Field Notes #3

Salaam Aleikum!

I’m back home in Austin now after a total of five weeks in Afghanistan. I must say that the trip was more successful than I’d imagined, in terms of the photographs from the interviews, the insight that I gained, and the positive effect of my presence there. I want to thank all of you who supported The Afghan Women’s Project, whether in terms of money, loans of equipment, advice, interview question suggestions, prayers or positive thoughts. All of these helped make the project a success.

One of the questions in my interviews was how it felt to take off the burka once wearing it was no longer legally mandated. Women who had stayed in Kabul during the Taliban era told me that at first when they became free to walk in the streets with only a large scarf covering their heads, they felt “embarrassed and ashamed” to be walking without the burka. They felt like everyone was staring at them. I felt the same when I donned the burka for a stroll just to experience what wearing one was like. In the beginning, I was concerned that I would get caught-what if someone spoke to me and I couldn’t answer??? At one point, a soldier walked toward me and I was wondering what I could say or do if he asked me any questions. Instead he said hi to a man who was walking right behind me who I hadn’t even known was there. As I got more comfortable walking in the burka, I noticed that to many of the men I passed, I was invisible. Women and I would look each other in the eyes before passing on.

All burkas in the market are made of synthetic cloth. The front panel of the burka extends just below the fingertips. Because of the extra weight in the rear and the slipperiness of the material, it keeps sliding backwards and it’s necessary to keep pulling it down in front. You really can see surprisingly well through the mesh straight ahead although the peripheral vision is reduced. And then I didn’t hear that man walking behind me…..

About half of the women in Kabul do not wear them, but in the other cities and in the countryside, it remains compulsory–if not by law, then by culture and family tradition. In Herat, on the west side of the country close to Iran, the Iranian chador is also acceptable. That huge half circle of cloth covers the head and entire body, but leaves the face showing. It requires one hand to constantly hold it together below the chin.

Of course, burkas are not the issue. The woman’s choice to wear them or not is.

Another of my interview questions was about how people in the west could help Afghan women. Most of the women asked for financial support for projects that teach women skills to help them earn a living. A few asked that we pressure our government for policies and money that would help keep the fundamentalists at bay and others asked that western women come to share their skills with them.

More realistic for many of us are financial contributions. There are over 800 Afghan founded and run “non-profits”. I have experience with one in particular that is broad in scope and effective in its work. The Afghan Woman’s Educational Center, AWEC, has literacy classes, vocational training, a micro-credit program, and also a medical clinic/health education center. In addition they run a badly needed program for street children. AWEC operates in both Pakistan, where it was started by Afghan refugee women, and in Kabul. They couch their women’s rights program in Islam and so have been invited to speak in mosques! The American Friends Service Committee (The Quakers) sponsor their Peace Tour Project which arranges workshops and visits between women from different ethnic groups in various parts of the country.

I also recommend Church World Service. (Their entire staff in Kabul is Muslim!) They do not have their own projects but instead support local non-profits that meet their criteria. This support includes training, guidance, financial contributions, and accountability requirements. AWEC is one of their supported organizations. Tax deductible donations to Church World Service can be sent to PO Box 968, Elkhart, IN 46515. Make the check to Church World Service, and if you want to support AWEC, then write “Afghanistan-AWEC” in the note place to the left of the signature.

Also, after spending time with and doing further research on RAWA, I also highly recommend them as deserving of your contributions. An excellent book about this organization is With All our Strength by Anne Brodsky. She has spent more time with them interviewing and studying their organization in a scholarly way than anyone else. RAWA is very political and is radical and revolutionary only relative to Afghan society. They have some the clearest understanding of the global political situation of the women I met. I visited several of their social projects including a literacy and sewing center in Kabul as well as a school, clinic and orphanage in Pakistan. The women coming out of these programs have a sense of empowerment and political awareness not found in women helped by other agencies. They are also a loving and nurturing organization. RAWA members live very frugally and the money donated here is very well utilized. Tax deductible contributions to RAWA should be made out to IHC/Afghan Women’s Mission and sent to Afghan Women’s Mission, POB 40846, Pasadina, CA 91114-7846, USA.

Until next time…

Khoda Hafiz,


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