Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Like a wide open sky

Sunday was International Women's Day.  It's not given a lot of attention in the states, but it's a fairly big deal in Afghanistan.

To celebrate Women's Day, we were encouraged to wear light blue chadors to symbolize hope and freedom.  The official document said that women should wear the light blue chadors as a symbol of solidarity and a declaration that our hope cannot be crushed and is "like a wide open sky."

So, I donned my blue chador to work and received many well wishes from the men in the office.  I had a little giggle over the fact that "Women's Day" in Dari is the same phrase for a woman's time of the month . . . I was a little shocked when the office cook asked me if it was Women's Day, what he literally said was, "Julie Jan, is it your women's time of the month?"

The ladies in my office gave each other gifts and sweets.

There are three Afghan women in my office.  It's interesting that so much of the plight of Afghan women is visibly in these three ladies.  Two of them are young, educated ladies.  Both dream of leaving Afghanistan, going to India or Pakistan or someplace where they can meet friends at cafes.  Both talk about their parents work to arrange their marriages with a respectable man.    One of them was almost engaged to a boy she knew from school.  At the last minute, his parents changed their minds and he's married to someone else.  She constantly asks me if there is a medicine for a broken heart.  When I listen to them dream and giggle, everything is dependent on who they marry.  They ask questions like, "Will he let me work?", "Will he want to visit Pakistan?", "Will he beat me?", "Will he love me?"  But they are also hopeful for their futures; they say that in 10 or 15 years everything will be better for them and for their country.

The other Afghan woman in my office is the cleaning lady.  She is sweet and precious.  She looks like she's in her 60s, which means she's probably in her 40s.  I've heard conflicting reports that she has between 2-5 children.  She doesn't speak a word of English and she can't read or write.  I've tried to get the details of her story; some people say she left her village to find work in the city, some say she is just one of the many poor in Kabul that have never left despite years of war.  Either way it doesn't sound like she's had a very happy life.  She arrives each day in her burqa.  Although I've gotten used to seeing countless burqas throughout the city, when I stop to consider the faces I personally know that are hidden behind those blue grilles, I can't begin to describe the frustration and sadness I feel for these women.  While my two young friends are hopeful and anticipate better things, Khala Jan is just living.  I'm sure she's grateful for her job, and she seems to enjoy her work and co-workers.  But there is no hope, there is no light, there is no sparkle in her eyes.

These are the Afghan women that I celebrated Women's Day with.  The day was hailed as a success, articles quoted Karzai's promises for more women's rights and better protection of women's lives.  I read one article that stated "Thousands of women across the country turned out for events wearing blue scarves."  When I consider the MILLIONS of women that live hopeless lives in this country, a few thousand turning up for Women's Day is not that promising.

Women are allowed to vote in Afghanistan.  Most have to receive permission from a male relative.  Most don't receive it.

A woman dies in childbirth every 29 minutes here.  That's the second highest maternal mortality rate in the world.

There are over 1 million war widows in Afg.  50,000 of those are war widows.  The average widow age is 35.

The literacy rate for women is approximately 15%.

It is estimated that above 70% of marriages are forced and around 57% of women are married before the age of 16.

I didn't mean for this post to get so depressing.  Afghanistan can be a very depressing place.  We read over and over again that the Afghan government is committed to making life better for women.  I say prove it.  This country has a long way to go.  And I can't claim that I know the solution either.  It's hard to change a patriarchal society that is so deeply entrenched in cultural and tribal traditions.  But even in my moments of discouragement, I have hope.  I look at my Afghan friends that hope for a better life, and I can't help but join in.  Maybe it will take years and years for life to be better for women in Afghanistan.  But we still put on our blue chadors and stand in solidarity and hope that someday Afghan women will have freedom like a wide open sky.


Sunshine Girl said...

Wow. I was totally immersed as I read this post. Thank you for sharing. It puts things in perspective a little.

Kelly said...

This was a wonderful post. Thanks so much for sharing!