What’s it like to travel as a woman in Afghanistan?

Afghanistan is undoubtedly a man’s world, but that doesn’t mean that all female travelers should stay away! Here’s what it’s like to travel as a woman in Afghanistan, based on 3 weeks of backpacking there in 2016.

 

The title alone probably has some of you scratching your heads. “But Alex, Afghanistan is literally one of the worst places in the world to be a woman. You wanted to travel there… why?”

Obviously I’m a masochist.

No, kidding. Why I wanted to travel there is another story entirely. For now, let’s just say curiosity killed this cat.

So what was it actually like to travel as a woman in one of the most backward countries in the world?

This is what it’s like to travel as a woman in Afghanistan

Lunchtime in a hidden women's area in a restaurant in Herat, Afghanistan - Lost With Purpose

Lunchtime in our hidey hole.

I ate while hidden from view.

At restaurants in Afghanistan, men and women/families do not mix. So where do women go?

Most restaurants, from the grubbiest hole-in-the-walls to more polished eateries have a separate dining area for women/families. This could be anything from a curtain-covered ledge in the back to a separate floor. People say it’s to protect women from the attention of men (don’t get me started on this one), but it’s probably also so women in burqas can flip up their veils and chow down.

Travel tip: Men accompanied by a womanalso have to eat in that area. If there’s no separate space, either move on to the next place, or sit down and deal with the stares. It’s not illegal, just uncommon.

 

Overlooking Bamyan, Afghanistan at sunset - Lost With Purpose

“Remember that time we got married?” “What? … uh, I mean, yes. Such memories.”

I pretended to be married.

It’s illegal for unmarried couples to share a hotel room in Afghanistan, and conservative folks frown upon the idea of boys and girls intermingling before marriage (though that doesn’t stop youth from secretly dating).

Sebastiaan and I pretended to be married. We even had an imaginary wedding date—the drunken Dutch holiday of King’s Day, two years back—and made up a story about a very small wedding.

Travel tip: It’s easier to pretend you’re married, but prepare to answer a million questions about why you don’t have children yet.

 

Men in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan - Lost With Purpose

It’s a man’s world.

There was a lot of respect… for my man.

Men would only talk with my partner. If they wanted to ask me a question, they’d ask through him. It’s considered respectful to not talk to a man’s “wife” directly unless you get his permission.

It did get annoying at times. Sometimes I’d just respond directly to them—HELLO, I AM HERE, STOP TALKING ABOUT ME IN THE THIRD PERSON—only to have them respond to my partner.

Travel tip: If traveling alone or with other girls, talk with women first. It’s more appropriate.

 

 

There was a bit of harassment, but not too much to handle.

There was one boy that touched me (on my arm… ooh la la) on the street, and several instances of catcalling from cars and motorbikes. Annoying, but easily ignored.

Travel tip: In a country as conservative as Afghanistan, the repercussions are high if a man is caught creeping. Make a fuss if this happens—you won’t be the only one thinking it’s not okay.

 

 

I had to go to a hidden room for security checks.

There are a million and one security checkpoints in Afghanistan, and for good reason. Many of them involve body searches, but what to do as a woman when all of the officers are men?

At security checkpoints, there’s always a woman in uniform lurking behind a nearby curtain to check passing ladies. They’re often friendlier than their male counterparts!

Travel tip: At checkpoints with body searches, look for a room off to the side with a curtain. If there’s another woman inside, wait outside for your turn.

 

The owner of a burqa shop in Herat, Afghanistan - Lost With Purpose

The owner of a small burqa shop in Herat.

I did NOT have to wear a burqa all day.

The pale blue burqas of Afghanistan are infamously iconic, but not every woman wears one. In the days of Taliban control, all women were forced to wear them when leaving the house, or risk severe punishment.

These days, you’ll see plenty of women both with and without burqa. In more conservative cities such as Herat, all women wore burqa or chador, the long black cloak that’s common in Iran. In more urban Kabul, however, there are far more women without burqa.

Travel tip: If you really want to avoid attention (traveling solo?), feel free to wear a burqa. Watch women first to get an idea of how they wear it. Most of them take the corners of the back cape and pull them to the front to cover their legs while walking.

