When I stepped out of our vehicle into downtown Khowst City in Khowst Province, Afghanistan to attend an International Women’s Day event, I wasn’t expecting to be the only Soldier in sight or having the interpreter freak out about being left behind when she doesn’t have a weapon. It was the first time since being in Afghanistan that my adrenaline really kicked in. I could feel my heart pounding in my throat and for once I set my camera aside and had my weapon at the low ready. Fortunately we were never in any real danger since there were about 10 MRAPs with .50 cal machine guns mounted on them right next to us, but when you’re on a street with people passing to either side of you and you don’t have immediate line of sight on other Soldiers you feel a little exposed.
After walking down the length of the convoy, we found the rest of our party and headed into the Civil Military Operations Center to attend an International Women’s Day event to celebrate the joys of being a woman and to discuss how to increase women’s rights.
It wasn’t my first mission so I wasn’t surprised to see women fully covered in burkas, what truly interested me this time was seeing the Afghan journalists who showed up to cover the event. Being from a journalism background, I always find it fascinating to see how other journalists do their jobs especially those from different countries. The broadcaster with me actually got to sit down with a few of the Afghan broadcasters when they were recording the speeches and talk a little bit with them. She said they were pretty nice and curious about us.
The Khowst Provincial Governor Abdul Jabbar Naeemi spoke as well, as did several key female leaders in the province. They also had several poetry readings from high school girls, and very young local girls sang a song dedicated to the contributions their mothers have made to society. What was really cool about everything is they gave me a headset and the interpreter translated a lot of the speeches.
Listening to changes they were trying to make to their society, made me extremely grateful for all the advantages and rights I had growing up in the United States. They weren’t asking for crazy things, most of it was stuff we took for granted in the states. One issue they addressed was the need to stop families from marrying their young daughters who hadn’t even turned 18 yet to older men. Their needs were simple. They wanted their girls to be able to go school and get educated. I felt extremely fortunate to be able to stand there and listen to them trying to change things for the better.
After the speeches finished they invited several of the Afghan females and the female Soldiers into a room for lunch. It started off pretty calmly. We sat down and started eating. We didn’t have utensils so we used our hands to eat the rice which is an experience in itself. Afghan food is good. They have this type of flat bread that is addictive. They put raisins in their rice which sounds gross but adds a certain zest to the dish.
Things started getting crazy when they let in about 20 more women then the room could hold. They would point to my drink and gesture towards themselves, meaning they wanted me to give them my drink. One woman reached over me and took the bread right off my plate.
A couple of the female Soldiers, including myself decided it would be best if we ate outside so we could make room for the women. When we stood up, a woman reached to take my Staff Sergeant’s plate. She told the woman “No, I’m not done yet,” but the woman was emphatic and snatched it out of her hands. In the five feet it took us to get to the door, everybody had her food taken except me.
Once outside my Staff Sergeant pulled a snack bar out and started eating it. She hadn’t taken two bites when a small boy came up and gestured for her to give it to him. She rolled her eyes but ended up giving it to him anyway. I thought it was pretty funny when he took a bite then offered it back to her.
Over the course of the event I found my inner photographer. Normally I’m pretty patient and I’ll work around people to get my shot, but this time I was very aggressive about getting the shots I needed. They started handing out kites to the children and I climbed up on tables and shouldered my way into crowds to line up the photos I needed. At one point I had to climb out of a window because the women had swarmed the area where they were handing out backpacks, blankets and radios. When we start giving things away, the females get aggressive very quickly. It is truly a sight to behold.
It is amazing but these women love to have their photos taken. They're fully covered with their burkas but they’ll point to my camera and mime the clicking motion. As long as their faces are covered, they are eager to pose for photos. They started to pick people out of the crowd to photograph. Eventually they would point to their children and want to see the digital image afterwards. One woman came up to me afterwards and said “no, TV” about the photo with the child. I agreed not to post it to TV or the Internet.
On a day when women all over the world are celebrating female accomplishments, I felt honored to be invited to attend an event in a country where women are often considered second-class citizens. This is an experience I will carry with me for the rest of my life and I am extremely thankful for the environment I was raised in.