|| Advice for Women
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much of it is outdated - it still have good information.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
- Bring at least eight passport-sized photos with you (even 10 is
good). Half should be with your headscarf loosely around your head, half
without. You will need these for various IDs, visas and what not.
- A woman's rear should be covered by her shirt or jacket at ALL times,
often even in your compound/guest house if it is staffed by locals or
people from very conservative countries. Even loose pants aren't enough
- the butt cover is essential. This was the best advice I ever
got from anyone before I went to Afghanistan. Keep your lower neck, arms
and ankles covered as well, absolutely when outside your guest house or
compound. Your headscarf can be very loose, but it needs to be there.
Yes, you will see foreign women who don't do any of this (like the butt
cover). They are contributing to an image for foreign women that you do
NOT want to be associated with in the minds of Afghans. (photo note:
around the office and within the work compound, most foreign women don't
wear their headscarves. Also, in the photo above, it was my last week,
and I pushed it regarding exposing my arms; I figured my reputation
could stand any hits the very last week I was there).
- Regarding shoes: I wore my hiking boots or my Teva sandals anywhere
and everywhere, even with dresses and shalwar kamizes. Trail running
shoes would have also good. I left all "office" type shoes back in
Germany. Even if you work in an office you may have to go through quite
an obstacle course of mud and dirt and what not to get to it.
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!
- Women who are going to stay in Afghanistan longer than just a few
weeks need to be particularly aware of how prone Afghans are to
and how the rumors about a woman´s unIslamic behavior, even if
absolutely untrue, can sink her work there (it happened to two friends
of mine), and even make your situation dangerous - a rumor can result in
harassment from men (not necessarily Afghans) and a shunning from the
local women, behavior that can escalate to the point where you can no
longer do your work, you are no longer safe, and you have to leave your
post. Perception is everything in Afghanistan. Many of the
suggestions here relate to this.
- Have a tattoo? Keep it covered AT ALL TIMES and don't let anyone know
you have it. Having a tattoo is a sign that you are not Islamic, and
perhaps, in the minds of many, even a prostitute. It could result in
harassment from men and a shunning from the local women that could get
so bad you have to leave your post
- A woman in Afghanistan, without her family/"tribe", is a potential
target for a lot of very negative things - maybe by Afghans, maybe by
other aid workers from countries with similar mindsets. The lower she is
in her office hierarchy, the worse her treatment will be by many of your
co-workers. I wish it were different, I hope some day it is different,
but the reality is, because of Afghan culture, widespread
misinformation, and what they see on Western TV, many Afghans think
foreign women will have sex with anyone. It's a scary thing when your
driver or Afghan co-worker or guest house manager, someone you have
known for MONTHS, announces an intention or proposes an activity you
would rather not consider, and for you to realize that all these months
you thought he was just being nice, that you were just being nice, or
you were just benignly working together, was, for him, leading up to
this moment. I'm a fat middle aged woman old enough to have grandkids,
and it happened to me, more than once, and I saw it happen to a friend.
The longer a woman is in country, the more likely this will happen.
Maybe it won't happen to you -- lucky you. But you need to do what you
can to avoid it, and to be prepared for it if it does.
- If you are staying at a guest house, do not EVER allow a man in your
room, and never go into his, whether he's an Afghan or a fellow
countryman or your best buddy from university. To do otherwise will lead
to a very bad perception of you by locals. If you want to entertain
mixed company in a guest house, stick with the lobby or common rooms.
- Tell Afghans you are married. Do NOT tell an Afghan you are divorced
or a single mother. A married woman gets much more respect in
Afghanistan than a single one, I'm sorry to say, because she has a
"tribe" -- her husband and her family, even unseen. Being perceived as
married will make your work, interactions and travel easier. If a woman
has kids, all the better - bring photos of such. If you are traveling
with a man, you should ABSOLUTELY say you are married to him to any
Afghan you encounter. You put yourself in danger otherwise.
- If you are going to have a romance in-country, be very, very discreet
about it. Your Afghan colleagues do NOT need to know. Consider reminding
anyone who does know that it would be a good idea not to discuss
such widely, given what a hit on your reputation could do to your work
- Put your birth control pills and any condoms you are taking with you
in the most discreet packaging EVER. Do not ever, ever, ever let any
co-workers see these or hear about these. You could be branded a "loose"
woman, which means harassment from men and a shunning from the local
women that could get so bad you have to leave your post. In other words,
absolutely the only person who should know you have these is someone you
are going to have sex with.
- Do not let an Afghan co-worker, or any locals in your guest house,
see you drunk. If you are feeling tipsy, avoid having a chat with your
driver, for instance, on your way home. Never talk about your drinking
with your Afghan co-workers or other locals.
- There are many myths
Afghans pass around about what happens behind the walls of the
restaurants you are allowed in but they are not, related to drinking,
dancing, scantily-clad women, sex and various other unIslamic behavior.
