The Afghanistan Veteran Project: From the Fire: An Account of War by Angela Clark

When Angela contacted me about participating I was very excited as she is our first female participant.  I was taken aback when I had the chance to read all of the blogs she wrote and posted during her tour.  They are very deep and insightful and I believe an important piece of this conflicts history as for one of the first times we are seeing a first hand account of combat from a woman's perspective.  I am honoured to be able to share with you an excerpt from her blogs.  I highly recommend you take the time after reading this except to read through the rest of her blogs. You can check them out here: http://ang-ghanistan.blogspot.ca . Now a JAG officer, Captain Angela Clark deployed as a corporal in the role of force protection on task force 1-08.

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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Boats and Burkhas

I have been keeping my day timer up to date with the events of each day. But I always struggle to fill up the small space during night shifts. We work all night until 7am, I check my email and am in bed by about 0800, sleep until 1230, eat lunch, go to the gym around 1500, maybe take another nap 1600-1700, go for dinner, go to work.

But I guess instead of writing about what has (not) been going on, I could write about some of the things I have been meaning to, but have ended up replacing with things that have happened that week.

I mentioned a couple of posts ago the stories the interpreters tell us of their life and their ambitions. A couple of weeks ago when I was on nights I spoke with Wally (good Wally) for a long time. I asked him tons of questions about life in Afghanistan and want to relate some of our conversation as best I remember it.

For example:

“Have you ever been on a boat?” I asked.

“Boat?” He seemed to be trying to place the word.

“Yes, you know, a vehicle that floats on water and you ride in?”

“Oh yes I know the word. Boat. No, I have never been on a boat. I have never seen a boat. Also, I do not know anyone who can swim.”

I spoke with him for a long time about women in Afghanistan - the conversation mainly revolved around his family’s experiences and that of his wife.

His grandfather (we’ll call him Baba Wally) is a well-known village elder who is, apparently, over six feet tall and 110 years old. He had four wives (only one is still alive now) and fifteen children. Baba Wally married his first wife as a result of a tribal blood feud. I can’t remember all of the details, but one of Baba Wally’s brothers unjustifiably murdered a man from another village. This man’s family was insulted and dishonored, so were obliged to kill Baba Wally’s brother in return. Baba Wally retaliated by murdering the dead man’s brother. This back-and-forth volley for honor would have continued until both of the families were completely decimated, but another solution was found. Baba Wally married the dead man’s sister in order to heal and unite the families who hands were already stained with each other’s blood. This woman was to become Wally’s grandmother.

Wally’s family is very strict and traditional, he explained. In Kabul, young men can date who they please, and sometimes can spend time alone with their girlfriends (!). But Kandahar is mainly the home of the Pashto. Pashtuns are the honorable warriors who formed the anti-Soviet Mujahedeen and who fostered the Taliban. Most are by no means Islamic Fundamentalists, instead all have their origins in the very important Pashto code of honor. (I will look up more on this and elaborate at a different time). 

Their views on women’s rights, or more correctly, the rights a man has over a woman, are intrinsic in these codes of honor. Wally has been working with Westerners for many years now, but his personal life is still dictated by the traditions and the family he grew up with.

His wife is his brother’s wife’s sister. It was arranged for them to be married by their parents. They had only met once before they were married, at his brother’s wedding. He said their marriage was good, though, and more sacred than most Western marriages. They tolerate each other’s bad moods like any marriage, and compromise like any marriage, but the fact that separation is not an option creates a devotion and bond much stronger than those who know deep down, “I can always get a divorce.” (Divorce is possible however, if a man requests it, not a woman, but it is dishonorable). I am sure not all arranged marriages work as well as Wally’s, but his sounds all right.

I asked him if his wife wears a burkha, and he said yes. He said they live in an apartment complex in Kandahar City and if any woman who lives inside is standing in the doorway without a burkha on and a man passes, she must run back inside and cover herself. His wife does not leave this building without his explicit permission. If he grants this, he must accompany her wherever she goes. If she wants to go see her mother and father, she must ask Wally for permission and be escorted by him to her family’s home.

Wally’s wife had a baby girl four months ago. His wife is very tired all the time, he said. Even if he is home and the baby cries, he does not help her. If the baby is up all night, Wally would not even think of getting up in his wife’s stead to rock the baby back to sleep. “That is the woman’s job and I must not interfere. But….the baby cries a lot,” he said.

Once in a while he will hold the baby and play with her. But he does not change her or wash her or make dinner so his wife can have a break. “That is not our way.” I asked him if he will try to send his daughter to school. “Well yes,” he said, “women can go to school for maybe one year to learn the Koran and learn how to be good wives.”

Wally is the one who is trying to get American citizenship so he can move to California. I mentioned to him that things are very different in California, and wondered if his wife was excited or nervous when they discuss the possible move. Education is mandatory, I explained, and women wear miniskirts and bikinis and show more skin than is hidden. I think he knows this, but is more concerned about providing a good life for his family than the cultural taboos that will be broken for him. “It is my family that is strict,” he said, “and they are why I live they way I do. But they too understand the importance of leaving Afghanistan if I can.”

MCpl Neilsen was also there and the conversation moved to how different dating is for us. Neilsen laughed and said, “I met my wife in a bar on a one night stand! Now we have been married for five years.” I told Wally I had had many boyfriends, had even been engaged once and lived with two different guys in relationships that didn’t work out. I couldn’t help wondering how Wally looked at us, and more specifically me….sitting there with all my rifle and frag vest and helmet and combats on, laughing and burping and farting like one of the boys, telling him stories about my relationships and university days and how I could do anything men were allowed to do. Was he disgusted? Curious? Fascinated?

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Most likely, I think, he sees me as a separate species than an Afghan woman. I think that goes for most, if not all, Afghan men I have dealt with on KAF. I thought they wouldn’t listen to me, respect me, and maybe even hate me for being a woman and doing what I do. But I don’t think they feel this way. Most don’t act the opposite either, which is like me a little TOO much… Yes, they stare, but not the way they stare at an Afghan woman who walks by, or even a civilian woman. I think they see me more as a novelty, a curiosity. I don’t think I am seen as a woman first and foremost - I think they see me first and foremost as a soldier, the one with the rifle and pistol. Next, as a Westerner. And finally, as a woman. It is the combination of all of these that makes me a curiosity, and which allows me to get away with saying and doing things that could get an Afghan woman stoned to death.

But what of these women? What would they think of me? Would they be ashamed of me, for me, if they heard some of my stories? Would they be envious of my freedom? If they could take off their burkhas and shed Afghanistan like a skin, what parts of it would they say good riddance to and what parts would they miss?

A separate thought – after talking to Wally about his life and his wife, and picturing them moving to California, I can understand why you hear of so many immigrants whose lives end violently once they finally establish themselves in a Western nation. You hear of fathers who murder their daughters for not listening to them or heeding their culture or religion. You hear of wives murdering their husbands, and murder-suicides, and people kidnapping their children from their spouses and taking them back to their home country. It all makes much more sense after talking to Wally. Wally is a wonderful person and would do great in Canada or the US, of that I have no doubt. But what of those that want a better life, but then end up unable to adapt to the culture that inevitably influences the life they have immigrated into? Of course I believe immigrants have a right and a need to hold on to who they are at the root, but they have to be flexible and adaptable with certain manifestations of who they are. A man like Wally will have a difficult time if he tries to make his wife wear a burkha down to the beach in L.A., or if he sends his daughter to school for just a year only to learn how to please a man and a god.

Just heard three big booms, so I think we just got rocketed. Yup, the sirens are going off so I better end this. Good night all.