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

Alex Reynolds is an American Journeywoman - a travel photographer, writer, and full-time backpacker whose work has been featured on the likes of BBC and Lonely Planet. She's scrambled up dusty fortresses in Afghanistan, watched gods dance in South India, followed spirit dogs through the Caucasus mountains, and smoked with shamans in Pakistan. Her travel blog, Lost With Purpose, serves as a guide to help others do the same.

The title alone probably has some of you scratching your heads. "But Alex, Afghanistan is literally one of the worst places in the world to be a woman . You wanted to travel there… why?"

Obviously I'm a masochist.

No, kidding. Why I wanted to travel there is another story entirely. For now, let's just say curiosity killed this cat.

So what was it actually like to travel as a woman in one of the most backward countries in the world?

This is what it's like to travel as a woman in Afghanistan...

I ate while hidden from view...

afghani flag

At restaurants in Afghanistan, men and women/families do not mix. So where do women go?

Most restaurants, from the grubbiest hole-in-the-walls to more polished eateries have a separate dining area for women/families. This could be anything from a curtain-covered ledge in the back to a separate floor. People say it's to protect women from the attention of men (don't get me started on this one), but it's probably also so women in burqas can flip up their veils and chow down.

Travel tip: Men accompanied by a woman also have to eat in that area. If there's no separate space, either move on to the next place, or sit down and deal with the stares. It's not illegal, just uncommon.

I pretended to be married...

afghani flag

It's illegal for unmarried couples to share a hotel room in Afghanistan, and conservative folks frown upon the idea of boys and girls intermingling before marriage (though that doesn't stop youth from secretly dating).

My boyfriend and I pretended to be married. We even had an imaginary wedding date—the drunken Dutch holiday of King's Day, two years back—and made up a story about a very small wedding.

Travel tip: It's easier to pretend you're married, but prepare to answer a million questions about why you don't have children yet.

There was a lot of respect... for my man...

afghani flag

Men would only talk with my partner. If they wanted to ask me a question, they'd ask through him. It's considered respectful to not talk to a man's "wife" directly unless you get his permission.

It did get annoying at times. Sometimes I'd just respond directly to them—HELLO, I AM HERE, STOP TALKING ABOUT ME IN THE THIRD PERSON—only to have them respond to my partner.

Travel tip: If traveling alone or with other girls, talk with women first. It's more appropriate.

There was a bit of harassment, but not too much to handle...

afghani flag

There was one boy that touched me (on my arm… ooh la la) on the street, and several instances of catcalling from cars and motorbikes. Annoying, but easily ignored.

Travel tip:In a country as conservative as Afghanistan, the repercussions are high if a man is caught creeping. Make a fuss if this happens—you won't be the only one thinking it's not okay.

I had to go to a hidden room for security checks...

afghani flag

There are a million and one security checkpoints in Afghanistan, and for good reason. Many of them involve body searches, but what to do as a woman when all of the officers are men?

At security checkpoints, there's always a woman in uniform lurking behind a nearby curtain to check passing ladies. They're often friendlier than their male counterparts!

Travel tip: At checkpoints with body searches, look for a room off to the side with a curtain. If there's another woman inside, wait outside for your turn.

I did NOT have to wear a burqa all day...

afghani flag

The pale blue burqas of Afghanistan are infamously iconic, but not every woman wears one. In the days of Taliban control, all women were forced to wear them when leaving the house, or risk severe punishment.

These days, you'll see plenty of women both with and without burqa. In more conservative cities such as Herat, all women wore burqa or chador, the long black cloak that's common in Iran. In more urban Kabul, however, there are far more women without burqa.

Travel tip: If you really want to avoid attention (traveling solo?), feel free to wear a burqa. Watch women first to get an idea of how they wear it. Most of them take the corners of the back cape and pull them to the front to cover their legs while walking.


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