MarySmith’sPlace -Sex talks and the wasp sting joke – AfghanistanAdventures#48

Lal-sar-Jangal, Central Afghanistan: November 1989

I was sorry to say goodbye to everyone in Waras.

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My horse, Zeba had fallen hopelessly in love with Ibrahim’s and couldn’t bear to let him out of her sight so it was easy to keep up a good pace with Ibrahim leading the way. Any other horse coming between Zeba and her beloved was liable to receive a savage nip.

As we rode homewards I reflected on the differences between the people of Waras and those of Lal and Jaghoray and Sheikh Ali. They were poor, their area had even less in the way of medical facilities and no aid organisation had ever done anything for the people. Life was a struggle but they did not seem bowed by it. Their religious belief was strong, but not worn as a badge as in Jaghoray.  No-one worried about playing cards or listening to music in public – and never at dinner parties did the guests ostentatiously offer their prayers en masse. People left the company unobtrusively, to wash and pray in a separate room or, if it had to be done in the same room, it was discreetly in a corner without interrupting the conversation carried on around them.

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A wedding procession. The bride on horseback on the left edge of the photo.

Ibrahim maintained that the people of Jaghoray and Sheikh Ali were much more fundamentalist because of the strong influence of Iran over the political Parties.  ‘They give guns and money because they want to see Afghanistan become like Iran. That will never happen. The people here in Waras and in Sharistan and Daykundi hate the Iranians. They blame them for keeping the fighting going on.’

When I commented on how much more freedom the women enjoyed, he laughed, saying, ‘In Waras, we like women.’ I wasn’t quite sure how to interpret his only remark on the subject.

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Entertainment

The staff at the clinic had been requesting English classes for some time and in my absence worked out a time table for the evenings – a rather ambitious programme which included anatomy, pharmacology, the reproductive system and English grammar. When I pointed out that, unless we gave up sleeping entirely, there weren’t enough hours in the day the programme was modified. I was to teach all medical topics in English, explaining points of grammar as and when necessary.

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I wish I could remember who he was!

In fact the subject the staff most wanted to learn about was birth spacing. Ibrahim explained many people in the area would like to have fewer children – once they had sons to take over the land.  However, people knew little about the contraceptive pill, believing it caused all manner of dangerous side effects. In the bazaar, a capsule was available which reportedly gave one year’s protection against pregnancy – several of the clinic staff had soon discovered the manufacturer’s claims were false.

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Qurban in his clinic

Condoms could be purchased in the bazaar in Bamiyan. They were used as balloons and given to children as toys. Haboly said they would never dare suggest using condoms to avoid pregnancy; men would not accept their use. Despite the fact that they saw a number of cases of gonorrhoea amongst their male patients, no-one would suggest the use of condoms as a means of preventing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Nor did they even think of explaining to the patient that, unless his partner was treated, the infection would return. It was as if they just ignored how the disease had been contracted – Islam prohibits extra-marital and pre-marital sex, therefore it must not happen. These unpleasant infections must just come “khud ba khud” – by themselves.

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Qurban in Lal clinic

Other questions concerned how the sex of a baby was determined, and was there nothing to be done to ensure the mother produced a boy?

During one session on how to teach a woman the correct usage of the contraceptive pill and on dispelling the myths about side effects Rahimy asked Haboly to translate a question.  ‘Rahimy wants his wife to take the pill because they have enough children. He wants to know if there is not a pill he can give her to take only on the weekends when he goes home?’

I shook my head, ‘Sorry, he will have to trust his wife in between his visits home.’  Haboly looked faintly shocked by the blunt answer, but dutifully translated. Rahimy grinned so sheepishly I knew I had correctly guessed the reason behind the question. There was a further whispered discussion between them, with many anxious glances cast in my direction.  Finally, Haboly turned to me and said, ‘We have another question.’  He paused, obviously nervous, but the others made encouraging noises until he continued, ‘After a man has sex he is tired and has to rest for some time before he can do it again, but a woman is not tired and can carry on. Does it mean women need more sex than men? Is this true in your country, too?’ Haboly stopped, watching me fearfully, as if expecting an outraged reaction to such a question.

