Feminism is not dead: lessons from Afghanistan

One of my first missions was to speak to a group of women.

I know, that’s not what a layman would expect from a Soldier, but that initial meeting has colored my perception of the Afghan people from the beginning. Had I done something else first, maybe I wouldn’t think of Afghanistan with the great fondness that I do.

A handout image obtained on September 10, 2009, from Britain's Ministry of Defence shows a female Afghan National Police (ANP) officer receiving weapons training. PHOTO: AFP/FILE

These girls look like me. We have the same brown eyes, the same tan skin, and we take pictures and play with our cell phones as we giggle about our love affairs through the aid of an elderly interpreter, who reminds me of a rather doting aunt.

We are women, in a closed room, away from the prying eyes of men. We laugh, despite the seriousness of the situation; her name is Aisha*, she is an Afghan National Police Officer, a mother, and at the age of seventeen, looks and acts like a woman a decade her senior. Maybe, in her heart and mind, she is even older than that! She is a far cry from the American seventeen – boys, giggles, sleep overs and bad movies.

“Another Female Officer was shot,” the interpreter tells me, “before you got here. She was shot 18 times in her car.”

And yet another Female Officer was assaulted on her way home, her arm broken, her burka torn – most frightening of all was that she did not know if it was a Taliban member, or a fellow Officer. There are no good and bad guys when you are starting a revolution in the home; and that’s what a woman working is.

Aisha smiles when I look distraught, as though it was me that would need comfort.

She shakes her head and says, through the interpreter, that she is not scared, and that this was what had to be done.

With a hand gesture, palm flat, fingers together, she moves it up and down to indicate the US Army uniform that the female Soldiers in the room are wearing, “That is how we go from being in the home, to being like you.”

I understand what she means – she sees these American women in their heavy body armor, and big guns, going about with the same authority, equal to that of the men. If they have ever seen a patrol, they would see the women walking along side the men with the same equipment, laughing, joking, and smoking in roughly the same manner. It is what Aisha strives for, but she finds road block after road block along the way.

It is almost insulting to be considered a feminist (feminazi) in America today. It is dated, with the great lamentation that “feminism is dead!” Chauvinistic men twist the meaning of equality around with inane jokes like. If women want equal rights… They should pay for the date, they shouldn’t expect us to open the door, they should carry their own bags and so on and so forth.

I’ve made similar decrees myself – if women want to be equal, they need to do the same number of push ups on their Army Physical Fitness Test (right now, the standards on two out of three events are halved). In America, equality is the status quo and we recognize inequality as an abomination – it is unfairness that we seek to eradicate because the average sentient being understands that it is wrong.

We are at the trivial point where we attempt to regulate mean words words – cunt, bitch, whore, slut – as regulating it matters in the slightest.

But that is not the world out here where feminism takes on a meaning as great as many battle cry.

The relevance feminism has here is overwhelming, the inequality painfully obvious as the streets are littered with gawking young boys, while the girls hide away in their compounds.

Prying further, I discovered that many female Officers never received uniforms. Their police station may have received it, and sold it or hidden it away, but they are never passed on to the girls.

“When we ask… they expect something in return,” a civilian worker once relayed to me, and the undertone of the quid pro quo is something that crosses all cultures, “so they go without.”

I see a great nobility in that – dignified and going without basic necessities, but still appearing for work anyway… it is quiet determination. It is very stubborn, and strong willed. I see that in Aisha, and I admire it.

I ask if their husbands ever get harassed because of their work. Aisha smiles, and with a great pride nodded, and says “Yes, he does! But he deals with it, because he wants to be married to me, and he knew this would be part of it.”

I have met her husband, and he is a smiling fool around his wife, but serious and reserved when they are apart. He is a proud father, a proud husband, and he bears the abuse from his peers with a similar dignity as his wife. I am envious of them, of what they have, of how they look at one another with nothing but the deepest love and admiration. He is the rare exception of officer husbands. Other women have had to quit because of the harassment and strain that it put on their families.

This is a place where feminism isn’t about girl power. It’s not about power at all. It is about choice. It is a life without harassment.

My first mission was to come out here and talk to these female Officers. They wiped away all my pre-conceived notions that all of the men are wife-beating tyrants, that all the women are ill-educated battered wives. We share the same brown eyes, the same tan skin, and unruly hair that only a series of braids can keep tucked behind a head scarf.

Feminism out here feels like it matters. This is a place that was thrust into a revolution when the monarchs became too progressive and began to ban the prohibitive wardrobe imposed on half the population. It was not the Western world that coined feminism. Feminism has existed here before, when a ruler showed up to an event in europe in a beautiful gown that exposed her lovely shoulders.

This is a place that has revolution and war in its very center – it is one that is searching for a refuge from upheaval. It searches for stability, and safety.

There is a prevailing attitude that this place can never change, that it will always be in the “stone age”. I counter that with a simple understand of Afghan history, and how much it has changed in under a century! This place has grown through many evolutions, and at least one of those phases had women working, owning shops, and walking around Kabul in Western skirts. But too much change, too soon always flexes back to its homeostasis, so gradual change is needed.

I know I could not possibly make Aisha safe in one meeting, in one month, in one deployment. Nothing in this world can make her safe, but by her diligence and action, she makes her daughters safer, and it is through the actions of the mother, and grandmother, is any change ever made.

Feminism is not dead, but the ignorance and western-centric views of some make it look as though it is. First world problems trivialize a global need – because heaven forbid we move away from giving a crap about what women wear, whether or not they wear makeup, a bikini, have long/short hair, shave or don’t, and whether or not they pay for a date and go to something more substantial outside our borders.

*Not her real name.

Originally posted on Shoes Never Worn.

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One Comment

  1. Posted January 25, 2012 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    It is so interesting to hear about Afghanistan from someone who has been there and spent time with the Afghan people. I absolutely believe feminism is about choice and ultimately, having choice is having power. Without the right to make choices about our lives, our bodies, and the world in which we live, others make those choices for us, rendering us powerless. Feminism is not dead, that’s just what those who are afraid of change and who are afraid of women having more voice, choice, and power want us all to believe. Thanks for your post!

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