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16. January 2003

Letter from Kabul, Martina Handler

Kabul, January 2003. Beautiful weather, brilliant sunshine. Barely a single cloud can be spotted in the blue sky during the entire 14 days of my visit. However, what is very pleasant for me is a burden on the population. Kabul used to have lots of snow, I am told, and it was much colder during the day. But in the last 5 or 6 years, since the beginning of the drought, there has been whether rain nor snow...Kabul is now an all-around brown city. Fine dust is omnipresent. In the beginning I can feel it with every breath I take.

Then there are the streets. Traffic jams are everywhere, there are many cars, especially taxis – and no traffic laws. Well, almost none. After all, traffic police are being trained, by German police officers among others. And during my stay more rules are added: some one-way streets are introduced. However, this does not mean that they are accepted...
I ask myself what it would be like, if all residents had cars. At the moment this is still a small minority. I would not want to witness the traffic situation then...although, if the many hand-pulled carts would disappear, an important factor for traffic jams would be eliminated. But until then this country will see a few more winters.

The streets are bustling with people. I am stared at wherever I go. By men, of course. I feel like I am naked when they stare me down. At first, I try to act the way I was told was appropriate before my journey: not looking any men I do not know directly in the face, always tilting my head down a bit. Yet soon anger rises in me. They are allowed to stare at me without hesitation, and I am supposed to humbly subject myself to the traditions. So I begin to stare back. It actually works. On the one hand, I do not have the feeling of being inferior anymore. And on the other hand, the men look away more quickly. I think that can be expected of them. They are capable of learning, as are all humans, and can accept foreign aspects. What they think of me is a whole other issue. The opinions of Western women are alarming. That we women from the West go to bed with just any random man is probably only the tip of the iceberg. I am not going to change this, whether or not I act inferior. After all, I do not match the typical image of a Western women that Afghan men have in their heads anyway. For they are all supermodels in bikinis – posters portraying them are once again allowed to be hung (next to numerous Massoud-posters, who is unproportionally present to President Karzai).

I am not good at estimating, but the relation men:women on the street is probably around 80:10. And of the 20% of women in the streets about 70 to 80 percent wear the burqa. Naturally there are differences according to where one is located. Near i.e. the women’s ministry the number of women is higher and the number of burqa wearers lower. In the well-kept center of the city, where all the international organizations have their offices, there are all-around more women who dare to appear in public without wearing the burqa. It is safe there, I am told. Nonetheless, the fear is still great. After 23 years at war barely anyone trusts the new and instabil peace – most people assume that if the ISAF, the international troup, were to leave the country, civil war would break out again immediately. And if a woman shows herself dressed modern and wearing little on her head today, it could have negative consequences for her tomorrow. Who knows what will come, who will be in control next. In the last 23 years people often thought that it could not get any worse. Yet it always did.

Nevertheless, every day more women leave the burqa behind. Working women, whether they are teachers, journalists or doctors, are becoming more brave and self-confident. And the example of a colleague who walks through the streets without a burqa is imitated more and more.
The uncertainty remains great all the same. Many rumors are spread in the city with the purpose of intimidating women. For example, the rumor of women being kidnapped by cabdrivers. Many women gave me this as the reason why women cannot ride in a taxi alone. According to my international contacts, there is no proof for these stories of kidnappings.
No matter where one goes, one still has to be careful as to what one says to whom in which situation. That suddenly freedom of expression is possible is unbelievable after years of censorship. Do not trust anyone – this principle cannot be forgotten from one day to the next. Even at the end of my trip I was not able to find out if these fears are real or simply internalized after centuries of trauma. An experience on my way home, in the airplane to Frankfurt, once again gave me reason to think. We met a development worker again, who who is stationed in Herat. So we asked him about the situation for women in Herat. All of a sudden he became very pale and whispered to please stop talking about this topic so loudly. “We are still in Afghanistan”.

In part, foreigners are received in a very friendly manner. The Afghan population agrees that they are better off now than they have been in the last 23 years. Optimism – a word believed to have been forgotten. It is in circulation once again. However, criticism is also abundant in many places. For example, President Karzai has coined the often quoted phrase: “First we had Communism, then Talebanism, and now we suffer from NGOism”. For a long time laws for the registration as an NGO in Afghanistan did not exist in any shape or form, and, therefore, NGOism was able to grow. They only seldomly cooperate with eachother, nor is there a uniform code of conduct for the expatriates. Many organizations have rules for women which are supposed to ensure their safety. However, their positive effect remains questionable if Western women are barely allowed to move about in the city without male accompaniment. Also, many organizations forbid their female employees to drive a car. At the same time the first driving class for Afghan women has taken incredibly brave undertaking, alone in regard of the traffic situation.

Most Afghan women know very well what they wish for in life. Security receives top priority, only then can the fight for more rights continue. Education for girls is in second place on this wishlist. And jobs for women. Of course every woman would also like to have enough to eat and a roof over her head – a wish which often has to remain unrealized in this city of 3 milion residents, where entire districts exist only as ruins.
Weeda, my RAWA-companion, grew up in Kabul. In 1989 she had to leave the city. Then came the war and the destruction. When she returned to the city of her childhood only a few months ago, she fell into a high fever for three days, so she says. Her eyes still fill with tears when she talks about the old, the golden times in Kabul. Back then Kabul was like Europe – she is sure of it.


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