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Beyond the Burqa: 'Streets of Afghanistan' Photo Exhibit and the Struggle for Women's Rights

A documentation of our impressions of Afghanistan that few have the chance to see from the inside.

“Remember that being a woman is different in Afghanistan.”

I was getting yet another opinion on my decision to travel to Afghanistan. The statement was made out of love, wanting to remind me that I should be aware of my surroundings and behavior, that just because I was a strong, independent woman, I should remember to respect local culture. It was also coming from someone who had never traveled to Afghanistan.

These days we can know a lot about the rest of world, without ever leaving our homes, and that gives us the illusion of being informed. Like many of my peers, I too had a certain view of what “women in Afghanistan” meant. Images of burqas and limited rights came to mind. I also knew that on the other side of the world, we often only hear one side of the story. We are limited by what mass media feeds us. So I made an effort to go to Afghanistan with an open mind and open heart.

Before ten days ago, I had never worn a headscarf.

Before ten days ago, I had never really contemplated what my own assumptions about a burqa were.

Before ten days ago, I had taken my personal rights as an American female for granted.

Between 1999, under Taliban rule, and 2010, the number of girls enrolled in schools rose from 4 percent to 79 percent. When it comes to women’s rights, in Afghanistan there are many obstacles, but there's hope. This is a country where recently a woman was beheaded by her mother-in-law for refusing to go into prostitution, but it’s also a country where the youngest member of Parliament is a woman. Assuming that we know what women’s rights means in Afghanistan means closing our minds to what is possible.

Enter just a handful of government offices and you will inevitably find a few of them where a woman is in charge. The female bureaucrats that I have met are strong and efficient, but welcoming. Seeing them in action in a male-dominated society is inspiring. The streets of Kabul may be predominantly filled with men, but there is a real movement here to educate and empower women, both internally from the government, and externally from the support of non-profits.

Kabul is home to women’s shelters, learning centers, even a women-only Internet café. In the heart of city, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs runs the Women’s Garden, a huge enclosed space that includes classrooms for learning English and how to drive, Internet access and a restaurant—a space where women can interact in the safety of each other’s company. We brought the Streets of Afghanistan exhibition to this space, knowing that often, the majority of people out and about in public are men, and although our exhibit at Babur Gardens was shown to many families, we wanted a space where we knew women could interact with the pieces.

The set up was quiet and peaceful. After three days of producing public photo exhibits, it was nice to be in a space where I could freely sit and interact without the stare of a group of men—there’s no denying that being a foreign woman in Kabul draws attention. Women of all ages passed through the garden, either on their way to classes or just passing by with friends. A group of women gathered in the grass for tea. Stoic and serious faces warmed up with a salutary “salam alaikum”—an acknowledgement of our similarities despite our differences. One woman told me that she was happy to see the photos because there are many exhibits in Kabul but it is often hard to go to them as a woman because of security. She was happy to see the beauty of her country portrayed in these images.

A group of young women stood in front of an image of a girl amidst burqas, the deep blues contrasting with their more modern headscarves. They snapped a photo of themselves in front of it with a cellphone camera. Two minutes later a woman walked past, her burqa pulled back over her head exposing her eyes. I was again reminded how we all have expectations and assumptions.

Just a few days before, we ate lunch at a restaurant, sitting in the separated section for mixed couples, sectioned off by shimmery green curtains. As I entered I saw a woman again with her burqa pulled up over her head. She wore a noticeably large wedding ring, sparkling with diamonds. Her eyes were outlined in thick black liner. I was taken aback by how beautiful she was. I paused, realizing my own reaction. Quite frankly, I was appalled at my surprise at her beauty. Even for me, out on the streets, burqas seem to float by like ghosts, sometimes forgetting that underneath it is a woman, a mother, a sister, an individual.

Being here as a foreign woman, a mirror is held up, forcing me to think about my own role as a woman in my own country.

Is the westerner that conforms to societal gender expectations and wears form-fitting clothing and high heels because that’s what she believes makes her beautiful and wanted any more empowered than the woman that covers herself because of a duty to family honor? That is a complicated question, and one that requires an intimate understanding of different cultures, religions, and societal norms. It’s easy to say that “women’s rights are different in Afghanistan,” but in the United States, a woman is raped every two minutes. We too have room to grow. In the end, it's just as important to remember our similarities as our differences.

Women’s empowerment, no matter where you are, is about access to education and the ability to feel safe. It's about having the right to pursue any career and expect to be paid just as much as our male counterparts. It's about having the right to make the choices that affect our bodies.

I am immediately drawn to women here simply because of the fact that they are women, not because I want to know how we’re treated differently. At the end of the day, we're part of a global sisterhood, and positive change for one of us means positive change for the rest of us.

How different is it to be a woman in Afghanistan? Very different. But that doesn’t mean that change isn’t possible. It’s taking place right now. In the form of women pursuing education. In the form of female graffiti artists. In the form of women-run restaurants. In the form of female activists. In the form of women members of Parliament. In the form of women police officers. Afghanistan, and its women, are more than you think.

In 2008 Mountain2Mountain launched the "Streets of Afghanistan" project, facilitating a collaboration of Afghan and Western photographers to document Afghan life through the rarely seen Afghan lens, immersing the viewer in the landscapes and faces of Afghanistan, transporting them directly into the culture and mindset of the country’s people. After touring the U.S., the exhibit, which features 29, 10×17 inch photographs, now returns to the Afghan people, through a series of public events. During the exhibition's tour, we are documenting our impressions of a country that few have the chance to see from the inside.

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