Let’s call her Mina.  She had fled with her wealthy Afghan family during the Taliban regime to the United States.  She and her father had decided to return to their homeland after the U.S. involvement to make a contribution to rebuilding the country.  Her father ended up in a government position, Mina wanted to work with women.  She started a workshop for women, particularly those who had been injured during the war.  She developed courses to teach handicrafts to those with disabilities. She involved them in her business.  The women started to come from near and far.  What they produced was sold in a little store in Kabul.  The business boomed, the women loved it until …  the women were harassed.  Before they even reached their destination in Kabul they were stopped on the street by strangers:  Why did they go there?  What was their role in this business?  Why were they out without their husbands?  What were they up to? The women became scared.  They stayed away.  Mina’s business dwindled.

Mina decided to visit women in prison. She started to collect their stories and found out, that most of the women in prison were there because of “sexual infringements”, not even sentenced properly.  Many “infringements” continued in prison with some of the very people who had the power to sentence or to free them and with other higher-ups in the government.  Mina traced the cases of some of these women only to find out that somewhere in the corner of a ministry (perhaps, the very Ministry of Women’s Affairs I visited?) these files were stacking up in a dusty corner with nobody in sight who showed even the mildest interest in solving or pursuing these cases.  These women were damned, abused, and forgotten.

As Mina continued her interest in the affairs of imprisoned women she began to receive threatening phone calls:  Stop these visits. Mind your own business. Watch where you go. Your life is in danger.  Mina continued, but realized that these were no empty threats.  She no longer answered her phone and she began to avoid gatherings with other foreign friends in order not to endanger their lives as well.  A good friend of hers told me this.  I can’t verify any of this and I don’t know Mina.  But I have little doubt that this is very close to the truth and reflects a subculture and attitude well and alive, with or without the knowledge of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs.

Back to the Ministry:

What about Burqas? Not only here, but elsewhere have I heard this:  To assume that women beneath a burqa are in need of liberation is naïve.  I tend to agree.  The burqa itself means little.   Mubin has told his wife numerous times that he does not want her under a burqa, but the minute they arrive in their family village, she will cover, not to spite him, but to be accepted socially.  I would call this peer pressure.  What was news to me is the fact that burqas originated (way, way back) as a sign of wealth.  They were so horribly impractical that you could only afford to wear one if all the manual labors were done for you by servants.  They typically would be worn by rich city women, never in the villages.  Today, the picture is clearly the opposite.  In the cities, you see mainly beggars or women who want to hide their faces under burqas.  Most women wear head-scarves.  In the villages, almost all women are fully covered. The signature blue burqa dominates the scene, but in shrines or occasionally on the street you can find white burqas or light green ones.  In one store I have even seen a canary-yellow one.  I wonder who would dare to wear it.  Or is it supposed to be some sort of turn-on?

One final argument in regards to the burqa I have heard repeatedly:  In times of lawlessness and danger burqas are protecting women from attack as they hide the identity of the bearer:  It is not visible if a young, old, rich, or poor woman is walking beneath that shuttle cock.  I guess, that is true, but the protection it provides seems rather whimsical to me.

What about separation of women in public places?  Supposedly, this is done to protect and honor women and give them privacy.  Perhaps.  But men are always allowed to go to the women’s quarters – married men or relatives, that is – whereas the opposite direction is forbidden, except for foreigners like me.  This system makes no sense to me, even less than the history of and the reasoning for the burqa.

What about riding a bike?  Yes, women can ride bikes, but they would not want to…

After the mid-range official in charge of funding at the ministry had answered most of my general questions, I asked her about her personal life:

Was her husband proud of her work? Yes he was and always had been, but he had passed away three years ago and now she is a widow.   She is the sole breadwinner.  I was impressed.

What about her life during the Soviets in comparison to now?  She bemoaned the loss of Islamic values during the Soviets and praised the improved current situation in that respect and in general.

What about life under the Taliban? What we know about the Taliban in the West, she claimed, was very one-sided and by far not as bad as it was presented.

Had she ever been abroad and been able to compare life of women in Afghanistan with life of women in the West?  Yes, she had traveled in France and in Belgium.  She felt sorry for all the responsibilities women had to bear in the West.  How much easier and better life under sharia law for women was here.  She would not want to ever live in the West.  “Our religion takes care of us very well!”

What if the Taliban regains power after the withdrawal of the international security forces, sends all the women back home, forbids women’s education, etc?  “The Taliban are our people.  We will obey!”

I kid you not – out of the mouth of an official at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs who was old enough to remember the Taliban regime, with a glowing face, without hesitation, and speaking not only for herself but for all of the women in Afghanistan:

We will obey! 

In dismay and in the hope that the Minas of Afghanistan will multiply, receive support, and will succeed, I rest my limited investigation into the affairs of women.