Advice for Women Aid Workers
This list of suggestions started off as a reply to the author of Lonely Planet Afghanistan. I really enjoyed LP Afghanistan; it provides excellent details on how to get around in the country, what to see, the history, etc. It was written at a time when things were getting better in the country, and the book reeks of hope. And that's not a bad thing. I really hope that people in the Afghan government, on the national and regional levels, will read this book, because I think it will give them a lot of insight into what travelers want and need, and what local Afghans need in terms of education and support in order to be good ambassadors for the country. And I really hope the security situation improves, so that travelers can take advantage of this book. And anyone going to Afghanistan, no matter in WHAT capacity, should ABSOLUTELY buy this book.
But I did have a criticism: I think there are essential suggestions for women visitors to the country that are missing from the book. Some women won't agree with me about these suggestions -- short-term visitors especially will say that you don't need to do all of the following, and women who don't work daily with Afghan men and/or who are perceived as high-level executives in the country will say many of these warnings are unnecessary. And, ofcourse, no single experience in a country, Afghanistan or otherwise, is going to be the same for everyone.
But with that disclaimer aside -- I stand by this list of suggestions. This is based on what I was advised by women who had been in Afghanistan for more than a year, by women journalists, by women who were well-versed in the culture, and by women who suffered consequences of their behavior.
Here is the list, which I hope will help women aid workers in Afghanistan:
None of this is to say that a foreign woman shouldn't be herself in Afghanistan, or that she should act subservient. Command and demand honor and respect, absolutely! Carry yourself as someone who deserves such!
- Bring at least eight passport-sized photos with you (even 10 is good). Half should be with your headscarf loosely around your head, half without. You will need these for various IDs, visas and what not.
- A woman's rear should be covered by her shirt or jacket at ALL times, outside of maybe l'Atmosphere. Anything else is a HUGE no-no, even more than lack of a headscarf (though that comes close). Even loose pants aren't enough - the butt cover is essential. This was the best advice I ever got from anyone before I went to Afghanistan. Keep your lower neck, arms and ankles covered as well when outside your guest house. Your headscarf can be very loose, but it needs to be there. Yes, you will see foreign women who don't do any of this (like the butt cover). They are stupid and they are contributing to an image for foreign women that you do NOT want to be associated with in the minds of Afghans. (photo note: around the office and within the work compound, most foreign women don't wear their headscarves. Also, this was my last week, and I pushed it regarding exposing my arms; I figured my reputation could stand any hits the very last week I was there).
- Have a tattoo? Keep it covered AT ALL TIMES and don't let anyone know you have it EVER. Having a tattoo is a sign that you are not Islamic, and perhaps even a prostitute.
- On a practical note, regarding shoes: I wore my hiking boots or my teva sandles anywhere and everywhere. Trail running shoes would have also good. I left all "office" type shoes back in Germany -- never had a use for them. Even if you work in an office you may have to go through quite an obstacle course of mud and dirt and what not to get to it.
- A woman in Afghanistan, without her family/"tribe", is a potential target for a lot of very negative things. The lower she is in her office hierarchy, the worse her treatment will be. I wish it were different, but the reality is, because of Afghan culture, widespread misinformation, and what they see on Western TV, many Afghans think foreign women will have sex with anyone. It's a scary thing when your driver or Afghan co-worker or guest house manager announces an intention or proposes an activity you would rather not consider, and to realize that all these months you thought he was just being nice, that you were just being nice, or you were just benignly working together, was, for him, leading up to this moment. I'm a fat middle aged woman old enough to have grandkids, and it happened to me. The longer a woman is there, the more likely this will happen, and women need to know this. Maybe it won't happen to you -- lucky you. But you need to do what you can to avoid it, and to be prepared for it if it does.
- Women who are going to stay in Afghanistan longer than just a few weeks need to be particularly aware of how prone Afghans are to believing rumors, and how the rumors about a woman´s unIslamic behavior, even if absolutely untrue, can sink her work there (it happened to two friends of mine), and even make your situation dangerous. Perception is everything in Afghanistan. Many of the suggestions here relate to this.
