Describing Life to Outsiders (or: The Man Behind the Curtain)

Describing Life to Outsiders (or: The Man Behind the Curtain)

In Afghanistan, the way people describe their lives to outsiders can sometimes be very different to the reality of their lived experiences. Working out what really goes on, rather than the idealised picture of themselves that people might want to present, is a key challenge for researchers trying to uncover the nuances and complexities in Afghan life.
In one community in rural Kabul Province, for example, husbands or relatives of women who had taken loans from a microfinance institution flatly denied that this was the case when interviewed by male researchers. This was perhaps an attempt to conform to prescribed gender norms that put men as the breadwinner of the family, and avoid the perceived shame of admitting otherwise.
Saleem, a Pashtun, was the younger brother of Saida, one of AREU’s research respondents. Saida was a 40 year-old single woman whose reputation as an active woman has gone beyond her family and reached the wider community; she had recently taken a loan to start a tailoring business. However, in his interview with the male team, Saleem claimed that it was him who took the loan and used it to repair his car.

It was then that the two Afghan female researchers, one whom is a middle-aged Pashtun woman, went to his house to do a second interview. The Pashtun female researcher asked Saida to call her brother for the interview but Saida came back empty-handed, saying that Saleem was embarrassed at being interviewed by a younger woman. The Pashtun female researcher started talking loudly in Pashto: “Why are you embarrassed? We are like your sisters and you are like our brother.” Then she turned to Saida and said, “Tell your brother if he does not come to us, we will go to him.” Once Saleem heard this he came out of the house but had covered his face with a scarf to avoid having face-to-face contact with the female researchers. He agreed to talk to the researchers but from behind a curtain. The interview started with the research team on one side of the curtain and Saleem on the other. The Pashtun researcher told him occasionally: “Why are you hiding yourself from us? We are like your sisters.” Throughout the course of the interview he rolled the curtain up little by little until it was rolled up completely

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