 

Wearing hijab, Islamic modest dress, in Band-e-Amir, Afghanistan - Lost With Purpose

Gettin’ scandalous with my rolled up pants in Band-e-Amir.

I did, however, have to wear hijab, Islamic modest dress.

Contrary to my previous belief, this didn’t mean wearing the darkest, baggiest, fugliest clothes I could find. Girls do wear colorful clothes (especially underneath their burqas), they’re sometimes form-fitted, and skinny jeans are totally in.

My outfit for the day always consisted of the following: a long sleeved dress that fell past my bum (3/4 length sleeves are a rare sight), a headscarf covering my hair, black eyeliner, and long pants. Sandals are fine, but things get dusty!

Following hijab wasn’t too hard, especially after traveling in Iran, but finding my headscarf in the middle of the night to use a shared bathroom was a very real struggle.

Travel tip: Buy shoes when you get to Afghanistan. Western trainers will stand out—you don’t see many girls walking around in colorful kicks. Or trainers at all, really.

 

Woman driving on the surprisingly good roads near Bamiyan, Afghanistan - Lost With Purpose

Straight cruising on the surprisingly good roads near Bamiyan.

I confused a lot of people.

I drove a car around the countryside for a time, and upon seeing a woman behind the wheel, all of the police at a security checkpoint crowded around to see. You could see the confusion in their eyes as they flicked between me and my partner in the passenger’s seat. The oldest asked, “You are… driver?!” They were more concerned about my being a woman than they were about whether or not I had a license (it was never asked for).

Travel tip: You don’t really need a license to drive in Afghanistan. It’s advised, though, as Afghan drivers are insane!

Considering Afghanistan? Make sure to check out our comprehensive Afghanistan travel guide!

Bong rips in the ancient capital of Bactria, Afghanistan - Lost With Purpose

Invited in for a smoke or three by some men in Old Balkh.

I was treated as an honorary man at times.

Foreign women are like a separate species. Yes, they are women and must follow some restrictions, but at other times, the rules of social conduct aren’t sure what to do with them.

Most men shook my hand, despite the popular belief that Muslim men have a serious aversion to handshakes. In a home in Herat, I dined upstairs with my partner, the host, and his father. I even got to rip a bong with a room full of dudes in a small village!

Travel tip: Don’t go to shake men’s hands unless they offer theirs to you first. Instead, place your right hand over your heart and bow your head a bit to show respect or salutation.

 

Local women walking at sunset in Bamiyan, Afghanistan - Lost With Purpose

Local women in Bamiyan.

I had to play The Woman at others.

Standing out in Afghanistan is a security risk for foreigners—the more you blend, the less likely it is that something will happen to you.

This meant that I had to play the part while walking around on the street. That meant no staring at men (regardless of how beautiful they were), walking behind my male partner (when I remembered to), pouring tea for everyone at the table (all the domesticity points), and letting my partner pay for things. I once pulled out my own money to pay for a plane ticket, and everyone in the travel agency was very shocked to see The Woman had money.

Travel tip: Whether or not you follow these tips is up to you. I prefer to not stand out, but if you’re out to prove a point…

 

I was often shocked.

In one way, Afghanistan is no different from many other countries—weddings are a big deal. However, I was shocked to learn that the groom’s family actually purchases the bride from her family. A bride can cost anywhere from $5,000 to over $10,000, depending on how worthy the groom’s mother deems her to be. And there’s usually a bit of haggling over her value.

Perhaps it’s just my perspective as a foreign westerner—to be fair, it’s not so different from the concept of a dowry, or the bride’s family paying for the wedding. Still, I was horrified to learn that women are literally bought and sold.

Travel tip: If these topics come up, remember to discuss and learn, not condemn. Even if you disagree with much of what goes on, remember that, as a foreigner, it’s not your culture to change.

 

Women in burqas shopping in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan - Lost With Purpose

Women shopping in Mazar-i-Sharif.

I also saw plenty of completely normal things.

Just because a woman lives in a crazy conservative world doesn’t mean she’s that fundamentally different from you and I. The women in Afghanistan still love to laugh, hang out with friends, and look good.

