Salaam Afghanistan

Health and Ethnic Conflict.

My first visit to the Heart of Asia -- Reflections and Photos.

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Location: Mbarara, Uganda

Internist and Pediatrician with a passion for international health.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

The Women's Park: A New Perspective on Women in Burqas


On the north side of the city, there is a women's park. What is it, exactly? Well... that. A park for women only, where women go with their families, they go with their wares, they shed their burqas and buy and sell clothes, medicines, trinkets, accessories, and foods. It's a space where women can feel free as they can't in many other places, even in their own homes where men and male visitors are regular.

I had been wanting to go since I heard about it, and so had my friend Miho, so we made plans to head over after work today. We had just walked in and were beginning to appraise the situation (actually not too much to speak of -- a little bit of brownish grass, some pebbled walkways, a few shaded benches, and a play area for children), when I heard a voice behind us asking, "Excuse me, do you speak English?" I turned around to see a group of young women, faces shining and eager to practice their English with a real American. They also wanted to know if we spoke German or French. No, I'm a lame American. I only speak English and Spanish, and cam cam Farsi. They wanted to take photos with us (see above) right away. They asked us to come and meet their sister and to sit with them.

My Dari was not quite as good as their English, so once again, our verbal communication was limited. This, time, though, our companions were so pleased with us (and, I daresay, my smiling ignorance) that they quickly decided that "I love you" and "You my sister now." We sat and "talked" under the shade and I took their photos.

I was able to gather that they are Afghans living in Pakistan, as refugees not yet returned home after the fall of the Taleban. One of the girls, with a beauty far more mature than her age, has been living in Germany, and wants to be a model. Living far away from her native Afghanistan where women and children go hungry and malnourished for want of food, she already exhibits symptoms of a poor body image in the making, pinching her belly and complaining of "getting fat" and needing to "diet." These are English words that she nows. I hate to think what these discussions sound like in German, when she is not limited by lack of vocabulary. She's 8 years old. Beautiful, isn't she?

We continue talking and as it becomes later and it is nearing time for us to leave, they press us with extremely enthusiastic sincerity to join them for dinner the following day. Once again, Miho and I decline as politely as possible, but they are insistent and actually plead with us to join them. "please, come, dinner, my house" and "i love, you, my house." The young model clasps her hands in the kind of sweet supplication that children are able to convey. They take my arm and snuggle close, unwilling to accept that we will not see each other again. They force bracelets on my wrists, despite my protests. Of course, we end by accepting their invitation. They are thrilled! Admittedly, their genuine pleasure is infectious, and I, too, am smiling broadly at my good fortune in meeting such kind and welcoming women. I look forward to breaking bread and sharing an authentic meal with them -- I have had such few opportunities to experience the culture in these kind of meaningful ways.

Our agreement secured, we are free to leave and we walk outside together. Miho crosses the street with the children to buy some treats, and I pause to take a photo:

When I turn back around, I turn just in time to get a final glimpse of one of my companions' faces before she lets the curtain that is her burqa drop down to her knees. I am shocked and dismayed at my reaction. In that moment, it is as if she has drawn an invisibility cloak over herself. She is depersonalized. She fades into the background, camouflaged as one of the silent blue figures that drift along as "extras" or even, yes, "props" on the Taleban-era Afghanistan set.

I thought that I was so open, so in touch with the plight of these oppressed women, an knowledgable and knowing advocate. I heard myself passionately educating my friends and colleagues about Afghan women, what its like for them, how easily people form mistaken opinions about them. And I never knew. And I never knew I didn't know until that moment. I, too have been guilty of depersonalizing these women. It is worse for the hypocrisy. I had just passed two hours talking and laughing and holding hands with this woman, and in a moment, I no longer saw her, I didn't even know how to look for her. Yes, this is what fundamentalists want, this is the very function of the burqa, and I have given in to it.

Tomorrow I will see her again, unveiled in the comfort of her home. I wish I knew how to make myself see her now.

Above: Her sister, who does not wear the veil and is ok with being photographed. She is beneath the burqa, turning away in the background. And yet I manage to smile even after such a revelation about my personal failings...

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