Let me begin with two stories.
In April of this year, Afghan President Hamid Karzai threw his support behind an astonishing and repressive law that would make it illegal for women of the Shi'i minority (approximately 10 percent of the population) to refuse their husbands' sexual advances and would require, among other things, that women get their husbands' permission even to step outside of their homes.
In response, a group of some 300 Afghan women gathered to protest this law and demand that the government repeal it. As one protester lamented to a New York Times reporter: "Whenever a man wants sex, we cannot refuse. It means a woman is a kind of property, to be used by the man in any way that he wants."
They encountered a much larger group of mostly male counter-protestors who responded violently and branded these women "whores." Forcibly chased away by the men, they exclaimed "We want our rights! We want equality!"
One is left to wonder how a protest against a law that recognizes a form of rape as legal could evoke such a visceral response.
In 1996, while living in the former Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan, three friends and I were fortunate enough to be granted permission to visit northern Afghanistan. We were an unlikely group to be traveling in Afghanistan at that time: four young Americans, one a woman with light blonde hair, and the country was in the midst of a civil war.
Just two months before we crossed the "Bridge of Friendship" over the Amu Darya River and entered Afghanistan, the Taliban had advanced northward and taken the capital city of Kabul. We were in the territory of General Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek who had very recently joined forces with the celebrated Tajik commander Ahmad Shah Massoud to establish the "Northern Alliance" against the advancing Taliban.
Crossing the bridge, we had passed from a relatively peaceful post-Soviet republic into a war-torn wasteland. Sand dunes were left unchecked to take over entire stretches of the road, which in many places seemed to be more pothole than pavement. Young boys from nearby refugee camps shoveled dirt into some of the potholes, hoping to earn a bit of money from the few Iranian truck drivers brave (or foolish) enough to transport merchandise to Uzbekistan.
We passed by a number of bombed-out Soviet tanks rusting in the desert, monuments to the Soviet invasion and occupation of the country that lasted from 1979 into 1989. After a couple of hours my friends and I arrived in Mazar-i Sharif, the largest city in the region, and excitedly began to explore the city, meet people, and collect nervous reports of Taliban activities in the south.
With few exceptions, what we did not see were women in public. The majority of those that we did encounter were destitute victims of the war, forced to spend their days begging to feed their families. These were the only women with whom we interacted, and even then it was only to place a few bills in their calloused, outstretched hands—no conversation, and no eye contact.
Even though this was not Taliban territory yet, these women wore the full chadri, or burqa, a long shapeless gown that hangs from a hat to completely cover everything from head to toe. To our eyes, they moved about the city as powder-blue ghosts—there, but not really there.
One evening, my friends and I went out for dinner to a little neighborhood restaurant near our hotel. The four of us were the only obvious foreigners in the place, and our companion the only woman, in a room otherwise filled with men sitting in chairs at old tables in the front and on woolen rugs on an elevated platform in the back.
For a few moments we stood quietly at the entrance, unsure where to go from there, as conversation halted and all heads turned silently toward us. After a long, uncomfortable pause the hum of conversations resumed and we found seats at a table not far from the door.