed, cajoled, and conversed with perfect integrity and ease.  Not a hint of tension, condescension, or attitude whatsoever from anyone present except to suggest that all were extremely happy to be there, talking freely and safely for as long as they could get away with it.

Other than that, nothing.  We never ventured inside the kalats, and the burqua-ed up women we saw on the roads turned their backs on us and crouched into little balls until we passed.  This behavior made our interpreters furious.  “Do you think they want to act like that?” they asked.  “Do you think their family wants it to be like that? Do you think it was always like this?”

4 Responses to “Big Tent”

  1. Elsie De Laere Says:

    Hi Peter,

    Read your post. Happy you had a chance to got a chance to look behind the veil in Afghanistan and yes, the interpreter was right, it hasn’t always been ‘like this’. Actually, under the Russian occupation there were at least as many women doctors and engineers as there were male counterparts. Before the Russians invaded Afghanistan, SOME women were able to live similar modern lives like those of women in the west. Most women didn’t have access to these luxuries of going to college and hanging out in miniskirt drinking yogurt or licking ice-cream. The worked just as hard as many women in the world do who are poor. It is true however that women had a better overall situation in terms of the way men behaved toward them. That misogynist behavior didn’t truly start rearing its ugly head until religious fanatics started fighting the Russians, with the help of the US. These fanatics as you may well know are the mujaheddin who then fought each other, massacring each other and raping each other’s women. Women are the real victims of men’s aggressions; women and men and the Afghan women were victims continuously throughout the reign of the Taleban which followed the horrendous fighting between the mujaheddin factions. The Taleban institutionalized as you also know very well, the hatred against women. It was a way for men, as it stills is today, to dominate women, feel better about themselves.
    The US military and its’ allies are to be commended for liberating the Afghan people from these barbarians. As a human rights activist I have met many more Afghan women than you have I’m sure, both here in the US and in Afghanistan. I have applauded every time another step towards women was made, including better access to education, representation in parliament, improved access to health care, especially pre-natal care, signing of CEDAW and SVAW by Pres. Karzai. I was very excited indeed.
    I have I’m afraid lost some of that excitement however for two reasons and I hope you don’t mind continuing reading.
    First, I know as do all Afghan women by now that the US will be leaving and security will deteriorate and USAID and other aid monies will dry up. The women of Afghanistan have expressed their fears loudly and clearly for some time now. The US is overextended in its missions pursued rightly or wrongly since Pres. Bush Jr. was president and then since Pres. Obama widened the war. Other conflicts US politicians are already calling out to get involved with are going to consume more money, more energy. Afghan women are collateral damage, again; to me it’s clear and simple. I fear that Iranian women will be next and so on and so on.
    The second reason I have lost faith with the US efforts on supporting the Afghan women is the fact that right here, in my own backyard, we hear stronger and stronger voices of politicians sounding like little mullahs as they start questioning the rights of American women and girls. It has been a slow train coming but that train seems to have sped up during this and the last nomination cycle for US president. Women’s constitutional rights are being attacked and undermined by various politicians who stand to gain from these attacks. Religious language is being invoked as never before in politics and the politics concerning women.
    I went to visit several family planning clinics (Marie Stopes) while staying in Ghazni and the doctor and nurses showed off the variety of contraceptives they taught the women (and some men) to use so they could limit the amount of children they had but also to deal with other issues which contraceptives can help with. This was Ghazni province, Afghanistan, four or five years ago.
    It is the United States, 2012 and I am listening one man trying to outdo the other one on stage (all four of them trying to be our next president!!) on what they will do to make sure that women’s consitutionally guaranteed rights to make her own choices about her own body are weakened. I’m not just talking abortion and choice to have one, Peter, I am talking access to contraceptives. I am talking about verbal attacks on the American Girl Scouts for being anti-American.
    Peter, wherever you are, whatever your chances were of looking into the eyes of Afghan women, I say, if you want to support women, sign the petitions groups like mine send out, send money but before you do so, think about the rights of your own wife, sisters, mother and daughters. Study Rick Santorum and study Opus Dei.


  2. petermolin Says:

    Elsie–I’m still on active duty, so I can’t make political endorsements or criticize our government. I do respect the time you’ve spent in Afghanistan working on behalf of women’s rights, and I support the cause of fair treatment of women and creation of equal opportunities for everyone in Afghanistan, here, and everywhere else. -Peter

  3. Elsie De Laere Says:

    Didn’t realize you were still on active duty. Thanks for your comment. I never doubted, from the little I know about you, that you believe in equal opportunities for women anywhere. Men who feel secure within themselves do not feel threatened by women’s participation in civic life, political life, academic life, the military etc.
    I do continue to do whatever I can on behalf of Afghan women. Having lived and worked with them on the ground makes it difficult to forget about them. I hope you and your loved are well.

  4. petermolin Says:

    Thanks, Elsie.

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