- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 17, 2009

JALREZ, Afghanistan | On a recent summer morning, a sea of vivid patterns stood in stark contrast to the earthen tones of a mud-walled courtyard.

A rare sight in Afghanistan - where women are encouraged not to be seen, let alone heard, in public - the scene was that of women attending a tribal council, or shura, organized just for them.

The council is a forum for settling disputes. It provides an opportunity for female fellowship and offers a window on the lives of women, ranging from widows to young mothers. Despite the thousands of miles and educational differences separating Afghan and American women, both have been affected by two phenomena: spreading technology and unemployment.

Married women in the Jalrez Valley care for livestock and cultivate and harvest apples, but because of a poor system of roads and produce storage, struggle to make a living.

“Our men go wherever they can to find work. They have to travel so far to sell simple fruit that they don’t make enough [money] to bring any back,” said Riza, a middle-aged mother dressed in a kelly-green shimmering shawl. Like many Afghans, she uses only one name.

“Their social lives have been impacted by the men’s unemployment,” said Kristen Farnham, a social scientist and member of a so-called “human terrain team” embedded with the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division. “Men are hanging out. It used to be that women would go over to each other’s compounds, or qalats, and cook or sew, and now they can’t do that [because culturally, they can’t be seen by each other’s husbands].”

Widows have it even harder. Hanamjana, a widow wearing a gauzy turquoise head-covering, said it’s been two years since she’s had the supplies to weave rugs.

“Many do [know how to weave rugs]. But we don’t have the right materials,” she said.

“In one out of 100 houses, a woman can go outside the home to make money,” added Gulmichinary, another widow, with a deeply lined face and hennaed fingernails.

“Both men and women have psychological problems because there’s no work,” Riza said.

Ms. Farnham said lack of work is a common refrain and that it often causes abuse within families.

“In every shura, they do make a correlation about the men not being employed and either using drugs or not having self-esteem,” she said. “I think there’s just a high level of frustration and hopelessness and what I would characterize as widespread depression.”

For these women, a cynical sense of humor has become a survival tool.

“In every house, there’s some kind of domestic violence because the men hit the women; we hit them; and we all hit the animals,” Riza said. The comment elicited a roar of laughter from the other women.

“There hasn’t been any bad beatings here,” she continued, “because if they don’t give us bread, we don’t give them [our beds].”

Capt. Tammy Lanning said some women have reported abuse, but she can only encourage them to go to friends’ homes. She recalls a shura in June where a young woman asked for help for kerosene burns from the neck down. But she said she couldn’t stay.

“She didn’t want to be out of the home too long. That’s why we limit the time [of the shuras] to two hours because many women are using a cover story to come here,” Capt. Lanning said.

She said there are plans to build a women’s vocational center that will include a shelter for abused women. Construction is expected to begin next spring.

There are hopeful moments, too, at the shuras.

In a country where female literacy rates hover at about 4 percent, older women proudly talk about their daughters who can read and write.

“With very few exceptions, girls aged 14 and under can read here, and their mothers and grandmothers cannot,” Ms. Farnham said. “Those preteen girls who do have very conservative fathers don’t have any problems telling me that they’re vocal [to their fathers] about wanting to get their education.”

“[The women] always ask us [to build] schools,” Capt. Lanning added. “I’ve spread the word that if the security improves, we can do that.”

But asked about the recent presidential and provincial elections, few women say they participated. Shahbobbo, a 50-year-old widow, said she got a card and cast a vote for incumbent President Hamid Karzai, but added, “My son [voted for me].”

Capt. Lanning said she and the provincial minister for women tried to recruit women to provide security for the elections, but couldn’t get anyone to sign up.

“The women’s director is an educated and independent Afghan woman, but even she’s still scared to do a lot of things,” Capt. Lanning said.

Technology, however, provides a new sort of freedom for the young women of Afghanistan.

Even when a family has no running water or electricity, it often has cell phones. There are now four services nationwide. Just like American teenagers, boys and girls here are using cell phones to communicate with each other via text messages.

Ms. Farnham said she recalls discussing the phenomenon with two grandmothers at the first women’s shura in Jalrez this spring.

“They approved of texting between their female grandchildren and boys because it gave them an indication of what kind of boys their granddaughters like,” she said.

The women said, ” ‘We don’t know how they do it so fast.’ But they liked that that was a way for their granddaughters to get to know someone before the formal [marriage] process began.”

The grandmothers said they would then use their influence as elders to choose mates for their granddaughters that the girls actually liked. “They didn’t want [arranged marriages] to be forced upon [their granddaughters, like it was on them],” Ms. Farnham said.

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