Revive Our Hearts Podcast

Dangerous to Be Born a Woman

Leslie Basham: At the pinnacle of a high-powered career, Kate McCord left it all—sold everything and went to Afghanistan.

Kate McCord:I actually went to Afghanistan from the north, from Tajikistan. I came across in a boat, across a very muddy river. On the Tajik side were all these Russian soldiers, and it was somewhat modern relatively speaking.

And then on the Afghan side were men who walked around in clothes that looked to me like pajamas. I wasn’t used to them yet—the Shalwar Kameez with the long shirt and the baggy pants. They all had sandals and turbans and blankets wrapped around them. That was a winter coat. They had Kalashnikov—assault rifles that they just kind of swung around from their hands as though they were Tonka toys.  

Then we got across the river and drove. We couldn’t drive on the road because it was all destroyed. So we were driving on these donkey paths over the mountains. It was unbelievably beautiful. We would pass through villages, and I would see children playing and women would run and hide from us in their blue burqas. Counter-intuitively in all of that, I thought, This is where I belong. Oh, I can’t believe I’m here. Oh, what a privilege!

Leslie: This is Revive Our Hearts with Nancy Leigh DeMoss for Friday, August 14, 2015.  

Nancy Leigh DeMoss: I am very, very thankful to have with us in the studio today a new friend who has written a book that I really want our listeners to pick up and read and to be impacted by as I have been. The name of the book is, In the Land of Blue Burqas, and we’re going to talk about what that title means.

The author is Kate McCord, who is with me here in the studio. Kate, thank you so much for joining us here on Revive Our Hearts. We’re really so glad to have you here today.  

Kate:Thank you so much for welcoming me. It’s a real pleasure to be here and to get to know you. Thank you.  

Nancy: Kate McCord is not your real name, and it says that right on the front cover of the book, “Kate McCord is a protective pseudonym.” Tell us about why that was necessary.  

Kate: It’s necessary to protect me, to protect the other foreigners that I lived with and worked with in Afghanistan, and especially to protect the Afghans who talked with me. The book is full of conversations with Afghans. They in many ways shared their hearts with me and did that in the privacy of Afghan homes. I need to honor that privacy. So part of taking the pseudonym is to protect them and of course protect me and other workers that went out with me.  

Nancy: So Kate has already introduced us to the subject of this book which has to do with her love for the people of Afghanistan where she has served for a number of years. I happened to pick up this book. It’s a Moody Publisher’s book, and they send me their new releases.

I was headed out on vacation not too long ago. I looked through a box of books, and I saw this one, In the Land of Blue Burqas, and it just looked really interesting to me. I have a real heart for women in the Muslim world and could tell that this was a book about women in Afghanistan in particular. So I took it with me on vacation.

I could hardly put it down, and I’ve now—my copy is dog-eared, as Kate can see, and marked up and corners of pages turned down. It’s a fascinating read, but it’s also really a compelling story of how the light of God’s truth shines into the darkest places of this world.  

When we talk about Afghanistan, I’ve heard it referred to as the world’s most dangerous country in which to be born a woman. You really experienced that, Kate, as you were living with Afghans. What makes it so dangerous to be born a woman in Afghanistan?  

Kate: It really is such a hard place for young women growing up for women. When boys and girls are born, boys are always prized over girls because they provide the "Social Security." A boy stays with his mother until his mother grows old. His job is to provide for her in her old age and to provide for the father in their old age.   

The girl is sold off into marriage and often at eleven, twelve, thirteen years old—almost always to someone the girl doesn’t know—to a complete stranger. It’s an extraordinarily difficult life. I mean, you imagine I walk into a home where a young twenty-four or twenty-five-year-old girl already has five or six kids. She is cooking over an open fire in an outdoor kitchen, squatting on the ground to do it. She doesn’t have counters. There’s no Formica. There’s no hot and cold running water, and she’s washing clothes in a basin in the yard with water—ice cold water in the dead of winter. It’s an extraordinarily difficult life.

Her world exists within the walls of her compound. So, yes, the U.N. says it is one of the worst places in the world to be born a woman, and I see that.

The amazing thing to me is that yet even within that environment are these precious and beautiful women who find ways to laugh and find ways to live and to try to reach out to God and become whole human beings even in that very degrading and oppressive place. They’re just amazing women.  

Nancy: We’re going to talk about all the things you’ve just mentioned here over the next few days as we unfold this conversation. I think it’s going to be very informative and enlightening. Our prayer is that God will use this conversation to give us as American Christian women a new burden for another corner of the earth where there are women that God loves and wants to draw to Himself.

Now, let’s back up a minute. You’re clearly not from Afghanistan. You’re an American citizen. How in the world did you end up in Afghanistan, and why in the world did you go?  

