ISHKASHIM, Afghanistan — I entered the country from the northeast, from Tajikistan, where I had been traveling for a month, researching the lives of women, as I have been doing across the world for years. From the small town of Khorog in Tajikistan, I hired a taxi to drive me to the border crossing. As we drove over the dusty, bumpy road, the enormous snowcapped Pamir mountains surrounded us and a small green river marked the border. It was spectacular.
I was marveling at the majesty of the region when suddenly, the driver pulled to the side of the road and pointed to the distance. All I saw was wire fencing and the huge mountains.
“This is it?” I asked.
As the driver nodded, a Tajik border guard emerged out of the blue with a gun slung over his shoulder: it was the border crossing. I got out of the taxi and said farewell with the deepest trepidation I’d ever experienced in my many journeys through a wide range of countries across several continents.
After throwing me a look of surprise, the guard walked me down a rocky path to a small immigration house, where we were met by another border guard.
“You’re going to Afghanistan alone?” he asked, taking my passport. (I am Australian.) “Yes,” I said.
He stamped my passport and escorted me up to the wire fencing that designated the border, where we were met by an Afghan border guard.
He, too, looked surprise, but that reaction soon turned lecherous. I felt a familiar feeling of discomfort wash over me, as I’d had so often in my travels. The Tajik border guard, who seemed to notice the Afghan’s leer, asked the border guard in English to be nice to me.
He opened the gate and I walked into his country.
I had arranged with a local English school in the village here in Badakhshan Province to speak with some of their female students, and two of the teachers had agreed to pick me up at the border. Still uncomfortable with the border guard, I nevertheless asked him for use of a phone, of which he handed me an old one. I called the teachers, thinking that if the guard knew that I was connected to Afghan men, he might relax.
Having spent 15 years researching violence and discrimination against women and girls around the world — from Iraq to Colombia, Algeria to Lebanon, Madagascar to China — I always had a burning desire to know Afghanistan. But in going there alone, I realized — perhaps too late — how treacherous this trip might be.
Afghanistan has made huge strides in promoting the rights of women and girls in the last 20 years or so, yet their lives can be in serious danger in ways that Westerners may not imagine. I got a taste right away of how dangerous conditions could be in this part of the country, where the Taliban have become more prevalent.
I gave the cellphone back to Afghan guard, and as soon he spoke to one of the teachers, his demeanor changed. He took me into the immigration office, where another Afghan border guard stamped my passport, shook my hand and said, “Welcome to Afghanistan.”
After the two teachers picked me up and we drove for just a few minutes to reach this small, dusty village, I had stepped into another world. Men populated the streets, many dressed in traditional Afghan clothing of long-styled loose pants and shirts, some sporting long beards. The few women I saw on the street were covered from head to toe in blue burqas and looked away as our car passed.
The Afghan teachers took me to a guesthouse, which was run by a village family. There, I encountered several basic rooms centered on a courtyard, where goats and children ran around. A shared bathroom consisted of a jerrycan of water, brought for me, it turned out, each day. There was no sink or shower and the toilet was a hole in the ground.
Vast green fields surrounded the guesthouse, and the call to prayer rang out over the valley several times a day. There was no wifi in the guesthouse, and I was told that there was none in the village, either. So on my first day, I did what I often do in a new setting: I explored, deciding to go to the market to find a tourist office. The walk to the market wasn’t far, just down a hill and up another. Only a few people were about, a woman with her two children and some male goatherders.
As I reached the top of the second hill, I saw the market ahead — nothing more than a group of old containers that had been converted into small shops. The market was almost completely filled with men. I worried that I had walked into a Taliban stronghold, yet I forged ahead.
Their stares were like nothing I had ever experienced. Several cars passed by, full of men and hanging out of the windows, staring and shouting. Then a man walked closely behind me. I stopped to let him go by, a tactic I used in many countries when I felt threatened. After he passed, he stopped, turned around, stared and walked by me again.
I waited for him to move on before I carried on. In minutes, another man lurked behind me. He asked me my name and where I was from. I asked him to leave me alone, in English, but it was useless. I sat down, hoping he would give up his menacing and walk away. The situation got worse.
Soon a group of men formed a circle around me. One claimed to be a police officer and demanded that I give him my passport. He did not have a uniform or any police identification. I had the distinct impression that my crime was simply being a woman walking alone on the street.
Feeling scared and disrespected, I stood up and pushed my way out of the group, and they stopped bothering me. Yet minutes later, I faced my next problem: I was trying to walk down the hill back to the guesthouse when two young men were heading toward me. As they passed and reached the top of the hill, they turned around to come back toward me. I was being followed again.
I stood in the middle of the hill and started to think that I could never return to the guesthouse. Panicking, I used the same response that I did at the market, shouting at them to go away. They seemed to be enjoying my torment, and in the standoff, another man approached me. He also claimed to be a police officer but had no uniform on. Seizing the chance to get rid of the other two men, I frantically motioned to the third man that there was a problem.
He shooed them away. A soldier walking up the hill joined us, and he and the third man insisted on seeing my passport. They scrutinized it, made a phone call and gave it back to me. I turned away, hurried back to the guesthouse and vowed never to go outside by myself again.
This decision presented me with more problems: I had no wifi, no telephone and the people in my guesthouse did not speak English. How was I going to manage?
The next day, the owner of the guesthouse came to me, indicating that I needed to go into town to register my presence as a foreigner. I refused to go alone, so he invited a person from the Aga Khan Foundation, a local nongovernmental organization, who spoke English, to help me. He showed up with someone from the tourist office and a policeman, who was not wearing a uniform.
After I explained what had happened in the market, they seemed surprised that so many men claiming to be police had stopped me, though they didn’t think much of the harassment. The foundation person said: “Our women experience this too. It’s also because there are some very strange people coming from other parts of Afghanistan.”
He advised me to not leave the guesthouse without a guide, that women who were allowed to go to the market should walk several steps behind their husbands and be covered in burkas. If they don’t, they are called “whores,” he said.
I left the guesthouse five days later. The foundation helped me to arrange a car to take me to the town of Shughnan nearby, where I could conduct my interviews of female students. The situation there was slightly more relaxed than in Ishkashim, which the local people attributed to being Ishmaelites, or Shias. Women could walk in the streets and were not expected to wear a burqa. I walked around freely, too.
Would I ever return to Afghanistan? Yes, but I would travel more carefully. Afghanistan has taught me that now, more than ever, we need to push for women’s rights throughout the world. Otherwise, we will lose the fight before we know it.
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Johanna Higgs is from Perth, Australia. She is working on her Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from La Trobe University in Melbourne and is the director of Project MonMa, a nonprofit group focused on improving women’s lives. She has an undergraduate degree in anthropology and politics from James Cook University in Queensland, and a master’s degree in international development from Deakin University in Victoria. She speaks English and Spanish.