Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
On Afghan planes, women are “not able-bodied”
I was recently on a flight back from the western Afghan city of Herat. I was with a female friend, an American consultant who was in Herat compiling field research on civilian casualties. There was a ‘free seats’ policy on the Pamir Airways flight so my friend and I went to the first available empty row, which happened to be the exit row in the middle of the plane.
As we went to sit down a clean-shaven flight attendant who looked like he was in his twenties told us we had to sit elsewhere. I asked why and he said “It’s for men only, no women, please sit here,” pointing to the next row behind. My friend and I looked at each other with disbelief. We both asked him again, why we couldn’t sit there and why being women prevented us from sitting there. Without any hesitation he said: “It’s for men and able bodied people only.” We were shocked.
Together we both have about five years experience living and working in Afghanistan as foreign women — not much compared to many outsiders in the country, but enough to know what the deal is with public transport in this very conservative Muslim country. We both always dress appropriately and wear the usual modesty uniform of a long coat or jacket and headscarf in order to blend in and not draw attention to ourselves. But neither of us had heard anything as offensive as what this flight attendant was telling us.
Again I said to the young man, who looked like a typical Westernised Kabulite, sporting the type of hair style British footballer David Beckham had in the late 1990s, “so you are saying we are disabled?” With a straight face he replied simply, “yes”. My friend and I tried to reason with him and insisted that we should be able to take the seats, pointing out that we were capable of opening the emergency exit if needed. But he insisted we sit elsewhere. Without wanting to delay our journey any further, we took two empty seats next to an Afghan lady.
As my companion lifted her rucksack to place it in the overhead locker, the same attendant tried to help her. She turned to him and firmly pointed out that she was able bodied and perfectly capable of lifting her bag without his assistance.
On another flight from Kabul, this time on Safi Airways, I asked the flight attendant their policy on seating women in the exit row and he had the same answer. He even used almost the exact same language: “No women, men and able-bodied only”.
I also checked with Emirates Airlines, a major international carrier, and their flight attendant said they had no such policy.
Society in Afghanistan is generations away from acknowledging that women are entitled to the same freedoms and rights as men. Decades of war have left the country with low literacy levels and one of the world’s poorest economies. When economically things do turnaround for the better in certain areas, such as Herat — a safe and prosperous province — men tend to be the first to benefit. It is still taboo for a woman to even drive in Afghanistan, but there is nothing in the law that prohibits it, and the burqa is still ubiquitous. For all the progress that has been made by Afghan women since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, one needs to only scratch the surface, to find that a lot of things have not changed that much at all.