MarySmith’sPlace – Afghan Adventures#31 Women’s health, women’s work, women’s place in the scheme of things

Next day, I spent the morning in the women’s clinic with Zohra. I was embarrassed at finding it difficult to understand the women who fired questions at me, making me feel my command of the language was still pitiful. In my defence, their accent was very different from that of Jaghoray.

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Besides those patients with diarrhoea or throat or eye infections, several women had come for ante-natal check-ups. Two had vaginal infections, one, a prolapse of the uterus; four wanted contraceptive pills while another desperately wanted to become pregnant. Most of Hussain’s female patients complained of a mixture of infections of eyes, throat or chest. Apart from the occasional woman who complained of burning urine, he rarely had any patients with gynaecological problems. Afghan women simply cannot discuss such intimate problems with a male health worker, never mind allowing a physical examination. A great many women suffer appalling health problems in silence.

Islam teaches that women should be modest in dress and behaviour but, somewhere along the line, this has been reinterpreted in such a way that modesty has given way to women feeling a terrible sense of shame women regarding their bodies and reproductive systems. The Prophet Mohammed (PBUH), in his teachings, surely never intended women be denied medical help, nor be allowed to die before exposing the most private parts of their anatomy to a male doctor?

As long as the words of the Prophet continue to be interpreted, in the rural areas in particular, by illiterate misogynists, women will always be denied rights – and the west will continue to misunderstand the teachings of Islam.

The nearest hospital which could provide obstetric services was in Kabul, a journey which could take two or more days depending on road and transport conditions and whether there was fighting along the way. A woman needed a male escort but going to Kabul was a dangerous mission for young men who risked being press ganged into the Afghan Army.

In the afternoon Zohra introduced me to her neighbours, Gul Chaman and Fatima, who lived below Zohra and Hassan’s house. Since their husband, despite the protests of Gul Chaman, had taken Fatima as his second wife ten years previously, the two women had not spoken to each other. Gul Chaman, with her children, occupied one room of the house, Fatima and her brood, the other. A strict rota system had been instituted for conjugal visits – and for the use of the tandoor in which each wife baked the bread for her own family. Hostilities between the mothers did not extend to the two sets of children who played together, receiving comforting cuddles for scraped knees and bloodied noses from whichever mother happened to be nearer at the time.

Making bread

Bread straight from the tandoor. On the left fresh pasta called ‘ash’ I should maybe say this and the next photos are not from Sheikh Ali but from a different place on my travels.

When it was her turn for the tandoor, Gul Chaman showed me how she baked bread. As the heat inside the oven was tremendous she wore a long, very thick leather gauntlet on her arm.  She would reach right into the furnace to slap the prepared rounds of dough on the walls. When done, she hooked them out with a metal rod. The smell of bread fresh from the oven is one of the most delicious things in life.

Not to be outdone, Fatima gave a display of weaving the brightly coloured gilims and laughingly persuaded me to try my hand. I soon realised this was not a skill I could master – my inexperienced fingers proved to be all thumbs, and totally uncoordinated. It was slow, tedious work and even with three or four women working together at the long frame it could take a month or more to complete one gilim.

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Working on carpets

After clinic was over for the day, Zohra often had friends visit for tea and chat, but she admitted in the last year she had been out of the compound only twice, once to offer condolences when someone died and once to attend a wedding. I was unhappy when I realised I was expected to behave within the prevailing standards set by Hassan. When I mentioned going to see the bazaar the suggestion was swiftly vetoed, ‘There’s nothing to see in the bazaar, this is a poor village. If you need anything I can get it for you.’  It was the same whenever I enquired about Khudadad. ‘Don’t worry. He’s fine. He’s happy.’ Whenever I asked Hassan about transport he would tell me not to worry. Then he would embarrass me by asking if I was not happy in his home, was I not being looked after properly and was there anything I needed to make my stay more comfortable?

I was happy to spend time with Zohra listening to her stories about the work she did to improve the women’s health but there was really no work for me here and I was anxious to reach Lal.

