03 March 2009

Gender tales: holding hands, scarfless in a skirt

I got a haircut today from a barber across the street from campus and there were at various times between two and four boys, none of whom appeared more than age 11 or 12, hanging out at the shop. Maybe they were relatives of the barber. They were extremely quiet.

When I got in the chair, I could see in the mirror the reflection of the youngest boy, perhaps age 6, gesturing to a somewhat older boy sitting next to him on a small couch. He looked at me, then at his friend, and pointed to his left ear, the ear in which I was wearing small a turquoise stud. In more than five weeks in Kabul, I have yet to see any other male with an earring. What might an earring worn by a man my age signify to those boys?

There are some gendered peculiarities here that have caught my attention. While Afghan culture is unequivocally patriarchal, it is perfectly acceptable for men to get their hair dyed and treated to give it more body or fullness. (The technical term is pouffed, right?) Similar to Central Asia, men hold hands, wrap their arms around another’s neck, and kiss each other on the cheeks. Yet public hand holding by members of the opposite sex, even between a married couple, is considered quite inappropriate.

Last week, I saw for the first time a woman, in this case a student, wearing a knee-length skirt, though her legs were covered with thick leggings. The brazen hussy didn’t have a head scarf on either! An Afghan friend said he suspected she would at least cover her head and maybe change into a longer skirt before she left campus.

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