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What it's Like to Travel as a Woman in Afghanistan

I did, however, have to wear hijab, Islamic modest dress...

afghani flag

Contrary to my previous belief, this didn't mean wearing the darkest, baggiest, fugliest clothes I could find. Girls do wear colorful clothes (especially underneath their burqas), they're sometimes form-fitted, and skinny jeans are totally in.

My outfit for the day always consisted of the following: a long sleeved dress that fell past my bum (3/4 length sleeves are a rare sight), a headscarf covering my hair, black eyeliner, and long pants. Sandals are fine, but things get dusty!

Following hijab wasn't too hard, especially after traveling in Iran but finding my headscarf in the middle of the night to use a shared bathroom was a very real struggle.

Travel tip: Buy shoes when you get to Afghanistan. Western trainers will stand out—you don't see many girls walking around in colorful kicks. Or trainers at all, really.


I confused a lot of people...

afghani flag

I drove a car around the countryside for a time, and upon seeing a woman behind the wheel, all of the police at a security checkpoint crowded around to see. You could see the confusion in their eyes as they flicked between me and my partner in the passenger's seat. The oldest asked, "You are… driver?!" They were more concerned about my being a woman than they were about whether or not I had a license (it was never asked for).

Travel tip: You don't really need a license to drive in Afghanistan. It's advised, though, as Afghan drivers are insane!


I was treated as an honorary man at times...

afghani flag

Foreign women are like a separate species. Yes, they are women and must follow some restrictions, but at other times, the rules of social conduct aren't sure what to do with them.

Most men shook my hand, despite the popular belief that Muslim men have a serious aversion to handshakes. In a home in Herat, I dined upstairs with my partner, the host, and his father. I even got to 'rip a bong' (smoke hashish) with a room full of dudes in a small village!

Travel tip: Don't go to shake men's hands unless they offer theirs to you first. Instead, place your right hand over your heart and bow your head a bit to show respect or salutation.


I had to play The Woman at others...

afghani flag

Standing out in Afghanistan is a security risk for foreigners—the more you blend, the less likely it is that something will happen to you.

This meant that I had to play the part while walking around on the street. That meant no staring at men (regardless of how beautiful they were), walking behind my male partner (when I remembered to), pouring tea for everyone at the table (all the domesticity points), and letting my partner pay for things. I once pulled out my own money to pay for a plane ticket, and everyone in the travel agency was very shocked to see The Woman had money.

Travel tip: Whether or not you follow these tips is up to you. I prefer to not stand out, but if you're out to prove a point...


I was often shocked...

afghani flag

In one way, Afghanistan is no different from many other countries—weddings are a big deal. However, I was shocked to learn that the groom's family actually purchases the bride from her family. A bride can cost anywhere from $5,000 to over $10,000, depending on how worthy the groom's mother deems her to be. And there's usually a bit of haggling over her value.

Perhaps it's just my perspective as a foreign Westerner—to be fair, it's not so different from the concept of a dowry, or the bride's family paying for the wedding. Still, I was horrified to learn that women are bought and sold.

Travel tip: If these topics come up, remember to discuss and learn, not condemn. Even if you disagree with much of what goes on, remember that, as a foreigner, it's not your culture to change.


I also saw plenty of completely normal things.

afghani flag

Just because a woman lives in a crazy conservative world doesn't mean she's that fundamentally different from you and I. The women in Afghanistan still love to laugh, hang out with friends, and look good.

Women on the street often flip up their burqas to get some fresh air... or to shout at a salesman in the bazaar. Groups of women can be spotted in shrines and parks animatedly gossiping and laughing together. And plenty of women on the street have perfectly done makeup... even those under burqas.

Travel tip:As a woman, if you sit by yourself long enough, it's quite likely that a woman (or three) will come up to you to say hello and make sure you're okay.


But in the end, I felt guilt...

afghani flag

Afghanistan has a long way to go before the average woman can enjoy any kind of equality. But as a foreign female, at the end of the day I could go to my room and do, wear, and say what I wanted without needing permission from men. At the end of my trip, I packed my backpack, got on a plane, and simply flew away… something most Afghan women can only dream of.


Novels by Khaled Hosseini featuring Afghanistan ...

One about a boy...
the kite runner
Click!
One about a girl...
a thousand splendid sons
Click!

This post was originally published on Lost With Purpose, and was republished here with permission.

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