Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Civil Aviation and Desegregation

Kam Air has begun offering domestic flights out of Farah airstrip. They're a small, primarily domestic Afghan carrier (I would translate their name as either "a little bit of air" or "less air"), and they're trying to tap into the heretofore unserved Farah market -- the closest civilian airport is in Herat, three hours away by road along a route widely feared to be controlled by bandits.

The airstrip is firmly on base and isn't set up for civil aviation, and the "terminal" is more or less just a concrete lean-to, capped with a defunct anti-aircraft gun. But having domestic Afghan flights out of Farah would be a huge step forward for the private sector, and might also cut down on a minor form of corruption in the Afghan National Army, which is rumored to take bribes for open seats on its flights. (They say that the corruption extends to kicking low-ranking soldiers off flights in order to make room for bribe-paying passengers, though I have no evidence that's the case; regardless, it's certainly a creative business model).

A Kam Air flight had landed unexpectedly at Farah last week, and a small gaggle of passengers clutching outrageously expensive tickets had attempted to talk their way on to the airstrip. But Kam Air hadn't coordinated with anyone on base and the maneuver unit was understandably unwilling to let them on, despite the best efforts of the harried-looking airline manager. Commander Killjoy and I had been on the airstrip to meet another plane, and were there to witness their rickety-looking Russian aircraft streak off the runway and hurtle west at a ridiculously low altitude over the base.

(We were in an armored car a safe distance from the aircraft, but we both ducked a little bit when the plane veered off the normal take-off path, seemingly inches above us. "THAT is why the Embassy forbids its personnel from taking Kam Air," I said. "Bah," Killjoy responded. "They clearly require at least a foot of clearance off of all buildings they fly over. I think the Embassy is overly cautious").

In order to prevent a repeat performance for the next flight, we met with Kam Air and the Provincial Director of Transportation this week to talk through the logistics of airstrip entry and passenger screening. It was clear that the Afghans had done their homework on thinking through the details, and the walkthrough (which I and Captain Adventure tagged along for) was relatively straightforward.

The Director of Transportation declared that there would be an initial security screening at the first gate, conducted by the police, followed by a second screening by the ticket checkers. At the gate that actually leads to the airstrip itself, the airline manager told us that he would personally conduct a third and final security screening. "Any weapons they are carrying," he said, "any AK-47s or pistols or anything, will be taken away from them here, before they enter the base. And they will get a receipt for it, and they will not get it back until they land at their next destination," he added.

"Only in Afghanistan would they be worrying about how to marry up passengers with their correct AK-47," I said to Captain Adventure. "Kind of makes you wonder what those first two security checks are looking for, doesn't it?" he replied.

We walked through the intended waiting room, which was dusty but should be of adequate size for waiting passengers, and discussed cleaning it (the base's responsibility) and the provision of electricity for air conditioning (Kam Air's responsibility). The Director peered through a window at an unused back store room and informed us that he needed the key to it. "This will be the waiting room for women," he said. "The men can wait in the big room."

"I am vehemently opposed to a separate waiting room for women," I said, talking mostly to the Maneuver Unit Major who was running the meeting. "This isn't Saudi Arabia. There's no need for that." I turned to the Director of Transportation and said in Farsi -- "there's no separate waiting area for women in Kabul International Airport. There's no women's waiting room in Herat, either. There's no reason to have one here in Farah."

He shook his head and gave me a disgusted look, rolling his eyes as if he pitied my ignorance. "Farah is different from Herat," he replied. "And it's really different from Kabul."

At the time, I wasn't particularly able to articulate why the request for a separate waiting room for women inspired such an intensely negative response in me. I think it was in part because my USAID colleague had just come back the day before from site visits to a project that offers "men's work" jobs to women who are willing to take them -- primarily sanding and painting houses and offices. If you'd asked me if I thought such a project were at all feasible in conservative Farah province, I would have laughed in response -- but the women she talked to were thrilled with the program, happy to be earning a living, and (perhaps most important of all), accepted by both the men doing construction work on the other floors and by their male relatives. If women in Farah can be trusted to paint and do industrial sanding, they can surely be trusted to occupy the same space as men while waiting for a flight.

("Oh god," said Killjoy when I relayed all of this to him later. "Did you have a cupcake moment?"

"It's not so much that he got hostile," said Captain Adventure. "It was more that he got -- uh, kind of uppity."

"That's a cupcake moment," Killjoy replied. "When it stops being a dialogue and starts being a lecture").

I held firm with the Director of Transportation. "There's no reason why this room can't be used for both men and women," I said.

"The women might be sick or maybe have some problems," he responded.

"Men get sick too," I replied. "Do you want a waiting room for sick people? Maybe you just shouldn't allow sick people to fly." I turned again to the Major from the maneuver unit. "This is your show," I said in English, "but I remain vehemently opposed to a separate waiting area for women."

We have a few programs aimed at women and fund an outstanding women-focused NGO in Farah city, but the simple fact is that while we work with women all we can, their status in Farah will never change until the men change, a proposition that isn't on the horizon any time soon. Aside from the four female politicians in the province and the head of the women's NGO we fund, I have not met a single Afghan female in the past year; it is as if they do not exist.

But this waiting room debate for once put me in a position to negotiate on behalf of women -- to turn to a man in a position of power and say that public spaces are not exclusively for one gender, and that women can in fact be allowed to co-exist and do not have to be tucked away behind a curtain in a small and poorly-lit back room. The point was not so much the waiting room itself as it was to challenge the fundamental thought process behind it -- to fight, in some small way, the misguided notion that women must be hidden from sight for their own good.

I do not expect that this gesture will change the province in any meaningful or lasting way. But simultaneously, I am not under the impression that I have any meaningful or lasting influence in Farah province; I do, however, have some small degree of influence on Forward Operating Base Farah, and that is why I was so unwilling to back down: for the only time since my arrival, I was in a position to do something on behalf of women.

The Major turned to the Director of Transportation. "We're going to work on this civil aviation thing slowly, step by step," he said. "For now, this is the only waiting room I have for you."



Dakota said...

Loyal readers will recall that "cupcake" is the code word Killjoy and I use if one of us thinks the other is being too hostile; it just occurred to me that that portion of this story may be confusing.

Dakota said...

"I guess I agree with you on all this," Killjoy said after I'd relayed the whole story. "I mean, if they're grown up enough to take the big, scary flying machine that flies through the air, they should be grown up enough to sit in the same room together before it takes off."

Donna said...

You, sir, are my hero. Every step counts, and you just stepped up in a big way. It does make a difference.

GWB said...

Great post Dakota about Kam Air and how things work in the Farah reaches of Afghanistan. You said it best. Things won't change there until the men change. And the great young men will keep dying until the men who lead them change. Stay safe and keep the humor alive! gwb

Nomads By Nature said...

Proud of you for speaking up for the voiceless!

I wanted to let you know that I linked to your post: http://webtexans.wordpress.com/2011/06/22/fly-the-friendly-skies/.

Please let me know if you have any objections.

Camille said...

I think when you finish up there, you should look into making this blog into a book. And I'm not talking making it into a bound book, like a scrapbook or something. I'm talking about getting it published. For real.

Sadie said...

I'm late in reading this, but you may be interested to know that airports in Saudi Arabia don't even have gender segregated waiting areas. Security, yes, but not the terminals themselves. (This is different from almost every other public space, interestingly.) Way to make a stand!

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