hand shakeOne day in our class on public opinion, there was a knock on the door, and we all looked over to see who was entering the class. We were a group of 13 women and 50 men, and we had all been busy taking notes while our teacher was lecturing.

“Yes, come in,” our teacher said.

Two men dressed in black business suits entered and directly went to shake our teacher’s hand. “As-Salamu Alaykum,” said the first man. “This is Rakish and he is my colleague. We both come from Parliament and belong to the NDI organization. We would like to tell you and your students that Parliament is planning to accept some students as interns.”

“Welcome,” replied our teacher.

“Dear students, we aim and develop the skills of young people like you to provide them some chance to find jobs once they graduate,” he continued. “So we have come to request that you send your CVs to our office. Here is the information you will need.” He gave one of the students at the front a bundle of papers to distribute to the class.

“You can all send your CVs to our office. You will find all information regarding our office and our internship program on this paper. Based on your CVs and the level of your knowledge, we will make a short list of those we would like to interview. We plan to accept perhaps two or may be more than two persons from each class.” He paused, then added, “We want to tell you that we give priority to the ladies.” With that, he finished his speech and turned toward our teacher to shake his hand once again.

Shortly after the visitors left our class, the teacher left the classroom as well since the class period was over. Students began to gather their belongings and several of the men in the class began whispering, softly at first and then with raised voices and mocking smiles. “Ladies first,” they laughed.

“Would that I were a girl,” said one man, his voice loud now.

“Would that I were too,” said another.

“Me too,” said a third. Again they laughed.

“There is no need to send our CV, gentlemen,” said the first. “The ladies will succeed.” His laugh bounced harshly between the walls of the class. “Let them receive their rights.” A big laugh covered the room.

We women in the room said nothing. What could the 13 of us argue against the 50 of them who had grown up in our culture of men who wielded power and women who had no say? We ignored their comments then, but promised ourselves to apply to participate in that program. This was a chance.

We collected our CVs and submitted them to the responsible person as we had been instructed. Because I already was taking an English course and felt I could apply at another time during my university studies, I did not apply. A few of our classmates, some men and some women, were short-listed. Among the women, one was a girl whose name I will keep private, but I will call her A. She had been ranked first in our class and had an excellent chance of succeeding. A asked me to accompany her to the interview, and I was happy to do this, because she was my best friend.

When we reached the building, we were informed that most of our male classmates had already been there. The NDI representative told us to wait and that we would be called by our last names. When they called A, she gave me her books and left for the interview. Ten minutes later, she returned with an unhappy look on her face.

“How was it?” I asked her.

“It was good but—” she paused.

“But what?”

“I didn’t do good work.” She was ready to cry.

“What do you mean?” I said. “Tell me. Am I not your best friend? Tell me. Look, I came to support you. You are keeping something from me.”

“I did something I should not have,” she said, lowering her eyes. “There was a foreign man in the interview. He gave me his hand to shake hands with him. And Freshta-jan, I gave him my hand. I thought if I didn’t, he would be offended and he would feel I was showing disrespect towards him. I didn’t want him to think that I am dark-minded, like a Taliban. He doesn’t know that shaking his hand, for me, a woman, is forbidden by our religion and culture. I was afraid, Freshta, that if I didn’t shake his hand, he might cut my number.” A looked up at me. “If he had known, I am sure he would not have tried to shake my hand.”

I told her to forget it immediately, but she replied, “Look, Freshta-jan, it’s not that simple. Some of our classmates were there. They smiled when I accepted his handshake. As I left the office, I heard someone whisper, ‘Look at her. Because of a job, she will do whatever she wants.’ And I heard someone else say, ‘So many of our people forget their religion and culture.’ ”

A and I talked about this for a long time. We talked about how these seemingly small things are really very important issues. It felt to us like people who want to travel the world should first learn something about the culture where they will be staying, so that uncomfortable moments could be avoided. It does not harm the visitors to shake a woman’s hand, but there are dangerous consequences for the women in our country. Men visitors don’t know that they should not hug a woman, that they should not sit close to a Muslim woman, that they should not laugh loudly in a woman’s presence or that they should not address a woman when she is alone in a room without another man present.

In Afghanistan, people are very sensitive regarding women. We must wear scarves. We must not wear tight clothing. Women who are not observant of these religious practices will not be supported, especially if they are running for office. They will not get the votes of men, and some women. There is bad talk about a woman who is not observant, and she becomes “not a good woman.”

A was awarded the internship, and we women in the class were very proud of her. The day it was announced in class, however, one of the class clowns, a man, replied, “Of course, if I were a girl and shook hands with a man, I too would succeed.” And once again, the men laughed.

By Freshta