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Spinning wool

Choosing a time after lunch, when I assumed Hassan had left on one of his undisclosed outings, I slipped into the guest room. Khudadad gave me a huge grin. ‘Where have you been?  When are we leaving?  I am very bored here!’  We managed about three minutes of conversation, centring mainly on the fact that Hassan seemed not to be trying to find transport to Lal and did not want Khudadad to wander about the village by himself before Hassan’s soft voice made me jump.

‘Is anything wrong?’ he asked, from just inside the door.

‘No, nothing. I just wanted to talk to Khudadad. I haven’t seen him since we arrived.’ Hassan sat down and I understood that he was not going to allow me to sit alone with Khudadad. As his guest I felt I could not make an issue of my freedom being so curtailed. Conversation rather dried up and, after a few moments, I rose to return to the family section of the house. I wondered if Hassan thought that, if left alone together, Khudadad and I would immediately fall on each other in an ecstasy of unbridled passion. What did he think happened when we slept in roadside hotels without a third person to guard our morality?

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Washing sheep’s fleece before spinning. 

One day, a beaming Hassan informed me he had arranged for a jeep to take us to Bamiyan, the following day. We were to be ready to leave at the usual setting out time in Afghanistan – four o’clock in the morning. It seemed a bit excessive. Bamiyan was only a three hour drive from Sheikh Ali – as did Zohra’s contribution of hard boiled eggs, chicken and dried fruits and nuts.

The driver never showed up. We ate the hard boiled eggs for breakfast and had the chicken for lunch and Hassan was very apologetic about it all and promised to look for another driver.


49 thoughts on “MarySmith’sPlace – Afghan Adventures#31 Women’s health, women’s work, women’s place in the scheme of things

  1. What a dreadful life for the women. You showed it quite well.

    I read somewhere (though I don’t remember where) that the desert and island cultures were vastly different because living in desert is a hardship, and islands often had plentiful food. Island cultures tended to have more equality. Desert living was a hard life and women during the early days would rather be in a building that offered protection.

    Having experienced being in a medina for a few days, where the temperature was at least 20 degrees F cooler on the inside than the outside, I could see why women might not want to go out much.

    I don’t know any more than that, and what I “knew then” may not be what is true now.

    Liked by 2 people

    • That’s an interesting theory. In Central Afghanistan the temperature in summer is wonderful, not too hot but dry and sunny. In the winter, however, it is bitterly cold with snow to the rooftops – so people definitely stay inside then! Certainly, the idea of going for a walk – just for the pleasure of taking a walk – was a totally alien concept to the women. If you were walking it was to go somewhere with a definite purpose. I think of all the places I stayed in Afghanistan, this was the most uncomfortable. A few years later when I stopped there en route to Mazar-i-Sharif in the north I had a young woman from a different part of Hazaragi. It was a different person in charge of the clinic but other than that nothing had changed. My young companion said on the second day, ‘Really, I will become old in this place if I have to stay for a week.’ I wonder how it would be now, 30 years on. Sorry, I’ve wittered on a bit here.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I’m very pleased that suddenly I am able to comment on your site once more, Mary. Oh, the miracles of modern technology! Another interesting read and there must certainly have been times you were best just keeping your head down and lowering your eyelids.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I love those warm ochre colours in the first photo, a perfect scene for a tapestry or painting. I once read that women in Afghanistan never had any gynaecological problems because they did everything in a squatting position; maybe that theory just came about because problems go unmentioned.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Janet. Feel free to paint it or make a tapestry! Both skills totally beyond me, I’m afraid. I think problems just go unmentioned. Although I read somewhere a long time ago that many of our western digestive ailments stem from having toilets we sit on rather than squatting. However, I am not about to dig a pit latrine in the back garden to test the theory.

