Women in Afghanistan (Or, I get by with some help from my friends)

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In response to the “Typical day in an Afghan Village” post, reader gumiii asked the following question:

“Do women have some sort of informal gathering among themselves too as a way of socializing or is this outright banned?”

I think one of the first things someone studying another culture is to realize and recognize their limitations.  And to compensate for that by seeking out others with different, complementary skillsets and points of view.

I grew up in an ethnically German extended farm family that practiced anachronistic farming techniques, which gives me a certain insight into other farmers in roughly similar situations.  This gives me insight into many things rural, regardless of culture.  Friend Zok grew up in the former Yugoslavia, during the post-Soviet civil war era, so he is well-versed in ethnic conflict.  Friend Rachel is a woman who has lived in several Islamic countries, so she provides insight into the role of women in Afghanistan, as well as other Islamic societies. Friend Nawab grew up in Afghanistan, so provides incredible insight into all things Afghan.

I am neither female, Muslim or an Afghan, so I referred the question to my friends who are better qualified to answer.

When I passed gumiii’s question to Rachel and Nawab, they had the following responses:

Rachel says:

“Yes, women do go to the mosque. I can’t speak for women in the south but I imagine that they are allowed to go at least occasionally because there are gender separation areas. The Blue Mosque in Mazar-e-Sharif even had a women’s day once in the park surrounding the mosque and only the women were allowed to go in. There are other opportunities for women to get together and converse as well. In rural areas, many women use the time at the well to visit with each other and they value that time. Much like women in biblical times.”

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Nawab had a longer, more detailed response.

 Village women in Afghanistan usually have a series of traditional platforms for socializing and networking. Some of them are multi-purpose events such as daily gatherings at the village’s women only na’an-wayee (bakery) where village ladies bring their dough and then gather around tandoor (in-ground oven) and socialize while the baker bakes their dough into na’an in turn for a fee. The bakery fee can be paid in barter or with money.

In some villages, the na’an-wayee is set up in a cooperative-style arrangement where the tandoor fixture is owned by the entire village. Women bring their dough as well as the fuel (wood pieces, dried cow drops, or coal) and then the socialize while each woman takes turn baking their own na’an.

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The women return to the na’an-wayee each day. This provides the village women the most frequent and effective platform for socializing.

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Once women become old enough to have grown daughters and daughter-in-laws, they often will no longer bake their own na’an, but will often enter into a cottage industry such as spinning wool, weaving carpets, gilim or other activities oriented around fabric production, which is a traditional Afghan handicraft. This gives them a chance not only for economic productivity, while exchanging tips for improving production and getting the best price, but also for socializing and of course sharing juicy gossip.

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Younger females try to meet and socialize away from the controlling eyes of their mothers and grandmothers at places like the village spring from which they bring drinking water to the household in clay containers. These springs are also where these younger females gather to wash their weekly laundry, watch over their infant and child siblings and of course socialize with other girls in the village.  And, of course, it provides an opportunity to see and be seen by village boys.

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In many villages in the country a certain day of the week is designated as the “Ziyarat Day” which means “Shrine Day.”  On this day, most of the village women and girls cook “halwa” (flour fried with sugar and a touch of oil) and then go to a nearby shrine or cemetery and perform the rituals of sending blessings for the souls of the passed-away family members. It naturally gives them a convenient reason to also turn the whole process into a socializing opportunity which they fully take advantage of. Ziyarat Day may even bring together women from a cluster of villages that happen to share the shrine or the cemetery. This adds to the scope and importance of the Ziyarat Day events.

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Periodically, women in the villages (and in the cities as well) use multi-day marriage ceremonies to socialize. With the exception of the wedding day (which includes both men and women guests), the rest of the traditional pre- and post-wedding rituals/ceremonies are usually for women only. The same is true for baby-naming and baby-shower events. This provides them privacy from the tempering presence of men.

Women also commonly socialize when they go to each other houses to borrow cooking oil, sugar, medicine, dishes, blankets, etc. Such visits are also seen as opportunities for conversation.

The list above is not exhaustive, but is an attempt to provide a picture into typical Afghan women’s social life.

And, of course, Zok provided the wonderful pictures.  I am humbled to be part of a group of such exceptional, talented people.  We are much more than just the sum of our parts.

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About hotmilkforbreakfast

I am a researcher, a writer, a former soldier, an academic and a lifelong learner. All text and pictures are copyrighted and are not to be used without express permission of the author.
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9 Responses to Women in Afghanistan (Or, I get by with some help from my friends)

  1. Pingback: Women in Afghanistan (Or, I get by with some help from my friends) | hotmilkforbreakfast

  2. yomicfit says:

    So great to hear from these women!

  3. aswin79 says:

    It’s refreshing to see the juxtaposition of feminist/Islamic view (Rachel) along with cultural landscape photography (Zok) and native Afghani prespective (Nawab) all tied in nicely together. Excellent work!

    • Thanks for reading, and the comment. If I may correct one gaffe you made, though. “Afghani” is the currency of Afghanistan. “Afghan” are what most of the people call themselves. Technically, the term “Afghanistani” is philologically the most correct, because Afghan means Pashtun, and not everyone in Afghanistan is Pashtun. It’s a common mistake, and lots of people make it when talking about the people who live in Afghanistan.

      • aswin79 says:

        Thanks for your feedback, I appreciate it. I guess I was mistaken. It was my understanding that “afghani” (all lowercase) was the correct way of denoting the unit of currency. Grammatically speaking, I used “Afghani” as an adjective (Context: of or relating to Afghanistan) and I used it by placing it before the noun word “perspective.” I was careful not to use “Afghan” or “Afghanistani” because like you said, I didn’t want to alienate non-Pashtun peoples. But overall, thanks for your feedback and the blog in general, it’s highly educational and informative. Best wishes.

      • Your thought process is good, but technically incorrect. “Afghanistani” literally means “one who comes from Afghanistan”. “Afghani”, using the same basic language rules means “one who comes from Afghan”. Pakistani/Afghanistani… so on and so forth. I’ve found most Afghans violate these rules themselves, but will call out a Westerner, if they do it, btw. I’ve also found that if you want to start an argument, just start throwing out the word “Khorasan” and “Khorasani”. Now THAT’S a food fight I don’t want to get involved in…. 😉

  4. gumiii says:

    Wow, I’ve inspired a post 🙂 I myself grew up in a small, ethnic village and I don’t know if it has something to do with that but like you, I am fascinated with what goes on in villages/small towns anywhere in the world. This article provided more than what I visualized while reading your other article. Great job you lot! Looking forward to future posts.

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