Afghanistan has become synonymous with terrorism, war, and its extreme violations of women’s rights, whereby gender is the most significant determinant of one’s future. Since reclaiming the country by the Taliban in 2021, women have been removed from all spheres of public life, most suggesting homes becoming prisons, children becoming brides and bodies baby-making machines.
The new reality with old ties is confronting – a profound obscurity that women are forced into marriage and the confinements of their home on one side of the world, while on the other, women have made enormous leaps for their freedoms. It is an issue that hits the core of our society in my homeland Australia, painful not only because of our involvement in the war in Afghanistan that, however controversial, did see women reclaim some of their rights but the recognition for many of us women it could be us.
When the opportunity arose to run a women’s only tour in Afghanistan, there was little doubt whether I would take it, having spent most of my life learning why this is the “wrong side of the world”. I imagined engagement with women, which was at the core of the expedition, but I never imagined I, as a 27-year-old, single female from Sydney, would have the chance to meet a young 20-year-old woman on the brink of a life-changing moment.
On July 7th, 2023, over dinner in Bamiyan, where gender separation is mandatory, I get ushered into a room full of Afghani women, joined together to wait for the results of her father’s approval in the next room about her potential husband. It was a feeling I hadn’t experienced before – tummy turned, mighty fear, sadness and absolute helplessness watching a young women’s future being written with no say of her own. It was clear two worlds had collided.
The complexities of two traditions began unravelling; I was aware I was a visitor, and my goal was never to preach, especially in Afghanistan, but my life decisions were on show, and more than defending them, I wanted to be honest and fairly express my differences.
The topic no one in the room could grasp was unmarried and 27, “what is wrong with you” the mother asks, the concept so foreign it was unbelievable. I came up with a few answers; I started with the response I have learnt we are almost trained to say, “I haven’t found the one” It was refuted by “Isn’t your father helping you”. Finally, I surrendered to honestly, “I simply do not want to get married or have kids” If looks could kill, I figured that would be the moment I died.
As the back-and-forth interaction took place, the facial expressions, genuine moments of confusion, started making sense; a wall was coming down. I had this intrinsic feeling now that I was safe, that judgement was no longer; it was genuine curiosity. It was a mutual feeling.
When I thought about Afghanistan, my first thought was long-held traditions of marriage and babies oppressed all women, something I felt very proud we were moving away from. But there I was with a group of women who, to their core, didn’t understand a life without children or marriage. Who openly labelled me as lonely, confused and felt genuine sympathy. The mother even asked me if I wanted to be another wife, a true story.
This is not to suggest all women in Afghanistan desire these things or all women in Australia hold my stance. Still, it did force me to look within my values, cultural expectations, and privileges. It was a unique time for me to be having this conversation; amid my own heartbreak, it made me feel free and really, really happy. I understood why they wanted these things, I also understood how people like me did not. Both decisions fine.
In having our worlds collide, we all walked away with an alternative perspective, not just of women here vs here but the importance of women from all societies, religions, and walks of life coming together and supporting each other.
If you are interested in joining, please reach out or view our october tour – HERE.
I did take a photo of the group, but women are very private, and I wish to respect this!