After a moment’s consideration I answered, ‘If it’s true women need sex more than men – and men can’t continue their performance for as long – don’t you think there is something silly about men being able to have four wives, but women only one husband?  Surely it should be the other way round?’

Haboly looked totally shocked. ‘Go on,’ I said, ‘translate.’  As he did so I studied the expressions on their faces. Ibrahim was the first to recover, and laughed aloud at the reply.  The others joined in, finding the idea of women taking four husbands very entertaining. ‘So this,’ I asked, ‘is why Afghan men want to keep their women in purdah? In case she goes looking for satisfaction elsewhere?’

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A buzkashi game was part of the wedding celebration. I was on horseback to watch, not take part.

At the end of the evening Haboly said, ‘We hope you did not mind our questions. We never have the opportunity to ask these things. We did not mean to cause offence.’ I reassured him and retired to my room thinking how sad it was to live in a society which so suppressed any openness about sex and sexuality that grown men, all married with families, could sound like naughty school boys just discovering the facts of life.

Their favourite joke, however, made me realise men – from sexually repressed Afghanistan to liberated Britain, and probably worldwide – share the same “size matters” anxieties. The joke? A man was stung on the penis by a wasp. Driven mad by the pain he visited a doctor, pleading, ‘Do something to ease the pain, but leave the swelling.’

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The only way to get a better view of the match

64 thoughts on “MarySmith’sPlace -Sex talks and the wasp sting joke – AfghanistanAdventures#48

  1. Oh how I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall for that conversation lol.. and it seems from your horse to the audience sex was a much thought about topic. I loved your responses. I am not sure with the rising cases of STD’s in the UK and other Western countries that the message has sunk in even today. Will share tomorrow evening..hugs Sally..xx

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  2. This was a great post and you handled the questions very well. I had a similar experience teaching English to 6 Tibetan girls who would be training as medical practitioners. I had planned a class around camping when one young woman asked me how to not have so many children. I scrapped the lesson plan and we had a frank discussion about birth control. They said they didn’t have anyone who they could discuss this with. (they were orphans raised by the monks) In many cultures talking about sex is taboo.

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  3. The wasp joke is a classic, and worth hearing again. I once asked a neighbour of mine who came from India to live and work in London why some Indian people had so many children, yet often lived in poverty because of that. He shrugged as he replied. “Because the children die”. He couldn’t see the connection between providing for large families, lack of food and medicine, and poverty. Once in England and settled in Wimbledon, he only had two children. I think the penny dropped.
    Best wishes, Pete.

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    • I’d heard the joke before but it was interesting to learn it had crossed international boundaries! In many countries such as India and Afghanistan a family needs children to look after them in old age as there is no state pension. As it is likely some of their children will die, they need to make sure they have enough to grow up to adulthood. (A bit like the royal family and titled landowners needing their wives to produce and heir and a spare!) In Victorian Britain it was the same and only when health and social aspects changed – like the introduction of clean water and sanitation – did fewer children die and then couples didn’t need to have so many. When you look round old graveyards you see so many names of children who died.

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  4. At the risk of being too forward, I have had my share of experience with all different sizes and shapes. Guys with a lot of…um… think that’s all they need, and it tends to be a miserable experience if they don’t care about the person they’re with.

    There is one truth: It’s not the size that matters, it’s whether or not a man knows what to do with what he’s got. 🙂

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  5. Fascinating Mary. We filmed many demonstrations where health workers showed how to use condoms using cucumbers or bananas. The women went into hysterics. However the men there also refused to wear – skin to skin – is the only way. Refusal was also a means of control especially with the rise of AIDS and in one hospital, 100% of the pregnant women were HIV positive. So sad. So much ignorance in the world so many of us are unaware of.

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    • I had to demonstrate with a broomstick on one occasion! Most of the women in my classes knew their husbands wouldn’t use them, though there were one or two who said they’d get them to agree. I’d have loved to hear their conversation at bedtime! One person I spoke to about AIDS pointed out to me that as Islam forbids homosexuality and sex outside marriage then there couldn’t be AIDS in the country. But see my reply to Sally above for a fine example of ignorance – I’d say wilful ignorance – in this country.

