The hot sun beats down, shining directly overhead. The forehead of 22-year-old Basma gleams with sweat. She has been working non-stop since morning. It’s the season for alfalfa and she is harvesting the plant in the low wetlands of Bamyan’s Punjab district with several women. Whatever the season and whatever the job, these workers say that women in Bamyan do physical labour as tough as the men.
“If men take the spade, women take the sickle,” Basma explains, adding that women don’t really have a choice if they want to earn an income.
But their hard work is not only in the fields. At home, the work continues, except that unlike the work in the fields, housework is not shared equally with the men. Many consider it only for women.
Every day, Basma wakes up before sunrise. Her morning to-do list includes baking bread, milking the cow, preparing family breakfast, cleaning up, feeding the animals. All this before she leaves for her work in the fields that begins at 9:00AM.
“Especially during the spring season, there is too much work to do and it puts so much pressure in your head. It makes you hate life,” Basma says. “Sometimes I think to myself that it would be better to die than live this life. What kind of life is it to work so hard from the beginning of spring (September) to July, and in the end, you still can’t earn enough to eat bread.”
While the work day for men usually ends as the sun sets behind the Bamyan mountains, for women like Basma it is just the next phase of more hours of work. No matter how tired Basma is, she is expected to prepare dinner and finish the housework.
Women we spoke to say its mostly poverty that drives them to also work outside the home. In most parts of Hazarajat, its very common for women to work outside the home for an income. Hazarajat is one of the deprived and lowest income areas in Bamyan.
For women with young children and infants, the situation is even more extreme as they will take their children with them.
“I know people who go out of the house for work for three or four months with their young children,” Basma says.
Work for women outside the home depends on the season. In the spring, harvesting grass, gathering firewood from the mountains, taking care of domestic animals, harvesting wheat in the summer, and harvesting crops in the fall, are external tasks that women also take on.
Women who are educated even to grade 12 are also not exempt from these demands with many of them expected to do both.
“The hard work of girls is so much that during the week, sometimes they go to school for two or three days and then the other three or four days they have to be busy with hard work and farming,” Basma says.
Zeba Musawi, 20, agrees. Her school years were demarcated with classes in the morning and physical labour in the afternoons.
“In the morning, I used to go to school. In the afternoon, I used to harvest wheat, clover, or alfalfa,” Zeba says.
Reaping thorns, which is very difficult and laborious work, is generally the responsibility of women. Men do not take part in that.
“If men plant, women reap, if men irrigate the grass so that it grows, women cut it,” Zeba says. The 20-year-old resident of Punjab district says the only outdoor work women are not expected to do in her neighbourhood, Targhai, is fetch firewood.
Zeba resents the work she had to do after school.
“We didn’t have the opportunity to repeat our lessons at home, whether we learned that at school or not,” Zeba says, adding that being forced to do physical labour after school hurt her spirit.
For the Bamyan women in this relentless cycle of work, their hands are hardened and calloused. But more so, they say their hearts are equally wounded. The lack of appreciation for their work and even the abuse they receive if it is not done perfectly is a tough burden to bear.
The women interviewed for this report say that the men were never grateful for the efforts, and some were even treated poorly for very small mistakes or delays.
Basma says men cannot fail to see how hard women are working. But nonetheless, if their tea or bread is not ready at the time they wish, many resort to verbal violence such as insults or sometimes physical violence such as slapping.
“If a woman goes out of the house late to work because of a lot of housework, her husband might sarcastically comment about how she slept in,” Basma says.
Women in Bamyan say the abuse they suffer from men has always been around. But some believe it has gotten worse since the Taliban took charge of the country.
Razia, 25, says most women she knows in her neighbourhood of Targhai feel they have no choice but do all the tasks inside and outside the home.
“Women do all the same work as men, and in addition to that, they have to do house chores such as washing clothes, washing dishes, cooking, plus take care of children, and house cleaning.”
It’s not only in the more remote areas of Bamyan. In the provincial center, Golbakht, 45, says when she finishes her own housework, she collects firewood, prepares meals, and does laundry in other people’s houses for money.
“I collect potatoes. I collect hay. I bring wood and kindling for winter fuel from faraway places. I do laundry for people, I work very hard for a very small amount of payment,” she says.
According to Golbakht, in the spring season, she plows the land for a small wage, and after that, when the potatoes are harvested, she goes to pick them. She says there is not a quiet moment in which to enjoy her life.
To Basma, this cycle of abusive treatment and relentless work is why she speaks so candidly about wanting to die. She says women are subjected to many small deaths in this life.
“It is better to die once than to die every day,” she says.