- If you are staying at a guest house, do not EVER allow a man in your room, and never go into his, whether he's an Afghan or a fellow countryman or your best buddy from university. To do otherwise will lead to a very bad perception of you by locals, and those friendly smiles will probably turn into leering grins -- and worse. If you want to entertain mixed company in a guest house, stick with the lobby or common rooms.
- Tell Afghans you are married. Do NOT tell an Afghan you are divorced or a single mother! A married woman gets much more respect in Afghanistan than a single one, I'm sorry to say, because she has a "tribe" -- her husband and her family, even unseen. Being perceived as married will make your work, interactions and travel easier. If a woman has kids, all the better - bring photos of such. If you are traveling with a man, you should ABSOLUTELY say you are married to him to any Afghan you encounter. You put yourself in danger otherwise.
- If you are going to have a romance, be very, very discreet about it. Your Afghan colleagues do NOT need to know. Consider reminding anyone who does know that it would be a good idea not to discuss such widely, given what a hit on your reputation could do to your work locally.
- Put your birth control pills and any condoms you are taking with you in the most discreet packaging EVER. Do not ever, ever, ever let any co-workers see these or hear about these. You could be branded a "loose" woman, which means harassment from men and a shunning from the local women that could get so bad you have to leave your post. In other words, absolutely the only person who should know you have these is someone you are going to have sex with.
- Do not let an Afghan co-worker, or any locals in your guest house, see you drunk. If you are feeling tipsy, avoid having a chat with your driver, for instance, on your way home. Never talk about your drinking with your Afghan co-workers or other locals.
- There are many myths Afghans pass around about what happens behind the walls of the restaurants you are allowed in but they are not, related to drinking, dancing, scantily-clad women, sex and various other unIslamic behavior. Such rumors give the police or crowds of angry locals justification for a planned or impromptu raid. It's one thing to have fun (and have fun, by all means, as you will go insane without such), but it's another thing to be disrespectful and careless. Remember, at all times, that you are a guest in Afghanistan -- you are there at the pleasure of its government and its people.
True story: I had a male Afghan co-worker ask me, with great intrigue, what I really did on my day off. I told him I went to the grocery, I might go for a walk around the track at a particularly-secure location near my embassy, I might go shopping, my guest house might send out for food, I had a video conference with my husband, I watched a movie or two, I played with the kittens at my guest house, etc. And his face fell a bit and he said, "Wow, that' really boring." And that perception was just FINE with me (it was also the truth).
- Be prepared to assert yourself as necessary; for instance, you will be at the mercy of your employer's drivers in order to get around, and sometimes, the drivers may decide that your needs, as a woman, are second to those of the men you work with. Or, you will be in a shop, ready to place your order, and a man will cut in front of you, or the shop keeper will decide to wait on a man who arrived after you. How you handle these kinds of situations is up to you, and certainly any consequences should be taken into consideration before you act -- but I found that the more I asserted myself in these type of situations, the more I challenged them ("Excuse me, but I was here FIRST, he came in AFTER me"), the more respect I got.
I have a blog from May 2007 when I was in Kabul, called Women Last, that talks about my firsthand experiences with this.
- The greatest risk when traveling abroad is terrorism or even a criminal act. It's being involved in a road crash. If you think your driver is acting foolishly, tell him to slow the heck down. If he does things while driving you think are inappropriate, report him.
- Another thing that's more likely to harm you than terrorism or a criminal act while working abroad: sickness. Water-born diseases kill far more people in Afghanistan and places like it than the Taliban. Do whatever you need to do to keep yourself healthy. That may mean turning down food or water from someone if you don't know the source. If you sometimes get yeast infections or urinary tract infections, find a doctor before you leave your home country that will give you meds to deal with this while you are abroad, as it's not always easy to find meds for these "female" conditions in Afghanistan.
