I have become the woman that traditional village society wants me to be

By Mehrtaj 

I started my first job in 2007 when I was still in seventh grade. Even now, when someone asks my first boss about me, he smiles and says, “When Mehr came to our office, she was like a tomboy. She did not cover her face. She was wearing a small scarf, wearing running shoes. She did not differentiate which work could be done by a woman and which work could be done by a man. She did whatever was given to her. I never heard her say, ‘I can’t,’ or ‘It’s none of my business,’ She was like a boy.” 

Our work was to organize classrooms in homes and teach in villages where children could not study as they were far from schools. The goal was that children could study in their own village. We transported new teaching materials to these classes every week. On the day of distribution of teaching materials, a general staff meeting was usually held. 

These villages were in remote areas of Nangarhar. Due to security issues and, of course, more due to the patriarchal and rural culture of the villages, it was mandatory for me to be accompanied by a male colleague when we delivered the study materials. One day, when the materials arrived, there was no male colleague available to accompany us in taking the materials to the classrooms. Female colleagues kept looking at each other. I said, “What happened? Why are you waiting? Because there is no man among us, there is no reason to stop the work.” They replied, “But there is no man who can take a rickshaw and come with us. If we go, who will take care of the rickshaw?” (In the remote areas of Nangarhar in eastern Afghanistan, rickshaws or tricycles are often used for transportation.) 

I told my colleagues, “So you are waiting here because of this?” I quickly left the office. I returned with four rickshaws from the main road and started loading the study materials in the rickshaws. While the other girls were reluctant to get their clothes dirty, I piled everything in the rickshaws, and we left. The other girls were watching me in amazement and smiling. 

After that, I was promoted by the head office to the position of regional coordinator and was given a personal office. The office was messy and a bit dirty. On the first day, I tied my scarf around my waist and cleaned. I put files and important materials in the closet, cleaned the walls, ceiling fan and cobwebs. I swept the floor. I even cleaned the bathroom. 

The next day, I brought a flowerpot, books, and some decorative items from home to beautifully decorate my office. Now, I felt good in that room, and I could start my work. When the office cleaner entered my office, his eyes were shining with happiness: none of my colleagues had previously cleaned their offices. He had to do all the work, including cleaning offices and cooking food. He did not have a moment of calm from the pressure of work. 

When it was necessary to travel in the office car, I opened and closed the public gate myself. When I needed something, I would go and buy it myself. To some extent, male colleagues soon got used to asking me to buy things they needed. In my opinion, these tasks were the most normal of tasks that every human being should and could do, regardless of being a man or a woman. 

When I went to the villages for work, I gave myself the right to enjoy the beauty of nature in the countryside, including going for walks.  

One day, the boss called me to his office and said in a serious tone, “This is Afghanistan. Not everyone here is kind and innocent like you. Here, some men can be wolves and see you as a prey. That’s why I have to impose restrictions on you. ! Wear comfortable shoes, but they must be feminine. When you go to the field, you have to wear a burqa. Read your job description again. Do not work more than you have to and leave everyone’s work to themselves. Just be a woman here!” After that, I gradually made the changes they wanted. I became a woman who conformed to the narrow criteria of that patriarchal society, which was in line with the wishes of most men. 

I wore a burqa. After some time, burqa and I became so attached to each other that even when I was wearing a black hijab, I felt naked. I have been wearing a burqa ever since. 

After I graduated from school, I participated in the entrance exam. In 2015, I was accepted to study shariat at Nangarhar University. But, before the entrance exam results were announced, I had registered at a teacher’s college. When I got accepted at Nangarhar University, I pursued studying in both fields. I wanted to use my knowledge for creating a society that is not bound by traditional restrictions, where normal daily activities are considered both feminine and masculine. 

Studying two fields at the same time was not an easy task. I studied hard. I graduated with excellent grades in 2016 from teacher’s college and in 2019 from Nangarhar University. 

Later, I got my master’s degree in judicial studies. I was so immersed in studying that I forgot what fun is. I had no free time. In 2021, I graduated and became an attorney. But alas, just when I should have seen the results of my efforts, the Taliban regained power. 

What can I say about the regret that I graduated just as the Taliban took over the country?! I felt like a mother who went through the hardships of nine months of pregnancy and was waiting to hold her baby in her arms, but instead the infant was stolen. Now, after months sitting in the corner of the house, I have become a woman that the traditional and rural society of eastern Afghanistan truly wants. That simple village girl who had the dream of changing her patriarchal society now copes with the Taliban regaining power and the dominance of the patriarchal culture. Now, I have learned to move as society wants: do not speak loudly; don’t laugh out loud; do not wear comfortable and colourful clothes. I didn’t have a boyfriend like many other young girls. I forbade myself the chance of falling in love. I practice the femininity that tradition calls feminine. Now, I have lost all my courage and motivation to change my situation and this society. 

Mehrtaj was an NGO worker promoting education before the Taliban regained power; now, she is unemployed. 
 
 

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