I went to the Women’s Garden in Faizabad, Afghanistan last year with 3 generations of female relatives. Men are not allowed. It was a happy and peaceful place. Near the entrance was a classroom where women could take computer and English classes. Inside were shaded, green pathways with more vibrant plant life than I’d ever seen in Afghanistan except in the Nuristan valley. We walked along one, next to the high wall on our left, under the blue skies. We came to a large cement structure. “That’s a swimming pool,” my sister pointed out.
“Wow!” I said, impressed that there would be a place to swim.
“It’s useless,” she replied. “No one would swim here!”
I climbed the ladder and saw the problem. The top of the ladder was clearly visible from the street. Even if a woman could swim, having practiced in some unknown private location, how could she come out of the pool in full view of the street?
A group of teenage girls were racing. I rejoiced to see them so happy and free to run and play. I remembered being that age, learning to curb my laughter in public, learning to cover every strand of hair, learning to walk, not run, gathering my limbs close in modest careful steps. I knew how they felt to have this space of freedom, far from the eyes of the bazaar, set free by fathers and brothers to run in this safe place away from unrelated men.
They approached us shyly. “Race with us,” they said. I knew they’d leave me far behind but I knew the joy of the race and the delight they’d have in schooling me soundly. My female relatives of all ages egged me on. I agreed. We stood on a makeshift line drawn across the wet path and I pointed out a tree for the end point. My sister said the local equivalent of “Ready, set Go!” and we took off. I stand corrected. THEY took off and my shoe slipped and I found myself on my butt in the mud, spectators roaring with laughter, the winner passing the tree. They came back, all giggling hysterically, joining my family in unquenchable mirth. Despite my sore derrière and the mightiness of the disgraceful fall it was a glorious moment, the golden afternoon light sparkling through the trees on the triumphant faces of my new young friends.