Marking International Women’s Day is a big deal in Afghanistan. You might think that this would be something that pleases me greatly. In theory it does. But in practice there is something quite unsettling, perhaps even disturbing about the approach taken to the day.
My discomfort began when the Head of the Department of Women’s Affairs in Badghis asked me if my organization could donate some money so that she could buy gifts to distribute to women on Women’s Day. I ask ‘which women?’ and ‘what kinds of gifts?’ It emerges that the gifts include flowers and sweets and go to the female employees of government departments, as well as to “poor women” from in the town. I ask around and am told that this gift-giving ceremony has been the primary women’s day event in Badghis for several years.
I don’t think that I’m ready yet to start toppling established traditions that involve the giving of gifts, if anything is likely to make me lots of enemies, fast, it would be that. So I don’t try to talk her out of the ceremony, but I do say that my organization would be more interested in supporting an event that addressed the theme of International Women’s Day this year, i.e. ending impunity for violence against women. Perhaps, I suggest, we could hold a round-table discussion on violence against women as a crime with representatives from the police, the prosecutor’s office, the courts, and the Department of Women’s Affairs. She claims she is interested, but in the end nothing comes of it.
My discomfort grows as my Afghan colleagues start congratulating me because my “day” is iminent. They joke that there should be a day for men as well. I cringe at the suggestion that this day is some kind of privilege for women. I try to discuss the point of the day in more detail, but it begins to emerge that although the day is widely celebrated, it is treated as a kind of non-romantic Valentines Day.
On the day I receive text messages of congratulation, online cards and even chocolates from Afghan colleagues who continuously “congratulate” me. I feel something decidedly impolite growing in me. What exactly, I wonder, are they congratulating me for? For the achievement of having been born a female, hardly a prize in a country where women are given in marriage in their childhood to men they don’t know, let alone like.
Perhaps they are congratulating me for having the good fortune not to have been born here? That would make more sense, except that they are also congratulating all the Afghan women on our staff as well.
It begins to dawn on me that I am being congratulated for getting this day – this one day in the whole year in which men in Afghanistan feel bound to acknowledge and in some way celebrate the women around them. Of course when I say men in Afghanistan I mean that small percentage of men in Afghanistan working in international organizations or some Government departments. It’s only going to last this one day so make the most of it, seems to be the message.
Some men even make jokes with me – ‘you are a human rights officer’, they tease, ‘shouldn’t we men also get our own day? Isn’t this discrimination?’. The not very polite thing that has been growing in me is taking form and now I recognise it, it is the angry Frida. Oh no, she is not very polite at all, and since I still have five official women’s day functions to attend in this city I ask her to stay where she is for the moment.
It wouldn’t really be fair, anyway, for my funny-guy colleague to bear the full brunt of her fury, since she has been growing stronger for a long time now, feeding on the cases I’ve been seeing of young girls sold in marriage to abusive husbands, and of young women imprisoned for running away from those very abusive marriages. This foolish young man may prove to be the final straw that broke the bonds that have been holding her back, but he doesn’t really deserve to take her full frontal attack. So I get her agreement to wait for the right moment to use all her energy and in the meantime head off to one of these formal ceremonies.
I am relieved that I don’t understand enough Dari to get more than the most general idea of what is being said, because I can make out enough to understand that the theme of most of the speeches is “the rightful role of the women in the family”. At the first ceremony there is not one peep about the theme of this year’s event, despite the widely reported high incidence of violence against women in Afghanistan. Grrr, growls angry Frida, more than a little bit pissed off that I got her to promise to hold herself back for this.
Fortunately things do get better. The next event I am invited to is a women-only event hosted by the Professional Council. The speaker line-up features some of my favourite women in Herat (a lawyer, a doctor, an engineer, a journalist, and a renowned chemist, no less). The speeches are feisty and unapologetic, and they encourage the young women in the audience to defy expectations and restrictions. They tell those young women to rise up and claim their rights, not to wait for anyone to hand them over.
In the second half I am sitting with a lawyer friend of mine, whose earlier speech had nearly lifted the roof, as we watch her beautiful daughter join the line-up of young models showing off a range of women’s wear, ranging from an extraordinary handmade Turkmen wedding costume to a surgeons scrubs.
But it was the final event I attended that moved me the most. It was organised by Aziza, a long-term activist for women’s rights in Herat and now the coordinator of a network of Afghan human rights organizations. She told me that she wanted to do something different, with no speeches, no big ceremonies, no gifts. Instead she arranged an exhibition of photos of the some of women who she admires in the city, women who were champions for the rights of other women.
The exhibition featured some very well known women like my friend the Chief Prosecutor, Maria Bashir, and the filmmaker Roya Sadat. Other women honoured in the exhibition included the principal of a local girl’s high school, a basketball player and the founder of a women’s radio station. It also featured some of the young artists of Herat, including a poet, and several painters. These young women were all at the opening and when I arrived they were still busy setting up a memorial to the one woman featured in the exhibition who was not there to enjoy it.
Her name is Nadia Anjama and she was a young poet and a student at the Faculty of Arts at the Univeristy of Herat. She died last year when her husband (a lecturer in the Faculty) beat her to death as a punishment for her insistence to attend a meeting with a visiting musician/artist. Here, finally, I found a space in which women were celebrating women for their courage, their gifts, their lives and the differences they made. Here also there were women unafraid to tell the other story of this day, the story of thousands of women killed every year as a result of domestic violence.
Tonight I went over the house of a new friend (yah for new friends in this town, especially new friends who want to practice yoga together, drink bottles of red wine and watch DVDs) to have a glass of wine and some pasta and watch “Little Miss Sunshine”. The film, by the way, is so good I might need to give it a post all of its own. After dinner she offered me some nougat she had been given as a gift on International Women’s Day. As we both grimaced at the thought of the flowers and greetings that seemed to have taken over most people’s understanding of the day, I remembered Aziza’s exhibition.
You know what – if you give women a day then it really doesn’t matter how much of a meal most people will end up making of it, there will always be some who find that open door (even if it is open just a crack) and make their way through it.