Originally published here
Two little girls were sitting on a crochet table cloth spread under a tree in the garden. A woman was sitting on a green wooden bench nearby, multitasking as she talked on a cell phone and kept an eye on the girls simultaneously. Sitting some 50 meters away from them, I could hear the woman titter. The person on the other end of the phone was probably cracking jokes. The sound of her laughter put an inadvertent smile on my face.
During my two-week stay in Kabul, she was the first woman I had seen laugh openly in a public place. She spoke fluent Dari and threw her head back in the air every time she laughed. She ran her fingers through her hair once in a while. She was wearing a white shirt, a navy blue skirt and black boots and looked gorgeous. Her blue shuttle-cock burqa lay next to her on the bench. It was imprecisely folded causing air to trap inside the georgette apparel making it look like big blue polythene bag floating in water.
Not all women in Afghanistan wear burqas anymore unless it is demanded of them by their families. This applies specifically to Pashtuns, but covering the head is mandatory in all circumstances by women from all ethnicities. This woman hadn’t done either, and why not? Because she was inside the Bagh-e-Zanana (women’s garden) in the centre of the Afghan capital.
Bagh-e-Zanana, officially known as the Shaharara Garden, is one place in Kabul, where women can be themselves without abiding by the socio-cultural requirements of the ‘man’s world’ outside. Designated exclusively for women, men are not allowed to enter this garden. I am certain a lot of men do, but only in their dreams. After all, it’s the only place in the city that accommodates a large number of women and girls seven days a week.
The garden houses a computer and English language training institute, run by the American Embassy, a shopping area for women and children and numerous tailoring houses – all run by women. Even the security guards are women and so are the shopkeepers and sales staff. The garden also has a day care centre for the children of women who work at the garden or somewhere else. And of course, there is a beautiful lush green garden spread over several thousands square feet.
The garden is open throughout the week, but Fridays are particularly fun days. Women arrange picnics, music and dance. They dress in colourful clothes and bring their children, too. It’s the day they wait for six days a week and do all their shopping on this day.
Women in Afghanistan do not usually wear bright colours. Excessive use of browns, blacks, whites and navy blue speak volume of a life they had been forced into. I noticed the first thing women did as they stepped onto the garden premises was to take off their burqas or overcoats and reveal themselves as shinning pearls that just emerged from their shells.
For Afghan women, there is nothing as pleasing as the freedom to dress and roam around without the fear or insecurity that they might be watched by men. One thing that caught my attention was a big poster with colourful images and legible instructions in Dari educating women about reporting domestic violence to the police. The four illustrations told a story of a woman who reported abuse by her husband to the police. He was put behind the bars after a court trial.
I was still looking at the poster, when I over heard some women talking about the “Friday’s party” at the garden. I followed them to a tailoring shop, where I was instantly recognised as a Pakistani woman. Was it because of the red shirt I was wearing?
The shop was run by three friendly Pashtun women. One of them could speak Urdu for she had spent 11 years in Pakistan as a refugee when the Taliban took over Afghanistan. To make them more comfortable, I replied in Pashto. I hadn’t even finished my first sentence and there was a comfortable chair for me followed by a cup of tea with assorted biscuits from a shop a block away.
More women poured in – they had heard about a Pakistani-Pashtun woman visiting the garden. Some shared their experiences in Pakistan, others answered my questions about business in the garden. Each shop was about 100 square feet and rented for 3,000 Afghanis (some 50 Euros) a month, so they often preferred sharing shops.
One of the shopkeepers was Shpogmai Rana, whose name meant moonlight. She said she was in her 50s. Her wrinkled face, which made her look 20 years older, told stories of the desolation, violence and torment it had seen. She was happy to see a woman travel independently to work. She wanted a Pakistani bride for her son, and asked me to help her find one – a responsibility I accepted wholeheartedly.
Pashtu music was played and we danced as if we had never done before. No one cared where her shawl went or how loud the music was. They ensured that I finished the biscuits before I left. The last one was stuffed into my mouth with an amiable smile as I moved my shoulders back and forth to the music and my dancing partners. Women carried on with their routine duties in other parts of the garden, oblivious of the little ‘Friday party’ going on in one shop on a Thursday.
I was offered lunch but it was time to go. As I stepped out, Shpogmai Rana called my name. I turned my head towards her and found her eyes full of tears. She asked me to pray for her and Afghan women. Tears trickled down her cheeks as she said, “Last night, I saw myself running bare-footed on a dark potholed road under a moonless sky. A talib was chasing me with a baton in his hand. He was shouting my name and calling me a sinner for stepping outside my house. My burqa was lost somewhere.”
Author: Ayesha Hasan
Editor: Grahame Lucas