Right away we notice the many female students in the first seminar room. What a contrast to Jalalabad! The men are sitting on one side of the room, the women on the other. Dean Shahidzada proudly announces that: “42% of the students at Herat University are women and we want to increase this proportion to 50%.” The female students wear headscarves in the seminar room, but as soon as they leave the room they throw over their chador - a full-length semi-circle of printed fabric, mostly in black or muted colors, that covers the head and body. Unlike a burka, the face remains uncovered. The chador is held tightly closed in front with one hand, which isn’t very practical because this only leaves one hand free. You also see some women wearing the typical blue burka in the streets, but here close to the Iranian border the chador-clad women dominate the street scene and you look in vain to see the simple headscarf that so many women casually wear in Kabul.
During our opulent lunch together with all the faculty members, I talk to the head of the organization who helps our students to find internships. We discuss the status of women in this city. “Many things have improved since the end of the Taliban regime,” she says. It’s become acceptable for women to study and work. When she started her job 14 years ago, she had to keep moving every six months to remain unrecognized for as long as possible. Working women faced considerable dangers and threats. Nowadays, they work in all kinds of fields, set up their own businesses and some even hold executive positions. Unlike in other parts of the country, women drive cars in Herat and it’s not a problem to go out and socialize with a female friend in the evening. However, women have to be at home between 9pm and 10pm at the latest. “Riding a bike here is impossible,” my conversation partner laments. Nevertheless, a dedicated woman like her running her own business with a staff of 65 women and 4 men can live a freer and more self-determined life here than in other parts of the country. I am inclined to believe that. Female students, and women in general, appear more self-confident than the women in Jalalabad, where the few we saw or talked to were extremely shy. My doubts remain, though – what with the omnipresent chador, the strict gender-separated seating arrangements, and the sporting restrictions against women. I also wonder how much freedom women have outside the city of Herat in the province’s rural districts.
Text: Dr. Thurid Hustedt - a post-doc researcher at the Research Training Group “Wicked Problems, Contested Administrations.”
Online-Editing: Agnes Bressa, Translation: Pearl Wallace
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