Beneath the Veil

November 2008

Dubai Airport, 14-hour layover

DXB is a big, bright, ultramodern airport, neatly displaying the new wealth of this city. The people are clean and carefully dressed; a traditional white robe for the men, and all black all the way to the floor for the women, never mind the swampy 120 degree air.  Some of the women had only a narrow slit opening for the eyes, further bound by a black thread down the bridge of the nose holding this envelope tight.  They could be teenagers or grandmothers, there was no telling.

There was a group of three women and several men at a table across the gate area from me.  I was the only Infidel in sight, maybe 100 feet away.  The men ate, drank tea and chatted while the ladies tended to a gang of infants and little kids.  Dozens of small Indonesian “guest workers” scurried about the terminal.  One of the men finally thought to offer the women some tea.  I watched them silently size me up, maybe gauging the distance:  Was I just pretending to read a magazine?  Was I close enough to gaze upon their tented women, thereby insulting their honor?  There seemed a consensus that I was a safe distance – ok to lift the veil.  I concurred and discreetly set up the camera on my lap, extended the zoom and turned off the flash.  A narrow chance at a usable shot, but not shooting would somehow show respect for a practice for which I have no respect at all, and that didn’t sit well with me.  People in Dubai don’t generally carry AKs and wage jihad, so I didn’t care about any reaction.  Besides, what lurks under there?  A beautiful genie?  Darth Vader unlocking his helmet?  Will I turn to stone?  No way was I going to miss this, and it turned out I was onto something.

Carefully she peeled back the black veneer up to her eyebrows, revealing a metallic metal mask across her entire lower face.  It resembled a brass version of Hannibal Lecter’s face-piece, or a medieval knight’s face-shield.   She did not remove her muzzle, just pushed the hinged device up far enough to awkwardly drink tea beneath it.  (I did not get a usable shot – the ones above are Google.)  Oops, wait – did I say medieval?  Better get me back to college for some re-indoctrination on multiculturalism and moral relativity.  After all, who am I to judge such standards?

Well, how about a medical perspective?  Back in the town of Bedrock (Kabul), our cook’s teenage sister recently came to our clinic, not looking too healthy.  Our Afghan doctor asked a few questions and determined that she had an untreated urinary tract infection, which now involved her kidneys.  Next would be sepsis, or blood infection, then a rapid feverish decline into death.  He gave her the antibiotics and sent her home.   Wearing a body bag in this weather and not drinking much water leads to chronic dehydration, UTIs and kidney stones, all commonplace here.  Many women choose thirst because there are no public female restrooms.  (The men at least can go outside, though they all squat to pee.  Really.)  Maybe she delayed any treatment due to shame or financial cost.  It also could have been this, to quote the US government cultural guidebook for foreign workers:  “Islamic law restricts medical care.  Females are generally prevented from working, and very few are in the medical field. Male doctors are forbidden to examine female patients.”  Foreign aid workers are doing what they can to fix this situation, but at their own risk.

Outside of the urban areas, many women cannot even go for medical care without the permission of her husband or a male family member. That man then will accompany her into the exam room, where an exam is not usually given, though the woman may partially undress behind a cloth screen for one-handed palpation from the doctor while medical questions and answers are asked directly to the man, who then passes the Q&A back to the doctor.  Yes, all three people speak the same language and are in the same room.  Our doctor on more than one occasion had to threaten the male relation with possible murder charges if he did not grant permission for the exam and treatment of a critical woman patient, including two emergency C-sections.  In the more conservative Muslim nations, there are no female paramedics, so there are no ambulance privileges for the ladies:  get in the backseat of the family car, and find a man to drive.  So if any of you ladies would like to come out for a holiday, be sure to stuff a doctor in your backpack, because you might be on your own.  Don’t forget your goalie mask.

I am not publishing policy reports here, but a random reader recently questioned my information on the Bird Flu paper posted on this site, so if you want stats and sources, here you go:  Women in Afghanistan can now seek medical care without the restrictions imposed by the Taliban, but most have never seen a doctor, and they have little knowledge of basic hygiene.   Almost 60% of girls are married off before 16 years of age, 84% are illiterate, and each will have about seven children, helping maintain the second highest maternal mortality in the world – 50 deaths per day. (UN)  Afghanistan is the only country in the world with a higher suicide rate among women than men, and boasts a female life expectancy of 44 years.  (New England Journal of Medicine, 9/2004 and 5/2008; The Independent, 2/25/08) There is no shortage of firearms, but the majority douse themselves in gasoline and strike a match.  Survivors are not well treated socially.

Now let’s take a look at the man side of things.

Homosexuality officially carries the death penalty in several Muslim nations: Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran, Mauritania, Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen.  It formerly carried the death penalty in Afghanistan under the Taliban: their version of Islamic law mandated that sodomy be punished by being burned at the stake, pushed over a cliff, or other public methods.  Yet even the Taliban publicly kept young “dancing boys,” as they are known, as personal pets.  This is still widespread practice in the east and south – older married men acting as sugar daddies, providing food, shiny clothing and eyeliner for boy runaways and orphans in exchange for entertainment and favors.  Girls in the same situation are generally sold off early as brides.

Once you have locked up all the women, the men have only each other, young boys and farm animals, so these sexual interactions, power struggles and statutory ass-rape are rampant.  Today all of these practices are still condemned by religion and the law, but socially, it is barely swept under the rug. The ongoing joke among from the locals it that even the crows fly over Kandahar using only one wing, because they are using the other to cover their behinds.  Yes there is a lot of contradiction here.  Back to Doctor G., who is a conservative Muslim, educated in Pakistan, and all around a good guy, but endlessly frustrated by living here. “Yes, in the countryside, there is too much boys having sex with donkeys.  Females donkeys, I think.  These people are very confused…No, I don’t know the punishment, but for being caught homosexual, the gay was placed flat on ground near to wall, then the wall was pushed over on him.”

I do meet some Afghans who hope for change and collaborate at their own great risk with the international efforts to bring this country into the civilized world, but they appear to be a small urban minority.  Mostly they want to escape.  The rest seem satisfied with trying to grab what they can from the West during our brief time here, and then hurry back to the business of eye-gouging and head-butting one another for the next thousand years.  It is like a slow-moving bench-clearing brawl:  Pashtun vs. Hazara vs. Talib vs. Tajiks vs. Pakistan vs. India vs. US/UN vs. outside jihad funding vs. my mullah vs. your mullah and on and on.  Add to that a popular fundamentalist sentiment of living a 7th century existence, exactly as Muhammed did:  an unyielding committment to backasswardness, promoted by “holy men” and violently enforced as the will of God.

I stood today at an outdoor presentation by a major provincial governor who is also well-known as a repeated mass murderer, a pedophile and a substantial opium trafficker.  We are in bed with him right along with his dancing boys, though, because he is a huge improvement over the past guy, and he plays the temporary opium and Taliban eradication games with us as he fills his offshore accounts.   W recently gave him a personal thank you phone call and Obama had a big warm hour-long sit-down with him in July.  I watched a B-52 bomber doing lazy circles high overhead and wondered just how we think we are going to bomb and bribe this primitive ideology into the modern world.


My coworker Clinton gets the quote of the day:  “The thing about leaving the house is that as soon as you step out onto the street, the smell of Kabul smacks you right across the face.  ‘Here, get that into ya, that’s right, welcome back!’  It’s enough to give you lockjaw.”

This month’s photos:


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One Response to “Beneath the Veil”

  1. James K. Says:

    I found this post is profoundly upsetting.

    I mean, I figured it wouldn’t be hard to talk someone out of having sex with a donkey, but I guess I was wrong.

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