Afghanistan is undoubtedly a man’s world, but that doesn’t mean that all female travelers should stay away. Here’s what it was 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 Afghanistan, one of the most patriarchal countries in the world?
This is what it was like to travel as a woman in Afghanistan
There’s a separate dining area in most restaurants.
At restaurants in Afghanistan, men and women/families do not mix. So where do women in Afghan restaurants go?
Most restaurants in Afghanistan, 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.
There are a few exceptions, of course. Kabul has a handful of trendy cafes run by young Kabulians. In these places, men and women can mingle without issue. If you want to see another side of Afghanistan, you can check out Slice Bakery, Nosh Book Cafe, Kora, or iCafe.
Travel tip: Men accompanied by a woman also 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.
It’s best to say you’re married as a woman traveling in Afghanistan.
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.
Saying you’re married will also keep unwanted advances at a minimum. Some girls traveling in Afghanistan wear a wedding ring to ward off unwanted proposals. Others tell unfamiliar man straight off the bat that they’re married. If you’re a woman traveling alone in Afghanistan you might get some annoying questions about where your husband is, and why he allows you to travel alone, but it beats regular, unwanted proposals.
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.
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.
If you’re traveling alone, expect this rule to fly out the window. Many people will think that a woman walking the streets alone is “available”, and will gladly talk to you.
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.
Women in Afghanistan get checked in a separate room.
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.
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 a burqa. In more conservative cities such as Herat, all women I saw on the street 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.
I did, however, have to wear hijab, Islamic modest dress.
Contrary to my previous belief, this didn’t mean wearing the darkest, baggiest, most nondescript 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—I didn’t see many girls walking around in colorful kicks. Or trainers at all, really.
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 can be intense.
Considering Afghanistan? Make sure to check out our comprehensive Afghanistan travel guide!
I was treated as an honorary man at times.
Foreign women in Afghanistan are like a third gender. 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.
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.
Afghanistan is no different from many other countries—weddings are a big deal. However, I was shocked to learn that the groom’s family can basically purchase a bride from her family. A bride’s hand in marriage can cost anywhere from $5,000 to over $10,000, depending on how worthy the groom’s mother deems her to be. There’s usually a bit of haggling over her value.
Perhaps it’s just my perspective as a foreigner—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 uncomfortable learning that women are essentially bought and sold at times.
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.
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. Despite Western media portraying them as silent, faceless beings, women in Afghanistan still love to laugh, hang out with friends, take care of their family, 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. I met groups of women in shrines gossiping and laughing together. Plenty of women on the street have perfectly done makeup… even those under burqas.
There are also plenty of badass local women challenging gender stereotypes. They go to the bazaar by themselves for photoshoots, speak openly to male shopkeepers, and travel around the country alone or with small groups of friends. Check out the Instagram of Fatimah Hossaini and Roya Heydari for some inspiration.
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.
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.
A shorter version of this post was originally published on News.com.au.