Women on the street often flip up their burqas to get some fresh air… or to shout at a salesman in the bazaar. Groups of women can be spotted in shrines and parks animatedly gossiping and laughing together. And plenty of women on the street have perfectly done makeup… even those under burqas.

Travel tip: As a woman, if you sit by yourself long enough, it’s quite likely that a woman (or three) will come up to you to say hello and make sure you’re okay.

 

Flying away from Kabul, Afghanistan - Lost With Purpose

It’s all too easy.

But in the end, I felt guilt.

Afghanistan has a long way to go before the average woman can enjoy any kind of equality. But as a foreign female, at the end of the day I could go to my room and do, wear, and say what I wanted without needing permission from men. At the end of my trip, I packed my backpack, got on a plane, and simply flew away… something most Afghan women can only dream of.

Planning to travel to Afghanistan? Most regular travel insurances don’t cover travel here. We recommend First Allied Travel Insurance, which specializes in providing coverage for high risk areas.

Afghanistan is one of the most backwards countries in the world when it comes to gender equality, making it an interesting choice for female travelers. Curious? Here's what it's like to travel as a woman in Afghanistan.

 

A shorter version of this post was originally published on News.com.au.

Alex

American by birth, British by passport, Filipina by appearance. Addicted to ice cream. Enjoys climbing trees, dislikes falling out. Has great fondness for goats which is usually not reciprocated.

More about Alex

32 thoughts on “What’s it like to travel as a woman in Afghanistan?

    Els Mahieu says:

    Great article! Written with a lot of respect without hiding your own point of view, well done!!

    Thank you. It’s always tricky to get a point across without being insensitive to local culture and practices. We always try to be respectful, but not everyone is happy when we write pieces like this. Glad we struck the right tone with this one.

    Brigitte says:

    Great article once again, please bring on more, I love reading your blogs about Afganistan!!

    Never fear Brigitte, more Afghan content is a-comin’!

    Naty X says:

    Amazing post, super interesting. Great insights into the culture.
    I am working with young refugees and right now I have two young Afghan men in my care who sometimes have problems accepting me as the one they have to answer to – a 24 year old woman. They have told me so much about their culture and the country (with a lot of pride and sadness), but obviously it’d be so different to actually be there and travel..

    I can imagine it’s difficult for them to be bossed around by a woman, but that’s all part of integration in the end!

    It’s different to travel indeed, but you can still learn a lot from people’s stories… what kind of work do you do with refugees?

    Ivanna says:

    Alex, I love this and your pictures bring me into your story. I appreciate your honesty and lack of judgement. As oppressive as it may seem to an American like me, there is a beauty to me in their culture. This makes me want to go one day! I’m not sure I’d ever be able to get my partner to agree to it!!

    Heh, just keep wheedling away, your partner might give in eventually 😉

    There’s definitely beauty, but the oppression is still present. It’s hard to witness and uncomfortable to accept, but again, it’s not our culture to change. We can judge and educate, but more than that is forcing ideas upon others, which is never a good thing.

    Amanda Williams says:

    I really enjoyed reading this. Great insight into a completely different culture, very respectfully written, but with your own take on things as well. I love the image of the security men crowding round to look at a woman driving. You allowed your own preconceptions to be challenged along the way, but it sounds like you also challenged a few too! Great job!

    Thanks Amanda! It was tricky to find a balance between sharing my views and being respectful—important when you’re a visitor in someone’s country!

    WanderingRedHead says:

    Very fascinating post! Very well written and great descriptions. I am Middle Eastern (half-Syrian) but this sounds very different than Syria. Kudos to you for going here and telling us all about it! I understand the guilt you spoke of but I think your presence there probably meant a lot to people there:)

    It’s nice to think so. Curious, how are things different in Syria? What do you mean?

    WanderingRedHead says:

    Well obviously I’m speaking of before the war but it’s a more liberal and secular country compared to Afghanistan and the rules aren’t as strict for locals or tourists. I dressed somewhat modestly but would still have exposed lower legs or arms. I saw many tourists in shorts….I just wasn’t comfortable that way. Women go places alone, drive, work, etc. I was comfortable walking around alone and it wasn’t seen as weird.

