When I was young during the Taliban regime, my mother sometimes took me to visit her relatives who, like us, stayed in Afghanistan. Among them there was one family with a rude, violent father.

He would attack his wife, physically and verbally in front of the children, and then after she gave birth to a daughter, he divorced her. She had fallen and couldn’t walk. He said she was worthless and couldn’t take care of him or bear more children, so he divorced her.

His second wife gave him two daughters and three sons. The first time my mother and I went to visit the second wife, her husband was not at home. She shared her pains with my mother. They both cried.  I could tell the woman felt better after she spoke with my mother.

The husband later died and when my mother and I went to visit the family again, the wife told us she was relieved he was gone. By now her sons were grown up, her daughter was a beautician, and they had a peaceful life without him. She said after her husband died, she went to his grave, sat there, and told him how much she hated him, how cruel he was to her and his children. She told him he was a loser because now he was buried beneath tons of soil and could not bother them. She told us how she brought up all the bad things he had done to them.

Being only eleven or twelve and listening to this, I thought to myself, “How can one man be so heartless to his family that his wife will not dare tell him about her feelings until he dies?”

After the Taliban era ended and I was allowed to study and work and watch TV, I heard more of those stories. In 2008, a 17-year-old girl, whose name was also Marzia, tried to commit suicide by setting herself on fire. When a reporter asked her why she did it, she said that she was dusting the TV, it accidentally fell and broke and she was so scared of her husband’s reaction that she wanted to end her life. 

Fearing the differences

For a while, I started to think of men as different creatures. Creatures that had the power and permission to do whatever they wanted. Creatures who were human, but very different from me. I was afraid of them and many of my friends felt the same way. After I got the chance to travel, I began to realize there are many reasons behind the behavior of men in my country. We have a wrong tradition that teaches men that they are superior to women and that they have all the power and control. There is a lot of misunderstanding.

It is a reality that men and women are not alike. We do not look or act the same. It is easy to use these differences to separate by gender. It is very difficult when we are not given the opportunity to explore and understand the opposite gender.  If we were given a chance from a young age to know the opposite sex, we would be able to accept and respect the differences between men and women.

In Afghanistan, if a woman takes the risk of getting to know males, her family and society will punish her. Girls are not allowed to be friends with boys. Islam dictates that a girl should not be a friend with any boy except her husband.  Girls are allowed to talk with their brothers, but that is the only relationship a girl may have with a boy outside of marriage. And in some cases, brothers and sisters are not allowed to be friends with each other.

A divided house

For example, there is an area in Herat where boys are not allowed to even see their sisters after the age of sixteen. Here men typically have more than one wife and they have many children from each wife.  They divide their house into two parts; the front and nicer part is for the boys and the second part including the kitchen is for the women. The boys are not allowed to go to the back part of the house except to get their food and clean clothes from their mothers. In this type of arrangement, women and men rarely interact or communicate at all.

Growing up I was not allowed to talk to males except for my brothers and as a result, I was uncomfortable with boys and men. I did not get to know males until I took my first trip to Kyrgyzstan for an orientation to come to the United States.

There were 20 boys and 20 girls. We had classes and sports with boys, so I started to talk to them. After returning home, some of the boys called me on the telephone. My family was not happy about it, but they saw it helped my self-confidence and courage and after a while it did not bother them. 

There are some situations where males and females do get to know each other in Afghanistan.  Educated women and men have these opportunities. I was surprised when I saw men come with us to protest against an anti-women’s rights law declared by a Shiite leader in 2009. The law stated that women should do whatever their husbands say. They could not leave home without permission and must have sex when the husband wanted to. Women’s groups organized a demonstration against the law.

Men and women communicating and understanding each other creates a healthy society. When I was a high school exchange student, I worked with a boy in my physics class.  He was good at math and I was good at explaining the project.  By getting to know each other, we were able to do the project well. We talked about our differences, accepted them, and worked together.

We cannot deny the differences in gender. But the differences should not make women feel inferior.  Our children need the chance to understand the opposite sex and accept differences. This is the way for men and women to feel comfortable forging healthy relationships, families, and societies. 

By Marzia

Photo by Graham Crouch / World Bank