This is one of the frustrating parts of being in Kabul. Being a woman and a foreigner. It feels like being doubly disabled -no offence meant to physically or mentally challenged people!
Being a foreigner first off means being visible all the time. At least if you are not fitting in the skin colour scheme or if you can’t dive in with dark hair and brown eyes. It means being watched, assessed, critically viewed and even if positively welcomed: you are visible. You cannot just simply roam around in a bazaar and listen to the chit chatter of locals as the small talk might die down if you come along or might take you as a subject to talk about. This can be a good thing to get in touch with people, but it is on the flipside a security risk that might get you kidnapped or killed (while admitting that Afghans are the ones running in danger to be kidnapped on the street for money as this happens frequently and is a constant threat for them).
Second cross cutting issue: being a woman. While stating from the beginning and being aware of the fact that foreign women don’t bear the weight of expectations, threats and pressure that local women bear or have to endure (which is a WHOLE different category!), it does not go without saying that being a foreigner woman in Afghanistan doesn’t have its challenging sides to it. While foreign men sometimes venture out to buy things at the bazaar or take local taxis –which is not advised by most of the security firms, restrictions and most foreigner’s idea about what to do best here- it is even more difficult as a woman and most of the time it is not easy or even possible to take a walk somewhere or go to buy things (besides the fact that speaking one of the local languages opens many doors and enables you to do so from time to time…). As women are rarer than men in the public realm and more followed with looks, being visibly a foreigner and a woman and walking outside is a triple marker for being exotic and strange. While other women –mainly local as I have not seen another foreigner woman on my walks- share smiles of being in the same club with you, men might slow down in their cars next to you to talk. The annoying fact of being dependent either on other foreign men to accompany you or other locals, who are mostly men as well, because women don’t go out much, is a daily experience.
But being challenged can also mean being given a chance.
As the Afghan society is to huge parts segregated into a male and a female realm, foreign men are not allowed much contact with the local female population, if any at all. They might never see a traditional kitchen, see the women’s side on a nikah (traditional Islamic wedding) or talk to Afghan women (with exception of higher or educated westernized classes or Hazara women). My partner Adnan who has worked for ten years as a journalist and photographer in Afghanistan has never seen his fixer’s/contact person’s wife. He has travelled with him, his life was saved several times by him, he has lived in his house for extended periods of time but he has never met his wife.
I, on the contrary, am a hybrid in these cases. As a woman I can enter the female part of society, gossip with women about their charming or incapable men, get tons of make up on and taste the food in the kitchens where the house politics are being made. As a foreigner though, I am kind of a third gender. The public spaces are male dominated but as a foreigner I can talk to men in their shops, sit in meetings with afghan men and talk with colleagues about their dreams and plans. I am not accepted as a man but as a foreign woman, I fall under another category which does not fit into the common male/female divide. I’m somewhere in-between and thus am exposed to parts of both sides: being hampered, challenged and ambiguous.