Such rumors give the
police or crowds of angry locals justification (in their minds) for a
planned or impromptu raid. It's one thing to have fun (and have fun, by
all means, as you will go insane without such), but it's another thing
to be disrespectful and careless. Remember, at all times, that you are a
guest in Afghanistan -- you are there at the pleasure of its
government and its people.
True story: I had a male Afghan co-worker ask me, with great
intrigue, what I really did on my day off. I told him I went
to the grocery, I might go for a walk around the track at a
particularly-secure location (a school) near my embassy, I might go
shopping, my guest house might send out for food, I had a video
conference with my husband, I watched a movie or two, I played with
the kittens at my guest house, etc. And his face fell a bit and he
said, "Wow, that' really boring." And that perception was just
FINE with me (it was also the truth).
- Be prepared to assert yourself as necessary; for instance, you will
be at the mercy of your employer's drivers in order to get around, and
sometimes, the drivers may decide that your needs, as a woman, are
second to those of the men you work with. Or, you will be in a shop,
ready to place your order, and a man will cut in front of you, or the
shop keeper will decide to wait on a man who arrived after you. How you
handle these kinds of situations is up to you, and certainly any
consequences should be taken into consideration before you act -- but I
found that the more I asserted myself in these type of situations, the
more I challenged them ("Excuse me, but I was here FIRST, he came in
AFTER me"), the more respect I got.
I have a blog from May 2007 when I was in Kabul, called Women
Last, that talks about my firsthand experiences with this.
- The greatest risk when traveling abroad isn't terrorism or even a
criminal act; rather, it's being involved in a road crash. If you think
your driver is acting foolishly, tell him to slow the heck down. If he
does things while driving you think are inappropriate, report him.
- Another thing that's more likely to harm you than terrorism or a
criminal act while working abroad: sickness. Water-born diseases kill
far more people in Afghanistan and places like it than the Taliban. Do
whatever you need to do to keep yourself healthy. That may mean turning
down food or water from someone if you don't know the source. If you
sometimes get yeast infections or urinary tract infections, find a
doctor before you leave your home country that will give you meds to
deal with this while you are abroad, as it's not always easy to find
meds for these "female" conditions in Afghanistan.
- Sexual harassment, or at least creepy behavior, is real in
Afghanistan among aid workers and it is very likely you will experience
it. Do not think your age or your weight or your marital status or your
job title will protect you from propositions -- or worse. I
experienced it, and NOT by any Afghan co-workers (except
for one guy, all my Afghan co-workers were absolute gentlemen with me).
Think about different scenarios and how you will handle them,
particulary scenarios where a man who has been a great friend and
perfectly "tame" for four months suddenly announces he is in love with
you. More advice on this here.
- Women may not go to most mosques. Many foreign women are very upset
to find this out only upon arrival at a site. In fact, most Afghan women
have never been in a mosque.
- Don't give the "thumbs up" nor the "okay" sign; both mean something
sexual. Kids especially will try to get you to make this sign.
- Afghanistan is not Nepal. It's not Egypt. Women should NOT travel to
Afghanistan alone as a tourist, period. Yes, there are some who do it,
and one wrote me, outraged by what I've written here. I don't care --
right now, and for the foreseeable future, I will never recommend such.
If you can find an organization with which to be associated when you are
there, one that will look out for you, serve as your guide, ensure your
transportation and accommodation is appropriate, I would be marginally
okay with it - but be sure to tell your family before you leave if you
want them to negotiate for your release or not if you're kidnapped.
- Unlike some other Islamic countries, Western women aren't necessarily
"honorary men" in Afghanistan. Many activities that men do are
absolutely closed to you, a woman, no matter how high-up you are in your
agency. It's up to your host as to whether or not you get to enter a
certain place or witness a certain event; wait to be invited to do such
and do NOT demand to do such. But, by all means, ask before going into
the field for a meeting if there will be any restrictions on your
movements, as opposed to others' - often, your male bosses have never
thought of such.
- Don't hesitate to remind your foreign male co-workers of any of the
above, as necessary. They often have blinders on when it comes to the
treatment of women in Afghanistan, and may need reminding on occasion,
particularly when making a suggestion that you know is in conflict with
the aforementioned advice.
- A lot of doors are closed to you in Afghanistan because you are a
woman; but a lot of doors are open specifically BECAUSE you are a woman.
Take advantage of any opportunities to meet with and talk to Afghan
women, through work or in your spare time. Remember that, unlike your
male colleagues, you are free to approach any Afghan woman and try to
- Being too cautious won't harm you or your work; letting your guard
down or being careless in your behavior WILL.
- Consider worst case scenarios: sexual harassment, rape, kidnapping...
Accounts by female
reporters in war zones and developing countries are particularly
applicable to women aid workers (you can also read this story at the Columbia
Journal Review). Also see the
first international survey of women reporters in war zones. You
need to have a plan, right now, regarding what YOU are going to do if
faced with a worst case scenario.
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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