I get asked this question a lot. Most people know that there aren’t many women in public in much of the Middle East of Afghanistan and the whys and wherefores are apparently a big to-do in the press at the moment due to an article that basically said Arab men hate Arab women. That’s a can of worms I don’t want to get into today, but as a foreign woman, it was actually easier for me to talk to local men than for many of my male counterparts
Because when you live in a culture where you don’t get to see a lot of women and then one shows up, everyone wants to see her. And talk to her. And maybe impress her. It was useful, though could get overwhelming. It either made soldiers uncomfortable (having so many people around), or it made them laugh.
In Afghanistan, I could draw a crowd like no one’s business. You’d have thought the bit of hair sticking out from under my hat or helmet was made of gold the way Afghan men and boys eyed it. They were always trying to clandestinely snap pictures of me and did everything the could to actually get in one. This guy was obviously very proud that he managed it:
And this next guy pestered my interpreter for days to get a picture with me–as if going through my Afghan, male interpreter was akin to asking permission of my father or brother and so made it all culturally more appropriate. My interpreter, normally very protective of me, decided he was harmless enough to let it slide:
I received food, scarves, jewelry, a flower and even an offer of 10 acres of land. And people would tell me all sorts of stuff. I sat down with a District Governor one day and in an effort to impress me, he told me stories about the local neighborhood that the soldier who worked with him every day had never heard.
Iraq has a more recent history and tolerance for women in public, but I still made a splash. The Police Chief Damouk mentioned previously had a pretty big crush on me. During a meeting one day, I got stuck sitting next to a Provincial Councilman, who spent the whole time ignoring the meeting and trying to convince me to marry him. I didn’t even know Damouk was paying attention until he said in a dangerously light tone,
“Councilman, if you don’t stop hitting on my girlfriend, I’m going to have you arrested.”
Girlfriend?! Umm…. The thing was, he meant it–both that he would arrest the guy and that he considered me his territory.
But before you scoff, remember that deployed soldiers are equally deprived of women. When I got back from Iraq, I was at a bar talking to some guys. One recognized me and started to laugh.
“I remember seeing you around the FOB. There was one day you were out running in a tank top and I watched one of my buddies stare so hard at you while he was walking that he ran headfirst into an a Stryker (an armored vehicle) and cut himself.”
You don’t even have to be attractive. Just being female is enough. It was all flattering at first, but there were moments where the idea of a burqa started to get appealing. Everyone stared all the time, and the rumors that made it back to me on the FOB about things I had supposedly done were fairly astounding. People (even our oh-so-modern American boys) would get jealous and angry and possessive and territorial, and it occurred to me that women’s lib in places where the lack of women is the status quo is severely inhibited by the fact that no sane person would want to be the first to step out into that kind of environment. It’s probably not too healthy for the men either.
But I got my own back. I was sitting on a couch in a District Center next to an American soldier when one of the Afghan Police walked in and just blatantly, open-mouth stared at us. It took me a second to realize I wasn’t the one he was drooling over. As this dawned on me, the policeman smiled shyly and said, “I like boys.” The look on the soldier’s face next to me was priceless and he grabbed my arm and insisted I was his wife and he liked girls. Not so funny now, is it, smart guy?