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  6. In the middle of this I suddenly remembered a book I read maybe last year, about women in SSouthall in London, a strongly ethnic community, and I’ll get it wrong whether it’s muslim or Hindu. But at the almost forbidden English language class that the ‘author’ set up, the most discussion revolved around sex issues, and words for bodyparts. I can never look at an aubergine in quite the same way again!

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  7. Mary, you must have had to have infinite patience with all the things you couldn’t say … yet I love your honest answers to all these questions and no wonder that Haboly baulked at translating your answer! Good for you for being so forthright – not something the men normally expected from a woman.

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  9. Oh Mary, what a fascinating life you’ve had – are having…You must have needed all your patience, and then some, faced with so much ignorance. Beliefs are still so ingrained in so many countries and religions, it’s very sad.. Thank you. x

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    • The treatment was available, Pete, the problem – as it is everywhere, unfortunately – was when they didn’t tell their wives so they could be also be treated. And when – again like many men, east, west, north and south – they didn’t learn not to play away from home.

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  10. It goes to show the people who insist on educating women about reproduction and contraception is the best way to change things are right. I agree with you that it is sad when there are topics that can’t be talked about and it results in ignorance and the spread of illness. When my parents were young (my father was born right during the Spanish Civil War and my mother right after), education was mostly religious (Catholic) and very repressive, and from some of the conversations I heard when I was older, it was sorely lacking as well. At least here things have changed for the better in that respect. Thanks for sharing your amazing adventures, Mary.

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    • I agree women are by far the best educators in these matters. It’s interesting what you say about how repressive the teaching of the Catholic Church was and I’ve just read a book (name of both book and author have vanished for the moment) about a woman who was sent to become a Sister because after the Spanish Civil War her family couldn’t afford to keep her. She was sent to work in a maternity clinic where she discovered babies were being taken from their mothers to be adopted by childless couples. This went on for many years, long after the Second World War. She wrote all the names – of the mothers, their babies, the adoptive parents – in a notebook and eventually was able to hand it over to an investigative journalist. It was fiction but based on fact.
      It is easy for us to be critical about things we disapprove of in far away countries but we forget things here in the west only began to change very recently.

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  11. Hey Mary! There is a lot remembering me on my research on the behaviour here in the Bavarian rurality. 😉 Condoms as toy are not remembered, but in black clothed brides, the love for women (as they are always have to be close to the oven/ in the kitchen. The entertainment is as simple as funny. Here too, in the past as in the actual time. Lol
    Thank you very much for another great sequel of your experiences in Afghanistan. Michael

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    • Hi Michael, thanks for your comments. Some things change slowly (for better or worse), some things never change. I hoped in these posts to show that there are less differences and more similarities between people wherever they are living.

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  12. Your sense of humour was clearly appreciated and helped to break the ice and make some of these questions possible. I find these accounts fascinating, informative and delightfully entertaining!

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  14. why are sex lessons so awkward everywhere?! I remember a class on venereal diseases circa 1970 which used a rather clumsy cartoon with cross hatched genitals to indicate the ease of infection – the joke was all we took away was to check your partner didn’t have cross hatched genitals and you were fine…

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  15. So much here that it’s difficult to respond to it all. First, as a woman, I flinch at the way women are treated. I know it’s another country, another culture, but how/when will the women rise up? Such an ingrained society. And despite being smart people, I guess they do not value education? So much of the basics of sexuality were not known. I find it fascinating that these men were ‘courageous’ enough to ask you these questions. Perhaps they felt it was okay because you were so much not part of their culture and life. Your response about women’s sexual proclivities, perhaps needing four husbands more than the men needed four wives – was AWESOME. 🙂

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    • Thanks for your comments, Pam. This is only a little snapshot of one very remote area so not everywhere was the same – and it was almost 40 years ago so even there things have changed. There was in fact a great value put on education because people believed it was the best way to move upwards and carve out a better life. In this respect it was the education to pass exams, rather than life teaching. I know that since my time there many girls in the area have been through the school system and gone on to university so things are changing. I think the men felt able to ask the questions because we were quite comfortable together by then. Besides, I was always asking them questions (not about their sex lives!) so they probably felt it was all right for them to do some asking.

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