A garden in Afghanistan: Women, roses, and guns

By — December 26, 2012

Sometimes an image comes across my desk that really grabs me. I was lucky enough to have this happen recently when I received a holiday card from a Belgian photographer named Wendy Marijnissen in my email. I clicked and found a strange twilight enveloping a garden of soft trees and red roses. In the middle of the picture a guard stands awkwardly with a gun. Plastic tents billow in the background. What exactly was I looking at? I asked Marijnissen to tell me more:

“It was summer 2012, and my first trip to Afghanistan. I had the incredible honor of being able to travel with Afghan Parliament Member Fawzia Koofi [Afghanistan’s first female parliamentary speaker] to her home province, Badakshan, in the northeastern part of the country.

“Once people knew she was home, people came from all over the province to pay their respect and ask for help. Some wanted better road infrastructure, others a school or a local health facility. The needs of this remote part of Afghanistan are immense. Besides the visits to her house and to elders in the villages, Koofi had a lot of official duties too. One of them was visiting a project called the Women’s Garden in the province’s capital, Faizabad.

“The garden is an initiative where women/widows are empowered, learn about agriculture, and start growing their own produce to sell the products in markets, etc. With the help of a microfinance loan, a widow can start her own business generate an income for her family. The majority of women in rural Afghanistan work on the land, but hardly any get paid or receive any compensation for their work. The Women’s Garden project is slowly trying to change this.

“When we arrived, the garden was still very peaceful and we received a mini tour from some of the people responsible for running the project. This changed though the minute the governor and the minister of agriculture, irrigation, and livestock, Mohammad Asif Rahimi, arrived. In Afghanistan, dignitaries come with lots of security and bodyguards, and before we knew it, the garden became transformed into a circus in which guards were in each other’s way in trying to protect their VIPs. It was funny even though it made it practically impossible to take any more photographs.

“When the tour was done, the dignitaries sat down for tea and snacks and my eye stumbled upon this young guard watching the whole scene from the background: very quiet, slowly night falling, very poetic amid the red roses in bloom. It reminded me of the many stories and books I read that mentioned this poetic quality to Afghanistan—a rough, tribal, male-orientated land, but where men will recite poetry or cherish a rose in bloom.”

I asked Marijnissen whether the guard had seen her taking his photo and what his reaction was:

“He did see me. In fact, I took a few photographs of him in this way, since the light was so low and not all of the tries were sharp. He was not embarrassed at first; only after some other guards saw me taking his photograph did they start to laugh about it, telling him, ‘Oh, she is taking your picture,’ etc. But he didn’t seem to mind or care and he just let me take the image. I did not, however, stretch it out too long. It’s still such a male-orientated society and I didn't want him to feel embarrassed.”

Marijnissen said a Norwegian nonprofit called the Norwegian Afghanistan Committee runs the garden, which may be a rare patch of peace for Afghan women, who face violence in their homes and in the streets, and are not often welcomed in public places, especially in rural areas.

Afghanistan’s women and girls are fighting deeply entrenched subjugation in their short lifespan of only 49 years, which is 15 years shorter than the global average. In fact, in 2011, gender experts ranked Afghanistan the worst country in the world in which to be a woman in 2011. Here are a few reasons why:

  • Literacy among women is estimated at only 15 percent, according to UNICEF. Many other organizations’ estimates are even lower.
  • Forced and childhood marriages make up 60 to 80 percent of all unions, according to the Kabul-based Center for Policy and Human Development.
  • While women around the world tend to live longer than men, in Afghanistan, women die first (death in childbirth, lack of access to health care, honor killings…).
  • One in every three Afghan women is subjected to physical, psychological, or sexualized violence, according to the United Nations Development Programme. And there is little justice to be found for survivors: The country’s justice system allows rapists to claim that the sex was consensual.

As PM Koofi told Women News Network in August: “Afghanistan is a land where girl children are seen as less valuable than a goat—a goat will at least give you milk and meat. A girl is another mouth to feed and a dowry to finance.”

To better understand the complexities of life for women in Afghanistan, I recommend reading journalist Fariba Nawa’s book Opium Nation.