Skip navigation

Women in the field: what it's like to work in Afghanistan

Since The Globe and Mail began staffing its Afghanistan bureau full time in early 2006, it has sent a number of women correspondents to the country. We asked them, in light of the current controversy over Afghan women's rights, to reflect on their experiences.

Globe and Mail Update

Jane Armstrong: My first impression of Kandahar City, apart from the heat and dust, was that half the population was missing, or else all the women had gone inside. There were no female faces anywhere.

Jane Armstrong Occasionally, a ghostlike figure would appear on the sidewalk, covered from head to toe in a billowing burka. I thought they looked like Halloween trick-or-treaters in ghost costumes. It was 2006. Five years after the U.S.-led ouster of the repressive Taliban, it was still taboo for women in the conservative southern city to show their faces in public.

The covered women of Kandahar had a distinctive gait. They scurried along the narrow sidewalks in a half-trot, shoulders bent. And they travelled in packs, either with a group of children or other women. If they were with men, they shuffled a couple of feet behind.

I watched all this from the backseat of a moving car, my vision obscured by the burka I, too, was required to wear while travelling in the city. The outfit is hot and stuffy. Being draped in rolls of fabric with no ventilation is akin to sitting in an airless sauna. On days when my Afghan driver and translator were particularly nervous, they would instruct me to lie down in the back seat. Once, they threw a blanket over me.

I was on my way to Sarpoza, the Kandahar jail where I heard that women and children occupied a separate wing. The children, I was told, belonged to the female inmates, whose families had spurned them when they were sent to jail.

The notion of kids in prison sounded like a menacing children's fairy tale — scary but implausible. What kind of place locks up children? On some level, I didn't believe it, so I made it a personal mission to see this prison.

The women's wing at Sarpoza was indeed like a page torn from a Grimm's fairy tale. Filthy, pre-teen girls, their hair matted with dirt, balanced babies and toddlers on their hips. No one wore shoes. The cells had no toilets or running water. A stocky, armed female guard patrolled the compound.

Most of the female prisoners were very young women, barely out of their teens. They were in jail for so-called crimes that didn't exist in the criminal codes of any Western nations. They sounded more like messy family disputes.

I'll never forget one girl, Shabano, who was only 13. She wore orange nail polish that was chipped, revealing grimy fingernails that were chewed up. She twirled her hair and played with her bracelets. Her face was pouty and defiant. Despite her youth, she was mature enough to be outraged by her predicament. She was in jail for fleeing a pre-arranged marriage with a 50-year-old man — nearly 40 years her senior.

The prospect of this forced union, arranged by her father, disgusted her. She wrinkled her nose when describing her fiancÚ, whom she called "the old man."

Western nations and many Afghan women are today outraged at the restrictive provisions of the Personal Status Law. But girls like Shabano have known for years what the state is prepared to do to them if they disobey their husbands and fathers.

Christie Blatchford: It was Dec. 31, 2006, and Globe photographer Kevin Van Paassen had ants in his pants.

Natasha Hassan Until then, we'd spent all our time in Kandahar travelling with Canadian troops, and, as it had been a quiet period, he was keen for something different to shoot and badly wanted to go into town and take pictures of actual Afghans.

So off we went, Kevin in a shalwar kameez, the pants-and-tunic uniform of most Afghan men, me in jeans and a jacket with a dark scarf tied ineptly over my head. The scarf was my concession, the only one I'm prepared to make, to local custom; I refuse to wear a burka.

It was Eid al-Adha, the Muslim festival of sacrifice, and at the local meat market, men were carefully choosing the best animals for slaughter, part of the celebration.

And, lo and behold, as we drove around the city, we spotted what looked for all the world like a Ferris wheel, except it was old, wooden and, as I remember it, hand-cranked. Children were squealing with delight, people were selling candy and sweets, and for a restless photographer, it was irresistible: The fixer pulled off to the side of the road and he and Kevin bolted from the car.

I got out to have a look and stood there a while unmolested, enjoying the smells and sounds.

But within minutes, I realized I'd attracted a crowd — young boys at first, grinning and pointing at this weird-looking Western woman suddenly in their midst. (To be fair, I thought to myself, they'd probably never seen a head scarf tied so badly, let alone blond bangs poking out from it.) I grinned and gestured back at them.

Then the crowd grew in size, and it grew older, too. Now there were teenagers with the little boys, then older teens, all boys. Their curiosity was turning into something else, and whatever it was wasn't nearly as friendly. Out of nowhere, boy after boy pulled plastic weapons — water pistols, mostly, but a couple had the more lethal-looking replicas that I'd seen children carry in other parts of the province — out of their tunics and began pointing them at me, then squirting me. The boys and teenagers were soon joined by men, young and old, who first stayed at the back of the crowd but began moving forward. Soon, hands of all sizes began reaching toward me, poking me, pinching; someone threw something at me.

