Advice for Women Aid Workers
in Afghanistan

This list of suggestions started off as a reply to the author of Lonely Planet Afghanistan. I really enjoyed LP Afghanistan; it provides excellent details on how to get around in the country, what to see, the history, etc. It was written at a time when things were getting better in the country, and the book reeks of hope. And that's not a bad thing. I really hope that people in the Afghan government, on the national and regional levels, will read this book, because I think it will give them a lot of insight into what travelers want and need, and what local Afghans need in terms of education and support in order to be good hosts and guides for the country. And I still hope the security situation improves, so that travelers can take advantage of this book. And anyone going to Afghanistan, no matter in WHAT capacity, should ABSOLUTELY buy this book, even though so much of it is outdated - it still have good information.

But I did have a criticism at the time of the book's publication: I think there are essential suggestions for women visitors to the country that are missing from the book. Some women won't agree with me about these suggestions -- short-term visitors especially will say that you don't need to do all of the following, and women who don't work daily with Afghan men and/or who are perceived as high-level executives in the country will say many of these warnings are unnecessary. And, of course, no single experience in a country, Afghanistan or otherwise, is going to be the same for everyone.

But with that disclaimer aside -- I stand by this list of suggestions. This is based on what I was advised by women who had been in Afghanistan for more than a year, by women journalists, by women who were well-versed in the culture, by women who suffered consequences of their behavior, and on my own experience.

Here is the list, which I hope will help women aid workers in Afghanistan:

None of this is to say that a foreign woman shouldn't be happy in Afghanistan, shouldn't talk to people, shouldn't smile, or that she should act subservient. Command and demand honor and respect, absolutely! Carry yourself as someone who deserves such!

Feel free to talk about your family, your education, other jobs you've had, your hobbies and your travels to other countries -- my Afghan women colleagues seemed to love it when I did so (and had sooooo many questions). I even talked about my dog, and I know it blew the Afghans' minds that I cared for a "filthy, disgusting creature" in my house. But I talked about how loving she is, how she protects me, and how much pride dogs have in doing something well -- more than many humans I know -- and most Afghans seemed really quite intrigued. I also smiled in all photos, something that Afghan women don't usually do (see photo at the top of this page).

As you near the end of your stint in Afghanistan, you can think about loosening up a bit. I even dared to head to Qargha Lake and discuss religion with three Afghan male co-workers (they had no idea what a Protestant was; after I told them about the differences with the Catholic Church, one of them said, "The Protestants are much more Islamic!" It made me laugh -- because, in some ways, it's true -- in good ways and bad.). My last week there, I went to dinner with another male Afghan co-worker, something I could never have done earlier on because of how it could have (and probably would have) been perceived by others, maybe even him. Once you have established a solid reputation, you can be a bit less conservative in behavior just before you head out of the country for good (but don't push it too much, please?).

Just remember this: what you do in Afghanistan may not have any ramifications for you, but it most definitely will for the women who come after you. And I repeat: being too cautious won't harm you or your work; letting your guard down or being careless in your behavior WILL.

Also see Kabul Shopping Guide Also see my adventures in Afghanistan; regular blogs from when I was there, March - August 2007.


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