A few hours ago, a group of extraordinary women and I boarded our flight from Kabul to Dubai, landing safely now (11:07 pm, 11th of July 2023), symbolising a successful expedition to Afghanistan as the first all-women tour since the Taliban takeover.
As we sat in the waiting area of the Kabul airport for our flight to be called, I gazed out the glass walls that looked directly onto the tarmac. I didn’t think about it when I arrived, but my mind drew the dots; in this exact spot less than two years ago, this was the epicentre of the mayhem of the US force withdrawal. Alongside the world, I watched ISIS-K suicide bomb vulnerable people in high-density spots around the area; bodies falling from the sky after attempting to cling onto aircrafts in a desperate bid to leave. How did we end up here?
Background and Tour Idea Formation for Women Travel
There is no doubt that travel to Afghanistan comes with controversies, type in the most dangerous country in the world, it tops it. Think about women’s rights; it headlines the topic… see where this is going? I understand, but when you operate in the regions we do at Young Pioneer Tours, something shifts in your mind. I see this on every tour, well-travelled people who can fully appreciate that a person’s nationality differs from their heart.
The first month I became an official member of the company, I watched a documentary about the Women of Afghanistan; I found the topic especially hard. Moreover, I was born in 1996, coinciding with when the Taliban first came to power. So quite literally, my entire life, I watched the rise, fall and rise again of the Taliban, their presence always lingering. I wanted to understand and see it for myself as a woman, but I didn’t find an avenue to do so. I figured my new position would be my best bet if there were ever a chance. So, I spoke to Rowan Beard and Gareth Johnson about creating a space for such a tour, and without hesitation, they fully supported it. That call was over 11 months ago.
Then and Now
Arriving in Afghanistan
Our first tour was with previous pioneers, women I was familiar with; they were intelligent, generous, kind, and open-minded – essential requirements for such a trip. The tour began in Pakistan as this was the cheapest and easiest way to obtain our Afghan visa; the experience alone requires a blog. Once we got it, we explored some of Pakistan and headed to the airport en route to Kabul. The check-in staff were somewhat confused. Are you sure about Kabul? Once we got through security, we were taken to the lounge for extra comfort. Together we talked about trip expectations; then it was go time – abayas and head scarves go on, every single sleep-less night, moment planning, the weight of expectation was about to be realised.
“Please prepare for landing”.
Looking out the window the landscape was precisely what I expected, I had seen it hundreds of times on television. However it was an unfamiliar land vastly different from anything I had ever known. Once landing on the runway, it hit me, we are defying expectations, a group of only women travelling to Afghanistan in July 2023 seemed crazy, it always does until it’s done.
Pioneering Women Travel
“I grew up in the great depression, had seven kids, was a woman and made it my purpose to travel the world. I pi*** a lot of people off.” – my granny (I still travel with her four passports as good luck).
Our women’s only tour was carefully crafted and recognised that women and men have different experiences in this complex country. Men cannot speak with women; women can. It was an opportunity for us as women to deeply understand a women’s experience in a country we have heard so much about. How is life different in Afghanistan than, say, my own country? What are the divides? These questions were the driving force for pioneering the women’s tour, so we threw ourselves in and dedicated ourselves to the cause.
On our tour, we had the opportunity to sit with a young woman on the brink of a life-changing moment. That night her father was deciding who he would choose for her to marry. Alongside her female family members, we spoke openly about marriage, love, and gender role expectations. We even met the potential husbands mum, grandma and sister and got quizzed about our lives. “You’re 27, not married, no kids. Why?” the mother asks me. Another question from the grandma, “How much would your potential husband have to pay your parents for you” I laugh it off. “I think my parents would pay him to take me off their hands”, jokingly, but also not. The back-and-forth interaction was simply spectacular; the facial expressions and genuine moments of confusion, where no words could be spoken, said everything. We all walked away not only with a deeper understanding of women’s role in Afghanistan but looking within ourselves at our own values, cultural expectations and privileges.
It was a lightbulb moment, one so deep it transformed thoughts. I sent my mum a thank you message that night, “I know you get nervous, I know you take on the burden of my travels, but thank you for always supporting me, for never holding me back”. Through the engagement with these women, I learnt what was possible, that my role as someone with so many fortunes was to serve others. If you are so lucky to have been born in this life with opportunities, you must stand with the voiceless and make their voices heard.
Even as an only women’s tour, I hope we can play a small role in encouraging women to go beyond what is expected. Our tours are almost 70% men, not because we are less curious but because of fear of the unknown. If no one has done it, how do you know what is possible?
Find Light in the Darkness
It is true – struggles in Afghanistan, particularly for women, are significant; over the last two years, Afghan women have been forced to disappear from all spheres of public life.
There are risks wherever you go; life is fragile, but what is risky is sideling your dreams and accepting what is instead of forcing spaces. Criticism will follow as it has done historically; remember, once, it seemed impossible for women to vote. Now it seems an apparent act.
Someone wrote to me, “You found light in the darkness,” which perfectly articulates our tour mission. We saw and heard things we disagreed with and cried, but amongst the chaos, we learnt that our struggles in this life are similar, and when one person stands up, others rise. We cannot change a government, but we can show that we care through engagement and opening our hearts. We can help, share their stories, and give back where possible.
If we so choose, we could continue to turn our back on a country whose government we hold in contempt, isolating those in it. We can close them off more, let hatred and fear reside, or show up.
Our women’s trip was a small step for us in continuing to pioneer travel and open the world to everyone, regardless of who they are. Our ethos as a company is to regulate information, strive for unique experiences and remind ourselves and each other that behind the television screens are people just like us, whose lives we may not understand but who we can touch simply through engagement.