- Sexual harassment, or at least creepy behavior, is real in Afghanistan among aid workers and it is very likely you will experience it. Do not think your age or your weight or your marital status or your job title will protect you from propositions -- or worse. I experienced it, and NOT by any Afghan co-workers. Think about different scenarios and how you will handle them, particulary scenarios where a man who has been a great friend and perfectly "tame" for four months suddenly announces he is in love with you. More advice on this here.
- Women may not go to most mosques. Many foreign women are very upset to find this out only upon arrival at a site. In fact, most Afghan women have never been in a mosque. If you want to see the inside of a mosque, go to Egypt.
- Don't give the "thumbs up" nor the "okay" sign; both mean something sexual. Kids especially will try to get you to make this sign.
- Afghanistan is not Nepal. It's not Egypt. Women should NOT travel to Afghanistan alone as a tourist, period. Yes, there are some who do it. I don't care -- right now, and for the foreseeable future, I will never recommend such.
- Unlike some other Islamic countries, Western women aren't necessarily "honorary men" in Afghanistan. Many activities that men do are absolutely closed to you, no matter how high-up you are in your agency. It's up to your host as to whether or not you get to enter a certain place or witness a certain event; wait to be invited to do such and do NOT demand to do such.
- Don't hesitate to remind your foreign male co-workers of any of the above, as necessary. They often have blinders on when it comes to the treatment of women in Afghanistan, and may need reminding on occasion, particularly when making a suggestion that you know is in conflict with the aforementioned advice.
- A lot of doors are closed to you in Afghanistan because you are a woman; but a lot of doors are open specifically BECAUSE you are a woman. Take advantage of any opportunities to meet with and talk to Afghan women, through work or in your spare time. Remember that, unlike your male colleagues, you are free to approach any Afghan woman and try to communicate.
- Being too cautious won't harm you or your work; letting your guard down or being careless in your behavior WILL.
- Consider worst case scenarios: sexual harassment, rape, kidnapping... Accounts by female reporters in war zones and developing countries are particularly applicable to women aid workers (you can also read this story at the Columbia Journal Review). Also see the first international survey of women reporters in war zones.
Feel free to talk about your family, your education, other jobs you've had, your hobbies and your travels to other countries -- my Afghan women colleagues seemed to love it when I did so (and had sooooo many questions). I even talked about my dog, and I know it blew the Afghans' minds that I cared for a "filthy, disgusting creature" in my house. But I talked about how loving she is, how she protects me, and how much pride dogs have in doing something well -- more than many humans I know -- and most Afghans seemed really quite intrigued. I also smiled in all photos, something that Afghan women don't usually do (see photo at the top of this page).
As you near the end of your stint in Afghanistan, you can think about loosening up a bit. I even dared to head to Qargha Lake and discuss religion with three Afghan male co-workers (they had no idea what a Protestant was; after I told them about the differences with the Catholic Church, one of them said, "The Protestants are much more Islamic!" It made me laugh -- because, in some ways, it's true -- in good ways and bad.). My last week there, I went to dinner with another male Afghan co-worker, something I could never have done earlier on because of how it could have (and probably would have) been perceived by others, maybe even him. Once you have established a solid reputation, you can be a bit less conservative in behavior just before you head out of the country for good (but don't push it too much, please?).
Just remember this: what you do in Afghanistan may not have any ramifications for you, but it most definitely will for the women who come after you. And I repeat: being too cautious won't harm you or your work; letting your guard down or being careless in your behavior WILL.
Also see Kabul Shopping Guide
Also see my adventures in Afghanistan; regular blogs from when I was there, March - August 2007.
If you have read this blawg, PLEASE let me know.
Comments are welcomed, and motivate me o keep writing --
without comments, I start o think I'm talking o cyberair.
A Broad Abroad - Afghanistan | A Broad Abroad - Main Menu | contact me
The personal opinions expressed on this page are solely those of Ms. Cravens, unless otherwise noted.