Kate McCord, In the Land of Blue Burqas. Chicago: Moody Press, 2012. 320 pp. $14.99.
“Most Westerners,” the author of this wonderful memoir tells us, “understand very little about Afghanistan and even less about the culture.” With rare exception, military personnel, civilian private contractors, government-sponsored aid workers, educators, medical practitioners, and diplomats don’t really live among the people of Afghanistan. When they do leave the giant Forward Operating Bases (FOBs), they “commute to work” in armored convoys. They only speak with village elders and Afghan people through translators. To the Afghan people, the author says, “they don’t even seem to have their own voices.” Moreover, because Afghan society is “gender segregated,” the cultural distance between Westerners and the women of Afghanistan is even greater still. In truth, the term “gender segregated” only begins to capture life for Afghan women. Public space—bazaars, teahouses, mosques, and street corners—belongs entirely to men. Women, to the very limited extent that they even appear in public space, pass through merely as visitors. Even then, as the book’s title suggests, women are covered from head to foot. But the social reality for women is far worse than we can understand by the term “gender segregated.” With disdain for the dignity or rights of women, Afghan society is, in fact, pathologically misogynistic.
In Kate McCord’s In the Land of Blue Burqas, we are taken on a striking journey into the aouli—the domain of the Afghan family compound—by a remarkable Christian woman. This is a rare glimpse into the “women’s sanctuary” of Afghan culture. For five years, an astonishing length of time given the dangers, the author worked as a project manager for an aid organization she founded. Unlike almost all military and civilian Westerners, she didn’t commute to work from a giant military base. She lived “outside the wire,” as they say, and learned to speak and read Dari. An anthropologist writing for the academic guild might call this “participant observer research methodology.” Given the dangers, this type of engagement requires incredible courage. Eventually the security situation, including credible threats to her life, required her to leave the country and to write her memoirs under a protective pseudonym, both for her sake and for the sake of the Afghan people she befriended. Equally impressive and rather astonishing is the extent to which everyday conversations turned to matters of faith.
Throughout my five years in the country, Afghans asked me, “We believe this. . . . What do you believe?” A great many Afghans have questioned me about what I believe, how I practice my faith, and why. It’s always the second great conversation for them. For men, the most interesting conversation is about government and war. For women, the most interesting conversation is about marriage and family. But the second great conversation is always about faith and our practice (27).
This author’s willingness to discuss matters of faith and practice—not to mention her willingness to highlight the important differences between Islam and her own deep Christian faith, and the cultural implications of those differences—contrasts sharply with instructions given to U.S. military personnel and the various civilian support personnel in Afghanistan, all of whom are advised to avoid discussions of religion and Islam.
In fact, it is precisely because McCord was open to discussing what she believed as a Christian that we learn so much about the lives of Afghan women. Conversations about marriage, family, and children eventually opened opportunities for conversations of profound spiritual importance. “They introduced me to the Prophet Mohammed, and I introduced them to Jesus” (62). Often the Afghans reacted to the teaching and life of Jesus with shocking disbelief. It was simply incomprehensible to them, for example, that after the rich young ruler refused to obey, Jesus didn’t force his compliance. “Where,” they wondered, “was the judgment? Where was the power? Why didn’t he force the man to give all of his wealth to help the poor?”
On the other hand, Afghan women immediately understood and responded to the way Jesus interacted with women. Since marriages are entirely arranged and because they are excluded from the mosques, Afghan women immediately understood the shame felt by the woman at the well (John 4). They immediately understood that she had been used by five men, the last of whom didn’t even have the decency to marry her. And, of course, “The woman’s question about where she should worship made sense.”
But women also responded because the teachings of Jesus introduced another way of thinking about their own desperate situation in life. The author says that when she asked men to identify the happiest day of their life, they typically cited the day they acquired their first wife. But Afghan women never responded by mentioning their wedding days. Quite the contrary, when asked about the saddest day of their lives, “If the story doesn’t include bombs and guns and dead children, it almost always starts with ‘The day I married my husband’” (37).
This sad situation stems not merely from the abuse suffered at the hands of their husbands, although she admits, “I’ve never met an Afghan woman who has said that her husband never hit her.” It's not simply because the work of Afghan women is unremittingly hard, or because Afghan women are excluded from public spaces. Afghan women are most unhappy with their lot because they have no say in choosing a husband and because their husbands can take multiple wives. Marriage in the town where the author lived and worked is typically arranged for girls between 15 and 19 without their consent. In more remote villages girls between 11 and 14 are married against their will into families of complete strangers. This trauma is aggravated by the widespread practice of taking multiple wives.
I’ve never met an Afghan woman who likes the idea of her husband taking a second, third, or fourth wife. They consider it a great loss. The husband is only supposed to take additional wives if he can provide for them all equally, but in practice that’s rarely the case.
The author confronts Afghan women (and occasionally the men) with the obvious question: Why do you continue to endure this intolerable situation? That question opened up the opportunity for long discussions with Afghan women about the nature of marriage and the differences between a Western cultural understanding influenced by Jesus and the gospel with an Afghan culture influenced by Mohammed and the Qur'an. On one occasion, as they were departing the aouli, the larger issue was confronted head-on. An Afghan female companion declared, “Our husbands take second, third, and fourth wives. We hate it.” The author responded:
“You are followers of the prophet Mohammed, aren’t you?” “Yes, yes of course, of course. We are Muslims.” I smiled and said, “Your prophet had multiple wives. You must live like your Prophet. Therefore, your men take multiple wives. It’s Sunnah” (48).
And the women nodded and laughed and said, “Yes, yes it is Sunnah. We must do it.”
In gentle and respectful ways, McCord repeatedly responds to difficult questions and direct challenges with simple answers. “I am not a follower of your prophet. I am a follower of the honorable Jesus, and he never commanded men to take multiple wives.” Here and on other areas of great cultural importance, she drives home the point: “Whose example we follow matters.”
Keith Pavlischek retired from U.S. Marine Corps in 2007. Following his retirement he was a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. He recently served as a civilian supporting the U.S. military in Afghanistan. His articles “Proportionality in Warfare” and “The Ethics of Counterinsurgency” were published in The New Atlantis.