‘You get pregnant, you give birth.
And that’s about it’

Women don burkas on their way out the door. Although many women in Kandahar do not often venture outside their home compound walls, on the rare occasion when they do they cover from head to toe. (Paula Lerner/Aurora Photos)

Women don burkas on their way out the door. Although many women in Kandahar do not often venture outside their home compound walls, on the rare occasion when they do they cover from head to toe.
(Paula Lerner/Aurora Photos)


When they wake in the morning, the women try to steal a few moments of peace for themselves before the children rise.

They drink tea, not coffee. Before it’s allowed to pass their lips though, they spend a few quiet minutes kneeling, their foreheads pressed down onto colourful prayer mats.

When the carpets are rolled up, the predictable family frenzy of morning begins – even in Kandahar.

Although the continuing war renders conditions on the city’s streets unpredictable, the rhythms of daily life on the other side of its walls – inside the mud compounds that are the women’s domain – are not entirely different from those in more peaceful parts of the world. There are children to shoo out the door, pots to scrub, meals to ponder for when the hungry brood returns home.

“After I wake up, I pray, I read the Koran and then I prepare breakfast for my children and send them to school,” said Suhaila, a 39-year-old mother of five who sat for a recent on-camera interview with The Globe as part of the Behind the Veil series that examines the lives of women in Kandahar. “My husband is a teacher. I prepare his clothes and he goes to his school,” Suhaila continued. “And then I prepare lunch because my mother-in-law is old. And then, I put on my clothes and leave for my office.”

Suhaila is a rare female professional in Kandahar, employed by the provincial Department of Women’s Affairs as chief of economics. When she finishes her workday at 1:30 p.m., she scurries home to the rest of her domestic duties. The fact that she’s employed outside the home doesn’t mean she gets a break.

Although her family relies on the money she makes, in Kandahar, the fact that she works is viewed as a privilege bestowed by her “open-minded” husband and mother-in-law.

Women who don’t generally have permission to leave their compounds in the daytime still manage to pack their days full of work, rounding nubs of dough into balls to be fried into flatbread, or stitching embroidery, a common form of work many housebound women in Kandahar have taken up to make extra money.

“After we finish the household work, my daughters and I sit down and make hats,” explained Shukria, 32, of her routine. “With that, we can buy a bread or two.”

“I’m a housewife,” explained 40-year-old Homaira. “When I wake up in the morning, I pray, and then I prepare breakfast for my children. When my children leave for school and work, I prepare lunch, dinner, I clean. These are my duties until the night,” she said.

Sitara, a 15-year-old, has been married to a strict, conservative-minded husband for about one year. He prefers she not attend school.

“I do household work – for instance, washing clothes, washing dishes … cleaning the house and other such things,” she said. While her husband is selling wares at the market, the task of minding the family’s animals falls to her.

“We have cows, we have sheep, we have everything,” she said, adding: “And all the work is on me. ...”

Bibi Gul is a 50-year-old mother of eight who outlived her husband. For money, she panhandles in the same spot every day on Kandahar’s streets.

“I pray, I take care of the household and then I come to beg,” she said, explaining her routine. “I come here in the morning and stay until night, waiting for Muslims to help me.”

Poor and widowed women have an ironic advantage over their upper-class counterparts in Kandahar, activists have observed.

“The poor women, because they are needy, they often … convince their men that they need to go out, that they need to work, that they need to seek opportunities because they need to improve their lives. And so that gives them a door of opportunity,” explained Rangina Hamidi, a well-known women’s rights activist in Kandahar.

By contrast, upper-class women have few reasons for arguing that they should venture outside their family-owned mansions or get an education.

“The rich families’ source of income is used as a blocking point for women,” Ms. Hamidi said, adding that women are told by their fathers and husbands, “We can give you all that you need. We can give you clothes, we give you jewellery, we give you food, why do you need to go out and work?”

More so than others, rich women find themselves stuck at home and completely controlled by their men. And while that kind of arrangement does not necessarily translate into misery – a common Western assumption – it does mean women in moneyed situations will remain steeped in a conservative ideology and immunized against cultural change.

“They don’t see the outside world, they don’t have any access to what’s going on in the community … naturally their minds are very closed,” Ms. Hamidi said.

“Most of the ugly, cultural, negative and backward customs and traditions are carried out by these very women because they have no way to go out and learn something new.

“You wake up, you’re at home. If you’re lucky, you’ll get visitors … usually the very rich people don’t even cook. They have cooks and cleaners … Pretty much, you just waste your day. You get pregnant, you give birth. And that’s about it.

“Then you get old, you get your kids married, and then you die.”

It is common in Kandahar not to see this as problematic, though.

“If a man doesn’t want his wife to go to work, he should convince her and provide for her,” said Suhaila, the government professional. “If he can provide her with food and the necessities, and she doesn’t lack anything, she can as well just stay home.”