We’ve been discussing wives lately, one of the guys having just been married. The conversations are interestingly wide-ranging, including, as they do, a handful of happily (I assume) married Afghan men, an embittered American divorcee, and myself. It all began with a cell phone video taken at Ajmal’s wedding of some of his family engaging in a traditional Pashtoon dance. It was energizing and beautiful, and I remarked that I’d so wished I could go (a desire also in part inspired by my longing to be in the casino-like wedding halls. They’re gaudy, kitch, and easily some of the largest buildings in Kabul. I love them).
Ajmal considered me for a moment before advancing that he really didn’t think I would have appreciated the festivities. Initially, I was a bit put off, but then he elaborated that the women are kept separate. Essentially confined to their own room, female guests only see the performers if they haven’t tired themselves out dancing for the men. Indeed, looking at the crowd, I noticed for the first time its gender homogony. Apparently, the only person who traditionally transitions from one party to the other is the groom; the best of both worlds belongs to him alone. At this, my American laughed and applauded Ajmal for making the right move and keeping his new wife in check from day one.
Aside from that appalling sentiment, I have begun to appreciate that, perhaps unsurprisingly, Western chauvinism is verrry different than Afghan chauvinism. The divorcee delights in trotting out all of the familiar tropes in the guise of marriage advice: she’ll run your life, take all your money, evanesce your manhood through her incessant nagging, etcetera, etcetera. If the others in the office laugh off these pronouncements, Ajmal himself generally worries a bit more, being among the most sympathetic to Western mores. His wife cries every morning when he leaves her to go to work, so he’s been late for about a month running. He laments her immaturity (he is a whopping 23 to his wife’s 19), but explains to her that he has to go earn money so he can buy her presents. But again, Ajmal really is one of the more (comparatively) progressive guys I know; he even took the time to escort his mother and sister, not yet having a wife, to the polls in the last election.
The thought of your wife taking all of your money is, however, utterly laughable to the others. Let my wife have my money? Please. One explained the financial system in his house is based on petition: she asks for things, and if he finds the request reasonable, he buys it for her. I was reminded of discussions I’ve had with past BFs about how we would treat our money, were we to get serious. Would we go all in, or engage in some sort of tiered sharing system – sort of a yours, mine, and ours? I got really annoyed with one swain who gallantly declared he would give me a stipend from his salary. A allowance? Really? From my husband? And they say chivalry is dead. But even that affront pales in comparison to oh, yes, honey, I’ll determine if your needs and those of our children are deserving of my money.
Even among professional women, money is apparently seconded immediately to the ranking family male. We have two female local national linguists working for us on Phoenix, both widows (though they seem too tragically young to be so). Their beneficiaries are their oldest sons, which is not terribly surprising. What did throw me off was when they explained that all the money they earn goes to their sons as well (or in the case of the younger woman, will when he’s old enough). Yikes.
Overall, our office relationship discussions are fascinating and are teaching me the value of choosing my battles. Another one of my local co-workers has some noticeably OCD ticks. We teased him about what his wife must say when he obsessively cleans or remakes the tea because it isn’t exactly right. Nothing, apparently. She keeps the house just as he likes it. Of course she does. Even as he revealed this, he joyfully told us the latest antics of his brand new baby girl. I’ve seen photos of her – waving to her American Auntie – but never his wife. Brothers, father, but no adult women. They aren’t even allowed in the main receiving room when company comes (close friends and relatives excepting).
Even among these remarkably Westernized men, who work with women and take orders from women, are still so cavalier about locking their spouses away. Honestly, my favorite (as in genuine, not in that I like it) image of women in Afghanistan comes from the burqa dolls sold at the bazaar. Under their tiny blue body bags, their eyes are crossed like a dead cartoon character’s, and their legs fused above the knee, like mermaids. The slightly disturbing toy always strikes me as a tragically apt description of women. I think of my co-worker’s beautiful little girl, that he loves so much he carries not only her photo, but a recording on his phone of her laughter, and wonder when she will make the transition in his eyes from his darling baby to a doll, ready to be passed to another man, shut away, neither seen nor heard.