Kate: Yes. I definitely am an American. I was not asking God to send me to some third-world, double-land-locked, back water where women are oppressed and invisible and there’s a war going on. It wasn’t on my short list. I never said, “Oh God, please send me to a place like that.”

But really what had happened is that I was in a season of my life where I just wanted whatever God had for me and was submitting everything I had to God and saying, “Lord, You know, I want to live a life that is worthy of Your calling.”  

In the middle of that time, God drew my attention to Afghanistan through a book that was just a travel book in 2000. I was captivated. In late 2000, I was captivated by the country. I prayed and prayed and prayed. I’ll tell you, if you don’t want to care about someone, don’t pray for them. If you don’t like your neighbor, don’t pray for them. If you’re mad at people in your workplace, don’t pray for them. Because when you start praying for people, God really gives you a heart for them. He gives you a passion for them.  

Nancy: You start to care.  

Kate: You start to care. You want to see God’s all for these people you’re praying for. And so through that season of the winter of 2000–2001, I just kept praying for the people of Afghanistan. I didn’t think I’d ever go. And then, of course, 9/11 happened. The day those towers went down I knew that I knew that I knew that I would go to Afghanistan; that I would help rebuild that country; that I would share the love and the peace and the joy of Christ with Afghans who had suffered for so many years. It took me a little while to get there, but I got there, and that is really why I went.  

Nancy: And you went as a humanitarian aid worker.  

Kate: I did. I happily did projects that helped to rebuild Afghanistan. I did projects that improved the capacity of Afghans to take care of themselves—projects like skills development, small business startups, literacy, work place safety. I really delivered quality projects and enjoyed it—enjoyed the process of being able to take something to people that they could use in a very practical way.

And that’s part of the gospel. Part of the gospel is that when you see people who are hungry, you give them something to eat. When you see people who are naked, you clothe them. The gospel is expressed in how we reach out to our neighbors and what we reach out to them with. So it was a privilege for me to be able to do that.  

Nancy: When you first went you didn’t speak the language, which is Dari. Did you do any language training here before you went, or you just went full immersion over there?  

Kate: Well, I’m pretty proactive actually. So I tried to learn Farsi, the language of Iran, off the Internet. I learned the alphabet and not much else. Then I went over there, and actually, Afghanistan has dozens of languages. There are three main languages, and the one I chose to work on was Dari.

I engaged my neighbors to teach me. I would learn things and then I would go and practice them over and over. I would record people talking to me and go home and listen and mimic and mimic and mimic until I sounded like them. I would talk to people until they understood and in that way—and really, I’m still learning. I’m still learning nuances of the language and new tenses and conjugations and how to express the things that are important to me.  

Nancy: Do you remember when you first went over to Afghanistan what some of your very initial impressions were?  

Kate: Absolutely! I actually went to Afghanistan from the north, from Tajikistan. So I came across in a boat, across a very muddy river. On the Tajik side were all these Russian soldiers, and it was somewhat modern, relatively speaking.

And then on the Afghan side were men who walked around in clothes that looked to me like pajamas. I wasn’t used to them yet—the Shalwar Kameez with the long shirt and the baggy pants. They all had sandals and turbans and blankets wrapped around them. That was a winter coat. They had Kalashnikov—assault rifles that they just kind of swung around from their hands as though they were Tonka toys.    

Then we got across the river and drove. We couldn’t drive on the road because it was all destroyed. So we were driving on these donkey paths over the mountains. It was unbelievably beautiful. We would pass through villages, and I would see children playing and women would run and hide from us in their blue burqas.

Counter-intuitively in all of that, I thought, This is where I belong. Oh, I can’t believe I’m here. Oh, what a privilege! This is wonderful! And really, I’m just convinced that that was God.

Nancy: He had put that in your heart.  

Kate: He put it in my heart. I was just so delighted to be in Afghanistan and to get to know people—just such a gift from the God of the Universe. It was like walking down these streets with Jesus beside me, and Jesus saying, “Look at that person. Look at that. Let’s go visit that house. Let’s share this story with these women.”  

Nancy: So you actually moved into a small town in Afghanistan. Were you in that same town for that five-year period?  

Kate: I did. I moved into a neighborhood in a kind of a mid-sized town and lived there for about three years. Then I moved to a small town and lived there for two years. I took up life a lot like my neighbors. I had a mud brick house with a mud brick wall with a well that we drew water from. I had a diesel heater and plastic on my windows for the winter time and drank tea and ate Afghan bread every day. I really became a part of the communities in which I lived.  

