Noor Gul Women Rule The Roost

The women of this eastern backwater do all the men's work and no-one - not even the Taleban - has ever been able to change them.

Noor Gul Women Rule The Roost

The women of this eastern backwater do all the men's work and no-one - not even the Taleban - has ever been able to change them.

When the boys from neighboring villages want some fun, they go to Noor Gul - because the women there will shake hands with them. This together with their habit of laughing openly and going about with their hair uncovered would be frowned upon elsewhere in Afghanistan.

But Noor Gul is different. Unlike the rest of the country, women here do most of the hard labour - the farming, woodcutting and water carrying - while the men tend to their weapons and amuse themselves playing music. One male resident, Masoom Khan, shrugged off the odd division of labour, saying, "It is our old custom and they are used to it."

The Noor Gul valley is surrounded by high mountains - and it takes a day just to hike into it from the nearest rutted road. Because of their extreme physical isolation, in the rugged Dara-e-Noor district of Nengarhar province, eastern Afghanistan, the customs of the 12,000 residents have not been affected by outside influences - even Islam.

During the strict Taleban regime, the women did not wear a veil because the practice could not be enforced.

Most Afghans practiced a mix of Buddhism and traditional spiritual rituals for hundreds of years, until their conversion to Islam in the 9th century. But the people of Noor Gul remained Buddhists for more than a millennium afterwards.

Noor Gul residents were forcibly converted to Islam after the region was captured by Amir Abdul Rehman Khan in 1897. However, the religion didn't really take hold the way it did in other parts of Afghanistan, writes historian Sameullah in his book Roots of History. In the 20th century, few mullahs made the long journey, and mosques did not become the centre of communal life.

Afghanistan has other isolated regions, but few have retained as many of their centuries-old customs as Noor Gul. And, although most residents can speak the lingua franca Pashtu, they also have their own distinct language, Pashai.

The women, often seen carrying wooden boxes - laden with fruit, firewood or children - on straps over their backs, do the vast majority of the hard labour. They grow wheat, beans and fruit, raise sheep and cows, and collect wood and dung for the fires that they heat and cook with. Only young boys and old men help the women.

While the men do venture out of Noor Gul - some even have businesses in Pakistan - their main role is to guard the village, residents said.

"Most of the people of Dara-e-Noor are feuding all the time and their enemies are always ambushing them, so they have to keep their guns on them at all times," said Masoom Khan. The disputes are said to be mostly over women, who are renowned for their beauty and who are expected to marry only men from Noor Gul.

The villagers believe that women who leave to live in an another culture will get sick and die, as happened in the long-ago past of oral tradition.

The women are reluctant - or perhaps too busy - to talk about themselves; most refused to be interviewed by this IWPR reporter. One, when asked whether she was tired of all the hard work, said only, "No, I am used to it now. I like Noor Gul village and I don't want to go anywhere else."

Not everyone is happy with the way of life, however. Mohammad Alem, who teaches at the only primary school, said he is tired of the feuding, "The men of Noor Gul just know how to use their weapons and how to fight. Keeping a weapon is part of the custom, so it is impossible to disarm them."

But, rather ironically, Alem is himself caught up in the cycle of violence, and has to teach with a gun on his shoulder "because I'm afraid of being attacked by my enemies".

His problems began when a woman from his family eloped with a man from a neighbouring village, and Alem killed the man in revenge. Now the relatives of his victim are after him, he said.

Neighbouring villagers, too, are sometimes critical of the extremes in Noor Gul culture, but they said the hospitality is extraordinary. "When we go to their village they give us such a warm welcome, and treat us very well," said Malik Shaheen Khan, an elder of the neighboring village of Barikot.

Interestingly, in Noor Gul, hospitality is also a kind of protection: according to tradition, revenge can't be taken while a family is entertaining a guest.

Though the valley has escaped the influence of radio and television, it also has missed out on other advances in farming and education. It has only one primary school. Schoolchildren told this reporter that they are tired of the fighting and feuding, and want to have cars, nice homes other modern conveniences that they have only heard about from visitors.

Poverty may finally break down Noor Gul's resistance to outside influences. Because farming is the only source of income, the recent years of drought have had a severe impact on the area, and residents say they need assistance from the government and foreign non-governmental organisations in order to survive.

The governor of Nengarhar province, Haji Din Mohammed, told IWPR that he'd like to develop backwater regions of the province such as Noor Gul. But for the immediate future, it's likely that the valley will retain its materially poor but culturally rich isolation.

Mohammad Shafiq Haqpal is an IWPR reporter.

Pakistan, Afghanistan
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