Kevin and the fixer weren't gone 15 minutes, I bet, but when they returned, I was completely surrounded by a crowd of boys and men, the mood was hostile, and I was starting to feel scared.

Only after we piled into the car and tore off for the big coalition base outside the city did I realize I hadn't seen a single woman or even a girl at the Ferris wheel: In Afghanistan, as with so much else, fun is for one sex and one only.

Jessica Leeder: There was nothing feminine about the way I looked: My skin was coated with grime, my hair sweaty and matted from a wonky helmet and my breasts were squashed flat beneath the heavy weight of an armoured flak jacket.

Jessica Leeder And yet I could not evade the stares of the endless parade of young Afghan police officers who emerged from their compound for the sole purpose of getting a look at me while I waited for a press conference to begin last week.

Leaning against the outer wall of their building, most grinned and whispered to each other in Pashto without dropping their gaze; some leaned out of the windows, cellphones outstretched, to snap quick pictures, more giddy paparazzi than police.

"It's not their fault," a male correspondent from a competing newspaper said to me, shrugging, over dinner later. "They know you've been with a man. To them, you're a whore."

The truth is they don't know whether I've been with one man or 100. But the answer is irrelevant. What matters here is perception, and in this highly illiterate conservative city known for giving birth to the oppressive Taliban, white-skinned foreign women are seen as harlots regardless of whether we wear a wedding ring.

And everywhere, even in our own domain, we're made to feel like it. Locals working on the base will stop laying bricks to leer when I walk by; men working the Saturday morning market put on for soldiers are relentless. When sitting at press conferences in Kandahar, head carefully wrapped in a scarf, arms deliberately covered by long sleeves, I can feel the eyes of several males constantly boring into me.

Sure, in North America, women get checked out. But there, the men often muster the courtesy to indulge themselves when their subject isn't looking. Here that courtesy seems not to exist.

Even journalists, who are educated and accustomed to working with foreigners in Kandahar, have unabashedly trained video cameras on me for long periods during press events. A fierce glare isn't enough to indicate their rudeness or stop them, but instructions from Western male journalists can do the trick.

In public, I refuse to make a scene over it. Still, I find it impossible not to burn with shame and anger over my sudden powerlessness. It is strange and demoralizing to know that over the course of a few plane rides, I've been transported from a society where the genders are roughly equal to one where, without recourse, I am relegated to second class.

Gloria Galloway: The Globe's fixer smiled indulgently at my request.

Gloria Galloway I had asked to interview people who have been forced by violence to flee the villages surrounding Kandahar City. I was looking forward to discussing their plight over a cup of tea in the same way that my colleague, Graeme Smith, an Afghanistan veteran, researched his stories.

"But you are a woman," my fixer said. "If I ask the men from the villages to meet with a woman reporter, they will not show up."

As the conversation progressed, it became clear that he was also concerned about something more pressing: his own safety. An Afghan man who is seen with a Western woman on the streets of Kandahar is putting his life in some jeopardy.

Graeme could "pass" as a local, my fixer said. But even in my burka, my height, my shoes and my carriage would give me away. The risks of fraternizing with Westerners are amplified when the social taboo against associating with an unrelated woman is breached.

So we had that interview, as we did many others, by telephone with my fixer acting as intermediary.

I could have indignantly refused to be treated differently because of my sex.

But I acquiesced, just as I agreed to wear the burka that provides a measure of disguise when riding in a car over the dangerous roads of southern Afghanistan. Some of the other Western female journalists I know refuse to do so as a matter of principle.

The full-body veil is, after all, a constraining garment. Peripheral vision is eliminated and even the view straight ahead is hazy through the lace. It's also hot and stuffy and awkward, with folds of fabric that catch in doors and wire fencing.

But it provides security for both me and my fixer. And it sheds some light on how most women in southern Afghanistan experience the world outside their compounds.

When I travelled to the smaller villages with soldiers, the local women stared shyly but inquisitively at me from behind their veils. What an oddity I must have seemed with my blond hair curling up from under my helmet, my torso covered with a flak jacket instead of flowing silk and my face exposed to the sun.

Young children do nothing to hide the shock at seeing a woman so exposed. And on my most recent trip, a group of perhaps 30 young men gathered around the back of the armoured vehicle in which I was sitting to get a good look at me.

So the burka is a constraint, but it is also a shield.

Even in Kabul, where the full covering is not necessary and teenage girls wear jeans as well as head scarves, the need to protect women from the leering eyes of men is recognized. The large front rooms of restaurants are the bastion of males, while women are hurried off to curtained areas at the rear as the men stare.

It is a subtle form of intimidation, a message that the presence of women is not entirely appreciated in places where men gather, and a reminder that the members of one sex are the rulers in this country and the others are something less.

Recommend this article? 16 votes

Back to top