Nancy: You had to have a lot of wisdom about what cultural adaptations to make, how to dress, how to function in a way, because you weren’t Afghan. You aren’t Afghan; you were a Westerner transplanted there. So as I read your book, I got the impression you weren’t really living totally as a Westerner, you weren’t living totally as an Afghan. Does that play with your mind?  

Kate: It does. It does. And that’s absolutely true. We go to these communities and we say, “Okay, we’re going to try to enculturate—adapt to the culture as much as possible.” But if I adapted to the culture a hundred percent, I wouldn’t have been there. There’s no place in Afghan culture for a single, never-married, middle-aged blue-eyed woman. There’s just no place for that. Of course, there are aspects of the culture that have really been warped by sin and by war and the horrible things that have happened in Afghanistan. So I had to pick and choose what I would adapt to and what I wouldn’t.

So I wore a head scarf. I wore very conservative clothing. But I didn’t wear the fancy shoes that Afghan women wear. I wore very sensible comfortable sandals. I talked to strangers. I talked to shop keepers on the street.  

Nancy: Which Afghan women couldn’t do.  

Kate: They don’t do. I was friendly with them. I remember one shop keeper who I talked to every day and not a lot. I would just greet him appropriately in Dari. After about a week of that he started asking me, he said, “You need to come to my house for lunch.”

And I thought, That’s weird. So I answered and I said, “May you live forever.” Because that’s the polite way of saying “no.” And finally he talked to one of my male co-workers and said, “I really want that lady to come to my house. My wife is lonely, and I want her to meet this foreigner. This foreigner is so polite and is so honorable that I want her to come and spend time with my family.”

So I did go. His wife and all of his daughters became wonderful friends of mine.  

Nancy: And that’s exactly what you did throughout the years you were there. You were building relationships as you were serving in practical ways. You just asked questions; you listened; you swapped stories with Afghan men and women.  

Kate: I did. And I knew before I went that I would do that. I had this sense. I spent months and months and months praying before I went to Afghanistan and just asking God, “How can I live there, and what can I give? What do I have to give as this very professional American woman to Afghans who have suffered thirty years of war.” And my sense from God was, “Listen to their stories and share yours and share Mine.”  

So that is what I did right from the beginning. I became a storyteller in Afghanistan. Sometimes in the very beginning, I would stay home and I would write my stories in Dari with English characters because I couldn’t write the beautiful Dari script. Then I would go out to all of my neighbors, and I would practice the same stories over and over and over. In the beginning they didn’t understand them. I would get to the end of the story and I’d say, “Oh, do you understand?”

And they would say, “No. No.” But they would smile and give me more tea. After a while they began to understand the story.  

There were two different ways of telling stories. One was in response to something an Afghan shared and another was just because there’s nothing else to do. I might be in a home and we’ve reached a lull in the conversation and nobody knows what to say next. And I would say, “Oh, can I tell a story?” And Afghans, they love a good story. All the stories from Scripture are new to them—most of the stories are new to them. And so they would say, “Yes. Absolutely.” They would throw all of the little kids out so they wouldn’t interrupt the story, and they would lean in, and I would tell these stories.  

My favorite story to tell was the story of Hagar, the mother of Ishmael. I wouldn’t tell them at the beginning that that was who I was talking about. I would talk about a slave girl sold to strangers—carried away from her home—given to an old man, not even in marriage, and then becoming pregnant with a child who would belong to her mistress, and running away. And there in that place of extreme loss and desperation, God saw her and God met her.

I would tell this story to groups of Afghan women for whom the experience was similar—personal. They would weep. When I got to that part of God seeing this girl, it just so communicated into their hearts. It was like the beginning of really good news for them that “Wow, maybe, if God could see the mother of Ishmael, maybe God sees me. Behind my burqa, behind my wall, maybe God cares about me.”  

Nancy: The Land of Blue Burqas. Is the blue burqas distinctively Afghan?  

Kate: It is distinctively Afghan. Yes. That style of burqa—and we use the word burqa to refer to any type of Islamic dress that covers the face and the whole body. But in Afghanistan the burqa is this blue and sometimes white piece of fabric that goes down to your waist in the front and down to your heels in the back. And the face is like a bag with pleats and the crown fits tight on your head and the face has a screen in it so you can see out but people can’t see in.

When women walk down the street, they pick up the hem of the burqa and pull it over the front of their body. So it’s like they are walking in a bag. They have to be hidden away whenever they are out on the streets. And they wear this on the streets—when they’re in public places.  

Nancy: No matter what the temperature.  

Kate: No matter what the temperature—120 degrees and they’re pouring down sweat inside of it. They become diminished when Afghans stand inside their gate and pull the burqa down over their faces. They become smaller. They become silent. I stopped noticing that. I had some friends visiting from the states, and we went to the bazaar to buy some things. And there are very few women in the bazaar. Men do all the shopping. They buy all the fabric. They buy all the groceries. They do all the shopping. So there are very few women in the bazaar.

