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Jerri's Journal: International Women's Day in Afghanistan

May 15, 2015

Days 3 - 5

It has been three days and it feels like a whirlwind of weeks!

Sunday was International Women's Day.  We visited the women's and children's shelter in Kabul.  It's in a secret location because the women have cases pending in the courts and/or serious disputes with family.  Most are involved with forced engagements or marriages, the woman has objected, and the families have not accepted the woman's wishes. This often leads to running away and, in the worst cases, killings. A number of the women cannot leave the shelter until the case is settled in court--meaning a judge rules that the engagement must be abandoned, a divorce granted, etc.

When we walked into the shelter, a bare hall with cold tile floors, in front of us was a winding wooden staircase with a child, girl, or woman standing on each stair, holding a flower for us or a sign for International Women's Day. As we walked up the stairs, we shared greetings of welcome (“Salaam”), hugs, and the saying "Happy International Women's Day!"  As we neared the first landing, we saw that the children, girls, and women lined the stairs all the way to the third floor -- and we proceeded all the way up -- and by that time we had all cried, laughed, and hugged.

All of us (44 women, 27 children) moved to the second floor, which they had decorated with flowers, balloons, and bright colored posters.  The children then put on a 90-minute performance -- with little girls in bright green embroidered dresses singing a song about their mothers, with teen girls singing a song they had written about their rights, girls and boys reciting their poems, and sayings from the Prophet Mohammad. 

Then the teens performed a play they had written:  The father was a gambling addict. He lost a large bet, had no cash, and said he would pay by giving his daughter to the men he owed.  When he stumbled home (having also been drinking), he hit his daughter and wife as they cried and objected. More family got involved, mostly on the daughter's side. Nevertheless, the father insisted. In desperation, the daughter went to the “mullah” (religious leader) and brought him to their house.  The mullah told the father that he could not give away his daughter, because of religious law and Afghan law.

Each of these teen playwrights have had much trauma -- but here they were, girls AND boys, sharing it with us, with humor and sadness and a good ending. 

Next, the children and young women asked their teachers and the staff to cut ribbons and unwrap large posters. These posters had been created by the children declaring women equal and proud.  Friday night we met with the Women for Afghan Women province managers:  We flew to Mazar, which borders Tazhikistan, is a major trade route, and is governed by two minority ethnic groups.  Seven province managers had traveled into Mazar to meet with us and share the challenges and stories they face every day. I rarely meet such a brave group of women. Remember that the shelters are mostly secret places. And it's most often difficult to travel to the courts to resolve the cases. It’s more rural, so more traditional and more tribal than one would imagine. 

After several hours of conversation, we adjourned the discussions to socialize -- 24 women and 14 men sitting on cushions on the floor around a banquet feast. Then came the sitar and drums players, and the boy students joined us and began dancing.  One of the regional managers plucked us, one by one, from our comfortable cushions to teach us the Attan dance. Giggles and wild applause accompanied  everyone who tried, no matter how unrecognizable the twirls and moves. 

Contradictions

Some things I am seeing seem to turn the world upside down:  I met an older man in a turban, traditional pants and vest who at first glance one might think was Taliban. His name was Raheem. He wasn’t Taliban, but a goat herder, who risked his own life to save his daughter Husnia from being killed by the villagers to retain their honor after she was raped. At age five. Yes, you read that correctly. He then took the man who raped his daughter to court and saw to it that he was convicted. Speaking with him and his daughter, now 13, was especially moving. There is much love there.

We’ve also seen a couple in love who risked their lives by running away because their families would not agree to the marriage.

We’ve seen Afghan men who work at WAW because they believe in and will fight for women's rights.

We met a warlord (who fought against the Taliban) who is now governor of the Mazar province and truly believes in women's rights and acts on this belief.

And, we met a husband who agreed to give back three and four- year olds whom he had bought as potential wives for his sons because WAW and a mullah did eight mediation sessions with him to educate him on religious law and Afghan law.

The more time we spend with the women and the children, the more I am moved by their courage, their strength, their determination -- and their ability to find joy in the smallest things.

Strange things:  Learning Dari is easy compared to learning English (I have all of three words now).  The rules on wearing a scarf--always when a man is around, except in our hotel and the shelters where men are around but the rules are different.  Seeing tight pants on women, which seems to be acceptable, as long as your long top covers your rear end.   For Kabul and Mazar--snow, snow, snow in March.

Our days are very long, so I will end here. Yes, coming here and seeing this first-hand is one of the best decisions I've ever made.

 

Previous

May 13: Jerri Shaw Explores Women's Rights in Afghanistan

May 14: Adventure Begins in Kabul

Next

May 18: Meetings With the First Lady of Afghanistan and Other Diplomats

May 19: Afghan Men on Women's Rights

May 20: Medical Needs of Women in Afghanistan

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