Working for Independence

Forced to choose between family and a career, a number of Afghan women are putting their jobs first.

Working for Independence

Forced to choose between family and a career, a number of Afghan women are putting their jobs first.

Nafisa is a beautiful 45-year-old woman with a great career as a teacher trainer. What she doesn’t have is a husband - and she’s not sure that she wants one.

"As far as I can see Afghan women are neither happy nor lucky with their marriages," she told IWPR. "Few men understand their wives. If I got married my husband would tell me to prepare the meals, wash the clothes and serve his guests, but I prefer to write books and do my job.”

For the majority of Afghan females, the choice is every bit as stark as that. Even highly-educated women are expected to give up their studies and jobs when they marry, and devote all their time and energy to homemaking.

Only the elite few in large cities such as Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif, who are able to support themselves, reject married life. In rural areas, where every marriage is arranged, and there are no employment opportunities for women, such independence is almost unheard of.

Nafisa is determined to take advantage of the relative freedom afforded her by life in the capital. "I don't want to have a mismatched marriage,” she said. “There's no way I would consider an illiterate man or one with a poorer education than me."

Her independence has come at a price, however. "If a woman remains unwed, she is made to feel ashamed. It is a defect in our society, the way marriage is seen as essential,” she said. “That is why illiterate but married women are more respected than educated single ones."

The Alkozai sisters, Jamila, 45, and Nadia, 42 - who both hold Masters degrees and work for an Afghan non-governmental organisation - know that feeling too.

"We have conducted educational training and family guidance workshops for women in and around Kabul successfully. But when some participants found out that we were single they looked at us so sadly that we even began to feel sorry for ourselves," Nadia told IWPR.

While a love of independence is obviously a big factor in such decisions, women also point to the scarcity of suitable partners after so many years of conflict. Tens of thousands of young men have been killed down the years, while many more fled the country.

Those who remained were often unable to complete their education, and now have poor prospects.

One woman, who holds a Masters degree in literature and has studied in Russia, was married off to an illiterate shopkeeper from the Parwan province. "I was obliged to quit my job on the request of my husband," said the woman, who did not want to give her name. "He does not like me to go outside the home."

Many Afghan men also despair at their children’s lack of prospects in the marriage market. One 80-year-old man, who did not want to be named, has found a husband for only one of his six daughters - and even this match proved to be a great disappointment, despite being arranged through the mullah of the local mosque.

"The man is uneducated and used to smoke hashish,” he said. “I still end up supporting my daughter because she always comes to my house seeking money as her and her children are in need. Now I don't know to whom I will give my other daughters' hands."

Many fathers are now demanding a high “bride price” for their daughters, in the hope that their prospective husbands will have more respect for them.

But many men are increasingly angry at this practise, and claim that they are being priced out of the marriage market. Mohammad Agha Niazai, who lives in Kabul, told IWPR that he’s given up trying to wed because of the sums demanded by parents. "The girls’ families want far too much money - up to 300,000 afghanis (around 7,000 US dollars) or gold,” he said.

Religious scholar Haji Hamdullah Shaikh Zada has condemned the practise of charging exorbitant bride prices, “It is not Islamic for people to demand private homes or wealth,” he said.

Haseena Sulaiman and Shahabuddin Tarkhel are independent journalists in Kabul.

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