Afghan Journal

Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics

On Afghan planes, women are “not able-bodied”

May 11, 2010

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.

(REUTERS/Ahmad Masood)

(REUTERS/Ahmad Masood)

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.


Hahahaha, very interesting post! Thanks for sharing it. It is very unfortunate that our youth are injected with the false perceptions that the women are not capable of doing anything. We will need decades to eliminate these wrong perceptions. Modern education is one good way, but the government is so corrupt it has also kept the education in the medieval era in today’s Afghanistan.


In 2005 a friend and I faced the exact same situation on a flight from Herat to Kabul except that I stood there and eyeballed the flight attendant when he said I couldn’t sit in the exit row. He said that women were not strong enough to open the door. Even at medium height I was taller than he was so I pulled myself to my full height, glowered and asked him if he really wanted me to show him exactly how strong I was, perhaps by using him as a test emergency door. He sheepishly moved away and let us sit down.

We then got strange looks from male passengers who thought they were doomed to die, trapped in a fiery inferno if the plane crashed because the weedy women couldn’t deal with the emergency exit. It is this hilarious notion, often appearing during discussions on the sexes, that men are superior because they are physically stronger. What that says when comparing men and donkeys, comparative strength and superiority is a topic for another discussion.

Since rumours and urban myths spread so easily in Afghanistan I am tempted to start one about the man who sat in the exit row and became impotent because the microcurrents of air being sucked out through the gaps around the door affected his ‘equipment’. Within weeks, all men would refuse to sit in exit row seats.

I wonder how many of the able-bodied men who sit in the exit row can actually read the instructions on how to remove the door. The instructions are in any and every language except Dari and Pashto. Food for thought.

Posted by Spendarmat | Report as abusive

The afghan woman should not accept being under the tyranny of the brutal fundamentalist afghan culture and religious afghan society. Shame on afghan men, they discriminate, mishandle, burn and kill thier wives, mothers, sisters and thier daughters. I shame being an afghan.
I hoop for a day to came that the afghan men accept their wives, mothers, sisters and thier daughter as human not a tool to keep their promising “Ghayraat and Namoos” in one piece.
There is no single word to describe ” Ghayraat and Namoos ” in English or any other language. Maybe it means selfishness, not able to change, not able to discuss, not able to think wisely, escape from reality, and not accepting women as human.
I have been and lived in many countries and speak many languages, every where people asking about the way men treed women in Afghanistan! I couldn’t explain it.


The Americans and other countries should give their help money for Afghanistan to afghan women groups. Maybe they should make some kind of monthly salary for afghan women. If afghan woman gins social security and financial independencies no man will discriminate, mishandle, burn and kill his wife, mother, sister or his daughter.
It’s better than giving the money to corrupt afghan government.


An organisation like Afghan Women Liberation Front/force could be an option for afghan women to liberate themselves form the tyranny of the brutal fundamentalist afghan culture and religious afghan society.


Hormonal treatment of afghan men could a solution for this problem….
I recommend “diethylstilboestrol” this is a synthetic female hormone!!!!!!!!


Does one have to criticise any norm in Afghanistan which is different from that practiced in the west. Id it an offence to protect women? Why does a gentleman offer to carry the heavy baggage when he is accompanying a woman? Are women not able to carry their heavy baggage themselves? Why does a man open the door for a woman and let her enter into a car, train or the house first? The Afghan men have more respect and fear their mothers, sisters and even wives than their counterparts in rest of the world. Protection and nothing but protection comes to the mind of men in the Pashtoon Afghan land when women are involved. It is about time that the propaganda stops and nitpicking of other culture is not likely to resolve any thing. It is also very rude to keep on printing veiled Afghan women’s photos. Let us try to respect the culture of a foreign country so that they equally respect our culture.

Posted by rex minor | Report as abusive

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