    Sally says:

    Wow, what an eye-opening adventure for you! Thank you for sharing your experience so beautifully.

    Thanks Sally! It’s important to share these experiences with others… there’s so little information about travel to Afghanistan.

    Jess Mizzi says:

    Fantastic article! I’ve heard a lot about Afghanistan and I hope that one day it becomes more peaceful and open to foreign travellers.

    We hope so, too, both for the Afghan people and for foreign travelers. There *are* parts of Afghanistan trying to boost their tourism at the moment, namely Bamiyan, but alas, the risk is still too high for most travelers.

    Girlswanderlust says:

    This is such a great and interesting article! I loved to read it. I would love to visit Afghanistan one day, since it seems to me like a beautiful country.

    This was fascinating! (And your photos are stunning.) Thanks so much for sharing the experience with us!

    Hello, Alex! I followed you on Instagram! My boyfriend and I are going to travel for a year together, and I have been insisting that we should include Afghanistan and Iran in our list and I kept on referencing to your blog, telling him that it is doable! Thank you for this as always!

    Exploring Wanderland says:

    This was so incredible to read. Ive been reading the Coffee Shop of Kabul and I am dying to go to experience the culture, these are really going to help me. http://exploringwanderland.com/

    Safeer Ahmad says:

    My advice is for all forefingers traveling to Afghanistan is: It is always better to travel with someone from area and it will be more good if you have friend from Afghanistan that will help you so much he/sh can guide.

    Thanks you for the advice. It’s definitely important to have local knowledge when traveling around.

    Safeer Ahmad says:

    Your welcome, and one more point, as you said anyone can drive without license but keep in mind that it very hard to drive in Afghanistan because 90 drivers don’t follow driving rules and if you have accident the first think police will ask you license if you dont show license you will go jail

    Mary says:

    Love your post. Would I be okay to go there on my own? I am a 58 year old woman.

    Alex says:

    It all depends on what you’re used to, of course. If you’ve traveled in other severely patriarchal countries without issue, you’ll probably be fine. Your age will certainly command you more respect. The danger of standing out in general is a bigger issue than gender is, in my opinion.

    I recommend getting in touch with some people on the ground before you visit. Having a local to help you out is invaluable. You can do this either through a tour agency—I recommend Untamed Borders—or something like Couchsurfing or Airbnb. I know there are several hosts in Kabul that can help you on from there 🙂

    Steph says:

    Thanks for sharing girl! Didn’t include Afghanistan on my route through Central Asia before I left Aust, but being here now and talking to a few people that have travelled there I’m definitely considering it now =D

    Paloma Sousa says:

    Hey, I just was trying to improve my “reading” in English and I found out this blog. I can say all the words IT WAS THE BEST THING THAT COULD BE HAPPENED TO ME. You’re so brave. I admire your courage to travel all over the world. I developed a big interested about Afghanistan after reading A Thousand Splendid Suns and The Kite Runner, the first one tell a story exactly about how is the life of an Afghan woman before and after the war (If you didn’t read these yet, you have to, you need to). Anyway, I just want to thank you for the amazing article, to me as a feminist is too hard to see how those women live but unfortunately it’s not our place to change it. One day, maybe, I’ll come back here and tell how was my experience.

    xoxo, Good luck

    Marrakech desert tours says:

    This was great to read. Yes i’m agree with here as Morocco is the wonderfull.

    Mila says:

    What an ignorant comment, packthesuitcases! Why should it need exposure to other cultures to change? Women in the West also had to free themselves from opression if I may remind you and it did not need any exposure to other cultures. We should acknowledge people’s capacity to change in any part of the world. Especially considering how much harm we have already done intefering in other parts of the world and considering that we ourselves needed centuries to develop an understanding of human rights, we shouldn’t consider ourselves in the position to teach other people about their culture.

    Jo says:

    Wow! Amazing article. I was so intrigued by the beauty and differences between the Internet’s portrayal of Afghanistan. I’m too young to go to Afghanistan now but your writing was truly enlightening!

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