Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

One Country, Two Worlds

Rural and urban increasingly have little in common in a nation where western ways have yet to make many inroads outside the cities.
By Hasina Suliman

Only 30 kilometres separate the village of Ali Khan and Kabul. Yet they might as well be worlds apart. While urban life has changed dramatically in the two years since the fall of the Taleban, rural life, especially for women, remains mired in poverty and tradition.


For the women of Ali Khan, life goes on has it has for centuries. They tend the livestock, make cheese and butter and prepare balls of dried yogurt used in Afghan cooking. They collect firewood and help the men in the fields, harvesting wheat and gathering feed for animals.


Houses are usually made of mud with dirt floors. They are warmed in the winter by a traditional sandali, an open pit in the floor filled with fuel, often cow dung, and covered with a wooden bench and a quilt. At night, the quilt becomes a warm tent where the family sleeps, side by side, on woven sleeping pads and cushions.


The women cook over open fires; oil lamps light their houses.


In many houses, the only light during the day enters through a narrow window. Often in the corner, there are locked metal boxes, filled with embroidered cloth and burqas.


Haji Ulfat Shah, 90, is the elder in one such house. He takes off his glasses and puts aside his Koran as he discusses the attitudes prevalent in the village with regard to women.


“There are girls in this village who are 28 and have never gone out of their houses,” he said.


“We will never let our women take part in voting in the presidential election, even if there is no picture on their identity card,” Shah said, referring to government program that allows women to register to vote without having their photo on their voter-identification card. Many traditionalists believe that women’s faces should not be seen in public.


Bigum, 16, is a mother of two who lives in Shah’s house. She keeps her eight-month-old son nearby as she bakes bread, makes tea and generally tends to the house. Smoke from the sandali causes her eyes to well up with tears as she talks about her life. “We are used to this sort of life,” she said.


Sabera, 18, who also lives in the village, is equally accepting. She is not allowed to listen to the radio or watch television. “Our men say that it is a sin and is forbidden in Islam,” she said.


Even if there were a school in the village, teenage girls would not be allowed to attend. “If a school is built for girls, the girls can attend from the age of 7 until they are 12,” said villager Mohammad Alam, 60. “After that, there is no permission.”


Instead, girls are taught to focus on marriage and a future as a wife and mother.


For women such as these, life in Kabul is practically unrecognisable.


Hafizah Sajad and her husband, Ismat, are both doctors. Along with their son, 11, and daughter, 13, they live in a three-room flat on the fourth floor of an apartment building on the campus of Kabul University.


Their apartment is furnished with couches and curtains. Posters of Indian movie stars hang on the walls. The children occupy themselves by playing a popular board game.


Hafizah, a gynaecologist, covers her head with a scarf at work but also wears lipstick and makeup. She said she works at the hospital from 8 am to 4 pm.


Her husband approves of her career. “If a woman is educated and has freedom, she has the right to take advantage of her freedom [and] to utilise her right to work outside the house,” he said. “I want my wife to be in contact with the community and work for the community because . . . [that] will change people. She has studied a lot and she needs to use [her knowledge] in a positive way.”


The Sajads are well off enough that they can employ a maid to help with the housework. And they provide her will all the western conveniences, such as a vacuum cleaner and a washing machine, to perform her tasks.


Their daughter, Fahima, usually dressed in jeans and a leather coat, spends her time at home working on a computer and speaking in English.


Meanwhile, back in Ali Khan, when they’re not working, the children spend their days playing a game similar to cricket and their evenings watching the flames dance in the fires in their homes.


The distance between the country and the city never seemed so great.


Hasina Suliman is an independent journalist in Kabul.


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