A Woman’s Room

A Wedding Room

We went to a wedding in Kandahar: my travelling companion, Mary Littrell, and her co-author, Rangina Hamidi, and I. It was not a village wedding, because it’s not especially safe to go out into the Afghan countryside now. It was in a hotel that specializes in hosting weddings, and this was wedding season.

Our driver drove into the hotel enclosure so we could get out without being seen on the street. Ahead of us was the big sign indicating where we should go. The Women’s Room. No men allowed, and no women allowed anywhere else. Does it look a little ominous?

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This way to the Women’s Room.

Women were coming in groups large and small, heading for the Women’s Room in their dark, enveloping burqas, peering through the small screen on the veil that allowed them to see where they were going. But once inside the safety of the Woman’s Room, it was a different picture altogether. Doffing the burqas, these women were dressed to kill. Vivid colors, glitter, beads, theatrical makeup, jeweled hairdos, spike heels. They greeted relatives, they danced seductively, their small children ran wild. It was an evening of freedom and abandon, so long as they stayed within the accepted boundaries of the Women’s Room.

Other Rooms

Woman's Room
Embroidery is the main pastime in many women’s rooms. Illiteracy is typical for women in Kandahar.

Mary and Rangina and I visited other women’s rooms, ones in peoples’ homes. A typical compound might contain several families—parents, adult married children, in-laws, offspring. Inevitably, there is a room for the women. They go there to work on their embroidery, to entertain visiting friends and family members, to converse with each other on issues large and small, to stay out of sight.

One that sticks in my mind was in the home of a woman who has eleven daughters (and two young sons). The father, whom we didn’t see, of course, is disabled from an encounter with a land mine; the mother and daughters largely support the extensive household by embroidering from dawn to dusk. The woman’s room in that compound was about the size of a large pantry, and Mary noted that at one point during our visit it contained twenty women (including us), all sitting on the floor sipping tea. You will learn more of this strong, industrious, traditional woman and her daughters and their lives and work when Mary and Rangina finish writing their book.

Woman's Room
Three women entertained us in their home. The elderly woman in the center went to live with her husband’s family when she was seven.

 A Room of One’s Own

The women’s rooms in Afghanistan are conceptually different from Virginia Woolf’s idea of “A Room of One’s Own,” a place for a woman to have privacy, autonomy, and the luxury of space and time for creative endeavors. An Afghan woman’s room is a safe haven, but it is also a prison. It defines the boundaries of her world.

I step outside to walk to the mailbox, hop in my car for a quick trip to the store, drive downtown for a meeting that includes men. None of these activities would be possible for a woman in Kandahar. Simply not possible. She would never leave home unaccompanied or uncovered or without permission. She would retire to the woman’s room and pour her energy into counting tiny stitches, over and over and over, until her eyesight failed. And sometimes she would be allowed to attend a wedding.


6 thoughts on “A Woman’s Room

  1. Alaa says:

    Hi Linda,

    I think that you and your colleague, while trying to understand different cultures from the women’s perspective, are very off mark on your interpretation and seemingly condemnation of the ‘Women’s Room.’ The woman’s room in traditional societies, like in Afghanistan, and other Muslim dominate countries, is actually very similar to Woolf’s. It is a place to be free, both physically, meaning without having to cover, and free to speak of things pertinent to women. If it were a ‘prison’ type confinement, as you suggest, then how and why would other women be able to visit?

    Please, do not use your own ethnocentrism interpret cultures and do not repeat and reinforce the stereotypical incorrect assumptions in regards to Muslim women.

    • Linda says:

      Alaa — I didn’t mean to condemn the concept of the woman’s room in Afghani culture, but to describe how it is the place where women are allowed to be free — but only within the limits of those walls. The term “prison” was not mine, but was used by one of the women we visited — a woman who in many ways led a fairly privileged life. You’re right to caution me about making assumptions based on my limited experience in that culture. The book’s coauthor, Rangina Hamidi, is of the culture, though, and as editor, I will depend on her to present the lives of women there accurately and sensitively.

  2. Beth Yelensky says:

    I was directed to your writing by Mary Anne Wise. Brought to tears reading a about these woman. Sensing their courage and devotion, to themselves and their daughters, even amidst such repression.

  3. Mary Anne Wise says:

    Thank you, Linda, for this window into what feels like a very small room. I can’t help but wonder how many of these women feel as if their lives, and their generation is going backwards. And: how to take a step forward.
    Mary Anne Wise

  4. Cindy Sargent says:

    We have so, so, so many blessings and privileges here in the states. Thanks for sharing other cultures. I find it so interesting and it gives me pause to reflect.
    🙂 Cindy

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