Beneath the Burqa

Wednesday, 20 April 2011 00:00 GFP Columnist - Helen Briton Wheeler
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What a pleasure to read a book which gives insight into the people of Afghanistan – and particularly the women. Afghan women rarely appear on my TV screen and, when they do, they are shrouded beneath all-concealing blue burqas. So it’s been a joy to read about them in a new book called In His Strength, by university lecturer and language teacher Noriko Dethlefs.

Noriko lived in Afghanistan from March 2005 to May 2009 with her husband Roger, an ophthalmologist who served there with the Christian Blind Mission as part of the International Assistance Mission. The couple first moved to Hirat (she prefers this spelling to Herat) and later transferred to Kabul. Noriko’s emails home to friends in Australia paint graphic pictures of the country and reveal the men and women of Afghanistan as hospitable, courageous members of our global human family.

Such insights do more to influence hearts and minds – ours in the West as well as theirs – than a thousand battlefield reports and casualty statistics. They build bridges for the transfer of better understanding.

Noriko describes her first impression of Afghanistan as grim, a place with crowded, bumpy streets and hungry goats seeking food among roadside refuse. Life in Hirat was basic, with kerosene to heat water that was pumped from a well, a gas bottle for cooking, iodine to clean fruit and vegetables, a wastebasket instead of flushing toilet paper and a water purifier for drinking water and brushing teeth.

She and Roger arrived in Hirat in time to celebrate Easter with fellow Christian aid workers and the group went for a picnic outside the city. There the goats and sheep with shepherds and the donkeys in the villages reminded her of an illustrated Bible. The common element was discovering that local people loved picnics too.

Noriko is qualified as a teacher of English and soon was in demand teaching the language to doctors and health professionals and to other local teachers, many of them women. Through talking to Afghan women, through their writing and by visits to their homes, Noriko came to laugh with them, to share meals and to weep over the hardness in the lives of so many.

The Afghan climate is extreme and in winter Noriko suffered from the cold. So some of her Afghan women students prepared her a traditional dish of dried mutton cooked in oil with potatoes and onions, said to cure chilblains. The women who were teachers studied with Noriko in the mornings and went on to teach English themselves in the afternoons. Most were mothers, one having nine children! When they talked together, they discussed food, fashion and things close to the hearts of women around the world.

The women students were inspiringly eager to learn. Many said they wanted to gain an education to improve the lot of other Afghans. One young woman chose to remain single, avoiding marriage so she could continue her studies. In a Leaders’ Training Institute, Noriko supervised another woman doing her master’s degree in education, online, from a university in the US.

Noriko also became involved in projects to assist the poor, one a carpet- weaving enterprise providing employment for needy women. It was Boxing Day, still winter and bitingly cold when she visited the project to give the weavers their pay. She found the 19 women working close together around two large looms. They did not feel over crowded. Instead, they said that it was like heaven to have paid work to do in a heated room that had a glass window to let in light. Hardship was their everyday lot and Noriko writes that: “It is not an exaggeration to say that some were so poor they were destined to perish this winter.” When Noriko handed them their first real pay, they were ecstatic and hugged and kissed her.

September2005 was a time for weddings, before the fasting month of Ramadan, which was in October that year. One bride was a finance officer in their organisation and Noriko received a wedding invitation. She walked into a reception hall among 500 or so other women guests and found that the Afghan women inside were beautifully made up and wearing strapless, sleeveless party outfits and high heels. What a treat for them, with no men present and so able to dress up. Noriko found it hard to believe they were the same women she saw daily in the office working quietly with heads and bodies covered, shod in dull, thong-like footwear.

Afghan society is patriarchal and young girls are sold as wives while in their early teens. Many are still too young to bear children and there is a high rate of deaths in childbirth. Infant mortality is high too, in country villages about one in four children die in infancy. International Assistance Mission team members were working to teach basic hygiene in villages. Yet sometimes things went wrong. In one case, a young mother understood the need to boil drinking water, but she then cooled it by adding some contaminated water. Sadly, her baby contracted dysentery and died of dehydration.

Three well-to-do married sisters-in-law came to visit Noriko in her home in Hirat and wore their burqas to walk the 50 metres from their home to hers. This was to prevent the watchman on duty seeing their faces. Once inside the house, however, they happily showed off their colourful outfits with matching trousers and scarves.

The women’s prison in Hirat held many convicts who had fallen in love with the wrong man (adultery), run away from husbands (cheated) or taken food to feed children (stolen). These women had little chance of success in court proceedings as the testimony of one man is worth that of two women. Also, it is almost impossible to find other women whose family will give permission for her to testify in court.

The festival of Eid follows Ramadan and is the time when people visit friends for tea and sweets. The custom is to stay for 10 or 15 minutes and some people are said to call in on as many as 25 homes a day. The Dethlefs were invited for a meal in the home of a woman who teaches literature at a girls’ high school. The hostess was one of the few educated women in Hirat and a widow. However, as her brother-in-law was also attending, Roger was invited as well as Noriko. Guests sat on the floor, as normal, and a feast was brought in: chicken kebabs, meat balls, rice palao and a sweet custard, among other dishes, plus naan bread and homemade yoghurt.

These short glimpses are among many in Noriko’s fascinating book. In it she vividly describes the tough conditions, the harsh but beautiful mountains and above all the amazing people she met and befriended. Frequently, she recalls moments of fear and tells of the persevering courage that comes from her Christian faith. Indeed it was faith that led Roger and Noriko to travel to less fortunate parts of the world to help others. Their home is in Wollongong, Australia, but they are currently serving in Timor Leste (formerly East Timor) and expect to go on to Fiji later this year.

‘In His Strength’ is published by CBM Australia.

Image Courtesy of DayLife - Afghan women clad in burqas wait for public transport in Kabul, Afghanistan. - AP Photo 


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