In the Land of Blue Burqas

A few days ago, tens of thousands of Pakistanis rallied in support of a fourteen-year-old girl who was shot and critically wounded by the Taliban for promoting the education of girls. If you have never heard of Malala Yousufzai, you need to get to know this brave girl. She has been facing down the Taliban since she was eleven years old, risking their vengeful wrath to criticize their policies and peacefully stand up for girls' education. 

Two years ago, I spoke about her in a message I gave a number of times during the True Woman ’10 conferences on women’s global issues. I was also graciously given permission by a New York Times filmmaker to show a short film he made about Malala and her family, called “Class Dismissed in Swat Valley.” If you haven't seen it, please check it out because I think Malala is more than worth fourteen minutes of your time. In fact, please join me in praying for her recovery!From our perspective, it's hard to understand why the Taliban takes this harsh stance against girls. The Taliban, fortunately, are not representative of all Pakistanis. Nor of all Muslims. But one book I read recently was very helpful for me to grow in my understanding of Islamic practices and beliefs. It's called In the Land of Blue Burqas. It was written by Kate McCord (a pseudonym for her safety), a single female missionary who worked for an NGO in Afghanistan for a number of years. Kate's description of her daily life and conversations with Afghan Muslims was illuminating and helpful for understanding some of the dynamics of the rest of the Muslim world. Plus it's a great read!

The book opens with a tense scene of Kate riding in a rickshaw with two men, Muslim mullahs who openly stare at her. "That was rude, and they certainly wouldn't have stared if my face had been hidden. I was used to it. Virtually all Afghan men, completely unashamed, stared at me wherever I went--another price of being a foreign woman in Afghanistan," she writes. "There's no place in Afghanistan for an independent, unmarried adult woman. I didn't make sense."

The tension in that rickshaw builds as the men attempt to convert her to Islam on the spot. As she diplomatically but firmly declines to convert, her physical safety becomes questionable. They tell her that her life would be better in this world and the next if she converted. That thought invites Kate's ruminations on what she understands of her Afghan neighbors' view of the next life.

Many Afghan men have told me exactly what heaven is like, in stunningly great detail. Men will get their wives back as well as, if they've been very good, seventy virgins who regain their virginity each time it's taken. There will be wonderful food, even meat. Ah, the good life. What every Afghan man dreams.

Once, after a male Afghan friend had detailed his understanding of Muslim heaven and derided me for my very incomplete understanding of what heaven looks like according to Jesus, I had privately asked an Afghan woman what she expected to find in heaven. Was there anything for her? Her response was jarring. . . . She looked down, shrugged her shoulders, and said in perfect Afghan slang, "Machem," meaning, "How should I know?" 

One of the most illuminating insights I received from Kate's account is how the collective pressure works to keep Islam protected from the contaminating influences of "infidels." In a real, street-level sense, the local mullahs are the ones enforcing the rules in Afghanistan. Everyone else complies because it is a deeply-embedded value to protect the community from any non-Islamic influence or temptation. 

I was also intrigued by the way Kate recounts her conversations with her Afghan neighbors--how eager they were to speak of spiritual things. Her detailed accounts of these conversations (somewhat altered to protect others) were helpful in learning how to contextualize certain concepts for non-Christians. But sometimes the barriers between our cultures can just seem insurmountable, as illustrated in the conversation Kate had with a teenage boy who was learning English. 

He was quite proud of his work. He turned to the page that listed family relationships, and I read the corresponding English text he had written beside each Dari word. On the second page, I read the word ambuk. An ambuk in Dari defines the relationship between a man's multiple wives. He had translated the word into "step-wife." 

I couldn't help but laugh. I told the boy, "No, no. We don't have 'step-wives' in English. We absolutely don't say that."

The boy argued with me, defending his translation and his teacher. I told him I didn't care what his teacher had taught him; we don't say "step-wife" in English.

He asked the obvious question: "What word do you use?"

I was stumped. I said we don't allow men to take two wives simultaneously so we don't have that relationship. It's illegal.

He said, "You have to have a word." 

I couldn't find one. How can we have a word to describe something that, for us, doesn't exist?

The boy told me the Prophet of Islam directed his followers to take multiple wives and therefore that's what men should do, everywhere. How could we not have a word for it when it's the right way to live? 

Kate's faithfulness to share her faith and beliefs put her at personal risk every day. She and her office staff were watched very closely to make sure they were not converting anyone. If that had been confirmed, judgment would have been swift and severe, for as she writes, "Judgment in Afghanistan is a serious matter. It comes with the threat of punishment. That punishment might include gossip, public shaming, or shunning. It might include stoning, beating, rape, or even murder. These are the strongest tools the community uses to enforce the rules of their religion on its members."

Despite Kate's unflinching words about the culture, her affection for the specific people in her community is warm and clear. She takes her readers behind the private walls of the aouli, the family compounds where Afghan women live, to introduce us to her friends and their hospitable culture that exists within these Muslim norms.

Having read In the Land of Blue Burqas, I better understood the cultural pressures that exist in varying degrees for Muslims in other places. Highly recommended for our multicultural world.

Catch Kate McCord’s interview with Nancy Leigh DeMoss on Revive Our Hearts October 26–November 2. 

About the Author

Carolyn McCulley

Carolyn McCulley

Carolyn McCulley is the author of three books and a conference speaker. She is also the founder of Citygate Films, where she works as a documentary director and editor.

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