Women Gain from Hamam Overhaul

Restoration of Kabul's bathhouses gives women a chance to socialise and even earn a living.

Women Gain from Hamam Overhaul

Restoration of Kabul's bathhouses gives women a chance to socialise and even earn a living.

Monday, 21 February, 2005

Every Thursday morning, in the chilly hour before dawn, 28-year-old Nafisa and her four children walk two bus stops down a Kabul street carrying a hurricane lamp and a load of towels, soap, pumice, toothbrushes, a bucket and a basin. It's not yet five am when they push aside the blanket over a wooden doorframe and enter Taimani Hamam for their weekly bath.

Nafisa says this is the best time of day to take a bath, "By eight or nine it is much too crowded and I have to wait for long hours to take a turn. There is no power inside - that's why I take my hurricane lamp, to wash my children in light."

Like many other Kabulis - perhaps half the population - Nafisa comes to the public baths because she has no choice. She lives in a rented house that doesn't have a bathroom - it was destroyed during the civil wars. Other people come because their bathrooms are very old, or the water supply is not dependable.

Walking down the street for a bath seems quite normal to Nafisa, "Using the hamam has been a practice of people for the past several years and there are some whose history go back more than hundred of years."

The destruction wrought by civil war combined with an influx of returning Afghans, made the need for the bathhouses quite pressing in the past year. The existing ones were in bad condition due to lack of attention to their protection and repair - so several organisations have worked together to restore them.

Thirty of the 95 hamams that formerly existed in Kabul have been rebuilt - with 500,000 US dollars from the European Union - by the United Nations Development Programme in cooperation with the Kabul municipality and the ministries of women's affairs and public health.

The bathhouses in Kabul were surveyed last July, and the work was completed a month ago. Another 48 were so devastated during the fighting that nothing is left to rebuild.

"In the past both men and women would go to these hamams, but when the Taleban regime took power in 1996, women were stopped from going," said Eng. Gulalai, a female member of the hamam rehabilitation team. "Those located in Kabul city used to be in very bad condition, even though they were nearly collapsing."

Malalai, a municipal construction worker, told IWPR, "Most owners didn't want their hamams fitted for women's use, but I convinced them. So now out of 30, only two are just for men."

Some were too small for separate sections, so they are used in two shifts: men come in the morning, the women in the afternoon.

At the Chiragh Ali hamam in Qala-e-Fatullah, several dozen women wash and massage themselves in an open room, laughing and talking.

Eng. Marzia, another member of the rehabilitation team, told IWPR, "We have built private cubicles inside the hamams for women and we enlarged the big public bath, provided them with cupboards for their clothes, and we installed showers taps in the chambers where the newlywed brides take baths. We had thought of making beauty parlors, but the owners didn't agree with us."

Indirectly, the project supporters hope to give women more autonomy and power. The hamam gives them another legitimate reason to leave the house, with or without their husband's permission, a chance to socialise and earn a living.

Marzia, the owner of a hamam in Taimani district, said she has about a hundred visitors a day from 9 am to 5 pm. Adults and children pay nine and five afghanis respectively.

"I support my 10-member family through this hamam. There have been lots of improvements in my life since I started working here," she said, adding that her bathhouse had been closed by the puritanical Taleban from 1996 to 2001.

Still, the hamam has its problems, she acknowledged. "Ours has been rehabilitated, but still there is no power because the supply is erratic. Also the closet [for storing clothes and bathing items] is prepared, but small so we can't get a proper use from it."

Fatima, who massages women with a rough cleaning cloth, helps support her four children and husband. "I have seven women customers a day and get paid 10 afghanis each time," she said proudly. "But some women are shy or stingy and massage themselves."

While the hamams have led to big advances in women's lives, not everyone is happy with them.

Maina, a 30-year-old woman taking a bath in the Taimani Hamam, told to IWPR, " The water is not warm, the floor is filthy and the place is so crowded. But I can't take baths at home because it is very cold and the fuel is very expensive."

Another local women, Durkhanai, 25, said, "I don't like going to hamam because it is a sin. The women are looking at each other in the nude. Even though they all belong to one sex, our religion does not allow women to watch each other naked."

Fozia Ahmadi is a Kabul-based journalist.

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