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  4. I am so glad of your profound knowledge of our Islam. Indeed, this would have made Prophet (P.B.U.H) very sad and he(P.B.U.H) would have taken immediate action. Same is the case with his companions. The situation is still similar here in few remote areas of Pakistan but we have come a long way.
    It’s very honourable of you to share this journey and their story with us.
    Lovely landscape photography.
    I will stay tuned.
    Thank You!!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you for your kind comment. I am afraid my knowledge of Islam is not profound but I have tried to get a little understanding. Things are changing slowly (though more slowly in some places) since I was in Afghanistan. When I was in Jaghori there were no schools for girls – now more girls from Jaghori than other areas of Central Afghanistan are going to university. By the way, from 1986 to 1989 I lived in Pakistan.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. A really interesting view of life in a soft walled prison. It must have been an emotional rollercoaster meeting up with medical problems that were difficult to resolve, many bedded in the misogynistic culture. Hopefully, you would find a real difference if you returned today. I always think of the films ‘Gabbe’ and ‘Latcho Drom’ when I read your blog. I think they are available on Youtube Mary.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I like that description – ‘a soft walled prison’ – perfect description. I think from what Afghan friends tell me things are a bit different but all the steps forward could be wiped away by Covid-19. In the rural areas it’s not so bad but in cities like Kabul, the situation is dreadful with thousands out of work and the millions of aid money translating into a few bags of wheat for about 1,000 families. I’ll look up the films you mention. Keep well.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. I have no proof, but just a feeling, that very little has changed for women in that country, at least outside of Kabul. And once the Taliban resume complete control, it may well go backward in time very quickly indeed. Your vivid and evocatine account bears witness to how it was, and sadly to how it will be again.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Yes, Pete, Taliban will push women back into the dark ages. In the rural areas things have been improving, materially and medically. In the cities like Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif facilities are much more widely available. In a way it almost makes it worse for women in the cities to have it all swept away. Last time Taliban were in power around 90+% of women in Kabul had mental health problems. At least in the remote areas of Hazaristan, Taliban didn’t have such a strong hold. I am very pessimistic about the future and now Covid-19 has resulted in thousands of people in Kabul losing their jobs and not having money to buy food.

      Liked by 3 people

  7. It seems you have traveled there years ago, Right now the life situation is better than before (not standard) here in Hazarajat. All women have a minimum access in health services, and major of girls go to school and universities, in addition some of them can work out of home.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for dropping in and taking the time to comment, Latifa. You are right, it was years ago I was there. In the first post about my time in Afghanistan I did say it was 1989. Maybe I should say that at the start of each post for the benefit of new people who find my blog. I know things have improved since then, though there is still a need for further improvements. I stayed in Afghanistan until 1996 and in the last couple of years before I left I was teaching basic mother and child health care in villages and now some of the daughters of my students are midwives and teachers and stay in touch. When I left Afghanistan there was no Facebook but now it is easier to keep in touch. Some of the people who follow my posts were not even born when I was there or were small children – for them my posts are a piece of history. And for me, it is a pleasure to remember my time there and remind myself of what a privilege it was to spend so much time there.

      Liked by 2 people

  8. Pingback: MarySmith’sPlace – Afghan Adventures#31 Women’s health, women’s work, women’s place in the scheme of things | Smorgasbord Blog Magazine

  9. The women look so aged and worn, Mary, and it is not surprising given their lives. There is a lot of misinterpretation in all religions which is why I don’t go to church. I prefer to do my own reading and research without having all the man made limitations and interpretations.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Some of them were quite a bit younger than I am, Robbie and, I am happy to report, still going strong 30 years later despite the hardships. I wonder how different religion would be if it were women who interpreted the teachings?

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    • Fortunately, nowadays there are more women doctors and nurses than there were when I was there so it is easier for women to access health care. It wasn’t that the women were not allowed, as in banned from, health care but because the sense of shame about their bodies was so strong they didn’t want to discuss (much less show) such intimate conditions with a male doctor. As Robbie mentioned above, there is so much misinterpretation of religion and it is usually women who suffer as a result. I didn’t see much evidence in the areas worked of herbalists. There was a great reliance on visiting the Mullah for a tawiz – an amulet with a prayer or verse from the Qoran inside.

      Liked by 2 people

  10. Highest esteem to you, Mary. I think, there i had lost my head, very soon. It really wouldn’t have helped people, but to see such coercion i couldn’t have been quiet. I would have been more in favour of a military liberation force.;-) Michael

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Another sad but fascinating read, Mary…squat toilets still remain here in many places although public places are now required to have both. My sister was married to an Iraqi and there are many similarities in the cultures…I hope you are safe and well 🙂 x

    Liked by 2 people

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