A bit of dust flew in the air from the sandy ground and sneaked into my mouth, as my five-year-old-daughter, Susan, and I strolled from the outskirts of Herat, back towards the center of town. With no map, we meandered our way around the small adobe houses in this quiet, barren neighborhood, avoiding the few skinny dogs that we noticed wandering and sniffing everything in sight. It was eerily quiet on the narrow, dirt road, which was more like a path.
We met up with a group of six women, on their way to market, baskets over their wrists. They stopped when they saw us, and from hand motions and the friendly quality in their voices, indicated that they wanted to converse with us. Susan and I responded with genuine delight and we did a pretty fair job of talking without words, using tones of voices that show pleasure in the others’ company. Though I couldn’t see the faces of any of the women, I judged each one’s age by the skin on her hands and in one case, by the way one young woman (maybe she was only a teenager) moved around, dancing in delight, the way the young often do.
When I asked them if I could take their photographs, and showed them my camera, they turned away, laughing, as if they were flattered I had asked. But of course, it would not be permissible. Besides, all I could see was the netting in front of their eyes. The photo would have been a picture of only light blue burqas.
A small group of boys, who seemed to be about ten or twelve years old appeared unexpectedly pointing and laughing at us, the two western strangers, who seemed completely out of place. In 1975, we probably were the first females with our faces and hair uncovered, that they’d ever seen out in the street.
The boys forced themselves into our meeting, pushing each woman away from the one next to her, making them disband. Whether they broke up our meeting because our conversation presented a threat to male control over women, or they were just being adolescents looking to make a bit of trouble, I never knew. It seemed strange that grown women could have their behavior so affected by children, who happened to be male.
Memories of that experience in 1975 return whenever I read about something to do with women in Afghanistan. I consider it a starting point that stretches to the present, such as last week when two sisters in Mazar-I-Sharif, committed suicide. The seventeen year old began the tragedy by daring to fall in love with a man not approved by her family and then taking rat poison when her desire to be with him was thwarted. The older one, only twenty-five, took her own life as well, due to her overwhelming grief at losing her sister. The entire family is devastated.
After that I contemplate about the way things are here in America. It is rare that a father’s power is unilateral over the women and girls in his family. There may be differences of opinion on many issues, but the girl usually has a choice. She can disobey and take the risk of starting out on her own. The mother may support her decision and in most families, has as much power as the father.
I wonder what happened to those six women. I wonder if any of them received an education, and what kind of life they have had since then. I wonder if they married young and now are all grandmothers and if the ones with wrinkled hands have died.