My visitors, my American visitors, they were so disturbed. They said, “There are some women here. But they’re silent. They don’t say anything. They don’t make any noise at all.” For them it was frightening to see these silent women. I had just grown accustomed to it.  

My privilege in Afghanistan was to be able to get to know women behind the burqa—inside the walls where they took those things off and they were loud and they laughed and they talked about the things that were important to them and shared their stories, and we shared our faith together.  

Nancy: So it’s not that they don’t have a voice. It’s that they are not allowed to use that voice outside the walls of their homes. Is that often the case?  

Kate: Their voices are walled in. Their voices are walled into their houses and in the company of other women and the company of children they can speak—not in the public spaces.  

Nancy: So they come into their home. You called it a compound. What do you mean by that?  

Kate: Yes. Well, we call it an aouli in Dari. Imagine a mud bricked wall twelve foot high, a couple of feet thick that goes around a space maybe the size of a small city lot in an American city. And then lined along the wall are mud brick houses with mud roofs. In the far side of that yard area is an outdoor bathroom which is really just a long drop—a hole in the ground. Across from that is an outdoor kitchen. And you might have one, two, three, four families living in that same compound.  

The men will leave in the morning and the women will stay. They’ll kick the children out to the street to go play on the street. So the streets are full of children. That aouli is the domain of the women. There could be three, four generations living in the compound. A complete family is a mother, her son, her daughter-in-law and her grandchildren living all in the same compound. But often it will be four brothers and their eight wives between them who are all living in one space. A lot of dynamics.  

Nancy: Wow! Right. So they’re not wearing the burqa inside the walls.  

Kate: Never. But they do wear a head scarf. The norm is to wear a head scarf always. That’s in deference to the men and in deference to God, although often women will let that fall around their shoulders when they’re just in the company of women.  

Nancy: And still very conservative in dress?  

Kate: Elbows covered unless they are washing laundry and they will push their sleeves up above their elbows. Something like pajama bottoms to cover their legs and a long shirt or a skirt. A tunic top. Well, tunic tops in America are too short. They need to be longer than that.  

Nancy: How did you get into the compounds?  

Kate: Oh, I just open the gate and walk in. I see your surprise. One of the wonderful things about being in a segregated society like Afghanistan is there are places where women belong, and as a woman, I have a right to them. So I could go into any household, any compound in Afghanistan.  

Nancy: Even if you didn’t know the people?  

Kate: Absolutely.  

Nancy: You just walk in?  

Kate: Absolutely. Absolutely. There was one time I was walking down a street and a woman stopped me on the street, and we were chattering away. And finally I said, “Well, goodbye. I’m going to visit someone.” So I walked through a gate to visit my friend, and I sat down in the sitting room with my friend. We sat on the floor on our cotton mats, and all of a sudden this woman that I had been talking to on the street walked in and sat down next to me. I just assumed that she was my host’s friend.  

Nancy: Right.  

Kate: Well, it turned out she was a stranger. So after she sat there my friend’s child brought her tea and she sat for about twenty minutes. Finally, my friend looked at her and said, “So, who are you? And what do you want.” Now, I didn’t ever do that. I would walk into the gate and announce my presence and wait for someone to come and collect me and take me into the right room. But, yes, I could go into any compound in any aouli in Afghanistan.

Nancy: Well, we are going to pick up this conversation on the next Revive Our Hearts, and it’s just fascinating stories throughout this book, In the Land of Blue Burqas, about the conversations you had with women and with men as well in the five years you lived in Afghanistan working for what they call an NGO—non-government organization as a humanitarian aid worker, but also as an emissary of Jesus Christ whose ambassadors we are wherever we go and asked to shine the light of the gospel through our lives, through our words.

You don’t want to miss this continuing conversation with Kate McCord as we talk about God’s heart in particular for these Afghan women. It’s a book you'll want to read. It will enlighten you. It will give you just a whole new perspective on a part of the world and what’s behind those burqas and those walls that often we are oblivious to.  

The book is called In the Land of Blue Burqas. It’s by Kate McCord. That’s a pseudonym. And it’s available here through Revive Our Hearts when you send a donation of any amount to this ministry. As our way of saying "thank you," we’ll be glad to send you a copy. Just give us a call at 1–800–569–5959. Let us know that you’d like to make a contribution to help this ministry continue and that you’d like the book by Kate McCord. If you want to make your donation online, you can do that by visiting us at ReviveOurHearts.com.

Be sure to join us when we are back for the next Revive Our Hearts with Kate McCord.  

Revive Our Hearts with Nancy Leigh DeMoss is an outreach of Life Action Ministries.

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