Why It's Nearly Impossible to Photograph a Woman Driver in Kabul

Slate's Culture Blog
Nov. 23 2011 5:13 PM

Oh Snap! Why It's Nearly Impossible to Photograph a Woman Driver in Kabul

For the tenth year in a row, American troops will spend Thanksgiving in Afghanistan. This week, one decade ago, the remaining Taliban fighters were on the verge of surrender. Even without the repressive hand of the Taliban, however, this is still an extremely rare sight:

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There are only about 15 women drivers in Kabul these days, as photojournalist and documentarian Nick Danziger, who took the image above, explains to me. (You can find two of them in the gallery of his photos below.) Yes, 15 in a city of around 3.9 million people, which means that your chance of randomly spotting one on the road is roughly equivalent to being struck by lightning.

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But spot one Danziger did, and the experience was similarly terrifying. His driver became so infuriated that he was behind a woman that he insisted on overtaking her on a two-lane road, nearly hurling into many other vehicles on the way.

“Women cause traffic accidents” is something Afghani men frequently say when explaining why they think women shouldn’t drive. And because they believe this so strongly, it manages to become  a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.

“The Taliban is gone, but their minds are the same,” Danziger observes. And to these minds molded by the Taliban, a woman who can get herself anywhere on her own is somehow scarier than a woman police officer. (You can see two of those in the gallery below as well. Spoiler alert: They don't get guns, and sometimes they end up taking care of their children while on duty.)

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Danziger calls the experience with his hysterical driver “my most dangerous moment in Afghanistan.”

This is quite a statement from a man who been visiting the country frequently since 1984 (when spotting women driving through the pre-Taliban streets was common).

His most recent trip was funded by Oxfam, who asked him to photograph the country in connection with a report on the state of women ten years after the U.S. arrived.

Some photojournalists are reticent to associate themselves with causes, but Danziger, who has published books, produced documentaries, and done editorial work for several magazines, insists that he doesn’t see much point to keeping his distance when it comes to tragedy. "How can you remain objective, when you know it is wrong?” he recently told the Telegraph.

While some of his photos highlight the great challenges that women still face in Afghanistan, he emphasizes that sometimes the story is less bleak than it looks on the surface. For instance, the image below, of girls in a school without walls, may look depressing. But when he asked the students if their mothers could read and write, only three out of 36 raised their hands. In other words, this generation was about to become dramatically more literate than the one that came before.

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Amid interviews with women that included police officers, surgeons, soap opera stars, cleaning ladies, frustrated widows, and hopeful wives, the greatest surprise, Danziger says, was that these women wanted foreign troops to stay. Every single one of them.

“We criticize Afghanistan’s treatment of women, but we don’t listen to Afghan women,” he laments.

Oh Snap! is Brow Beat’s weekly photo feature. Have you spotted a project that’s worth profiling? Pitch to ohsnapidea@gmail.com.

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