Monday, June 20, 2011

Kabul Women's Garden (Sharara Garden)

Kabul Women's Garden
Kabul Women's Garden (Sharara Garden)

Location:  Kabul, Afghanistan

Founded: Under debate. Some say it was founded as early as the days of Babur the Conqueror, in the 1500s. Most believe it is dated to the 1940s or 50s, when King Zahir Shah was said to have bequeathed it to the state. Re-opened on November 3, 2010.

Closed: Sometime around 1996, just after the Taliban came to official power (1996-2001). Consistent with its other anti-women Taliban edicts, places were banned from having the name "woman" in them, so the name of the park was changed to "Spring Park" (sometimes translated as "Springtime Garden"). Women were also banned from entering the park--along with a host of other paralyzing restrictions that affected their physical movement, access to education and jobs, and so forth. "Spring Park" was subsequently stripped of its trees and turned into a garbage dump (truly an insight into how radical Islam views women and womyn's space). However, a small area in the center was retained so militamen could engage in "the manly 'sport' of cock-fighting." (Of course, and how utterly revealing....)

As if we were gathered around the reporter's knee, an article in today's New York Times pulls us into the story with all the magic of a fairy tale:

There was in the city an old garden, and in that garden there were trees, and under the trees there were women.

And there were no scarves on the heads of the women who sat under the trees in the old Kabul Women's Garden.

That was all something remarkable once upon a time, as it is even now. Screened from male scrutiny by the leafy canopies of almond and apricot trees, women could go outside as they pleased, dare to wriggle naked toes in fountain water or just gossip without the veil.

I suppose the Kabul Women's Garden isn't so much a "lost" womyn's space as a "lost-and-found" womyn's space--at least for now. 

Forty-five truckloads of garbage were hauled out in order to reclaim this space as the Kabul Women's Garden. And local women laborers contributed to the project--almost unheard of in Afghanistan, but since USAID requirements state that at least 25 percent of contruction laborers on international projects must be women, women workers there were.  In fact, they ended up representing half of the workforce reclaiming the park.

But the Kabul Women's Park is much more than a safe green space in the middle of a war-ravaged city--a green space now adorned with 5,000 pink rose bushes and 3,500 trees. It is certainly a testament to the hardwork and determination of Afgan women--with the support of $500,000 in international assistance. But interestingly enough, this 8-acre enclave actually functions more like a women's village within a (male) city.  As USA Today explained back in January, the Kabul Women's Park is "more than a park of fountains, gazebos and playgrounds. It contains shops, a fitness center, basketball court, kindergarten, restaurant, mosque, computer lab and job training centers, all managed by women for women." The Times elaborates:

Now male police officers outside the tall steel gates open them only for women, or for male children if they are under 9. Inside the gates are those rarest of public employees: female police officers, two of them. They are reinforced by five female intelligence officers, whose main job is to look for suicide bombers who might hide explosives under the capaciousness of the burqa.

Mostly the burqas come off once inside the gate, and there are dressing rooms where many of the women change into normal clothes, putting on makeup and high heels.

Then, unheard-of things happen here. The women themselves have raised funds for a tiny mosque, with religious instruction given by a woman — one of only a handful of such places in a city where at least 1.5 million female Muslims live.

A consortium of European Union aid groups built a spacious gym, and women in tights take fitness classes there or play badminton. The Italians started the Always Spring Restaurant, featuring something else unknown in Kabul, female pizza chefs.

Between the compound’s outer and inner walls, a shopping arcade of little, female-run businesses grew up, many of them financed with microgrants: hairdressing, embroidery, children’s clothing, ladies lingerie.

There are other such businesses in Kabul, but none are run by women, to whom the busy bazaars are off limits not by law but by hard custom.

Some come here for opportunity, many for refuge of one sort or another. Fairly often, women who have run away from abusive husbands, or from fathers who threaten to commit a so-called honor killing, wind up here, and the staff members find them a place in one of the city’s secret women’s shelters.

Kabul Women's Garden
So of course the misogynist mullahs are all in a lather, having convinced themselves that these women are getting all dressed up and putting on makeup because they have "other intentions." (It's always about the menz, right?)

But as positive as the Women's Garden is for the women of Kabul, it is also, broadly speaking, "an admission of failure." As the Times concedes, "Women simply cannot go to other parks in Kabul unless chaperoned by male relatives, and often not even then; most parks, like most public spaces, are overwhelmingly male."

Susan Jaboby at the Washington Post truly fears for the future of the Women's Garden and the Afghan women who have enjoyed some modicum of freedom within its walls:  

...this is a society dominated by a toxic mixture of tribal thuggery and radical Islam, both of them based on repression of women. It is a society where women cannot sit in public parks in the capital city without being assaulted by men and must therefore plead for the right to lift their faces to the sun, in an all-female garden that could not exist without heavy steel gates and police protection. It is a society in which, whatever generals and how many troops we send, the Kabul Women's Garden will undoubtedly be trashed within days of an inevitable U.S. withdrawal. You can be sure that no helicopters will arrive to rescue the women who have risked their lives for a patch of personal liberty. Like the Vietnamese left behind on the roof of the U.S. embassy in Saigon, they will be left to suffer for America's delusions about its ability to transform a country far from our realistic sphere of influence.

In fact, the women in the garden are already subjected to visual surveillance and catcalls, in addition to other numerous governmental concessions to the Taliban that constrain the rest of their lives:

A former warlord has taken over an adjacent site and is putting up a 13-story building so that men can leer and jeer at the women in the garden. Of course there are much, much worse things happening to women than being deprived of the right to exercise without attracting prurient attention. Thirteen-year-olds are being flogged for fleeing arranged marriages--something the world knows because the Afghanistan Human Rights Commission (a non-governmental organization) released a smuggled video of the event. How brave all of these women are to fight for a small amount of freedom against such overwhelming odds, and their hopes will certainly be destroyed if and when the country returns to the total control of fanatical, violent men.

And it is really a matter of "when," not "if." I think about these women when I think about the inevitable departure of American troops from this country--on whatever timetable and whoever is president at the time. Our so-called ally, President Hamid Karzai, knows which way the wind is blowing. That is why he has already negotiated away women's rights--even the right to leave the house without a husband's permission-- in areas controlled by the Taliban and other local warlords.

I don't think Americans can change any of this. If the Soviets, with much shorter supply lines could not succeed in their objectives, there is no way that the United States will be able to do so.

Echoing the wishes I've had for a long time, Jacoby concludes: "I wish there were an organization collecting money to airlift every woman who wants to leave Afghanistan and pay for her schooling so that she could begin a new life."

Photo: Women at the reopening of the Kabul Women's Garden (Shahram Garden for women) on November 3, 2010. And photo from the Jakarta Post.

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