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A Day In The Park For Sheberghan Women

Workers in the northern Afghan city of Sheberghan constructing the first park in the area that will be exclusively for women.
Shahla Majruh usually wraps up her classes before midday, but the schoolteacher from the northern Afghan city of Sheberghan is in no rush to leave work.

With no better place to unwind, Majruh lingers behind for another hour or so to chat in the teachers' lounge with her female colleagues.

"My workplace is the only place I can meet my friends, my fellow teachers," Majruh says. "Women get bored at home, but in Afghanistan's provinces it's not common for women to go for a walk, to eat out, or basically have any type of fun outside the home."

That's about to change for the women of Sheberghan, a city of some 150,000 and capital of the relatively peaceful Jowzjan Province.

Local authorities recently launched construction of a women-only park that will feature a swimming pool, a flower and vegetable garden, and a children's playground replete with swings and slides.

More Than Just A Park

But the project, which is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and is expected to be completed by the end of the year, aims to be more than a park.

City authorities plan to build shops and restaurants staffed exclusively by women. A spacious hall will be erected to hold concerts, gatherings, and exhibitions of women's embroidery and other handicrafts.

The Taliban holds little influence in Jowzjan Province, minimizing the likelihood of violent retribution for violations of its strict gender policies.
Without a park, Afghan women have few places to relax in the Sheberghan city center.
Without a park, Afghan women have few places to relax in the Sheberghan city center.

The militant group, which remains strong in much of the country, has been known, for example, to publicly punish women who appear on the street without the escort of a male, blood relative.

And during its five years in power (1996 to 2001), the Taliban regime took steps to erase the mere suggestion of female existence, including renaming the decades-old Kabul Women's Garden to eliminate the word "women."

Sheberghan authorities are nevertheless leaving nothing to chance when it comes to women's safety at the new park.

It will be developed on the grounds of an existing city park in the center of Sheberghan, not far from the provincial police headquarters, administrative buildings, and the town's main mosque.

The Mayor's Office has said the existing park will be divided into two -- with one section reserved for youth recreation and sports, and the other exclusively for women -- and separated by high fences. For added measure, the women's section will be protected by security guards to prevent men from entering the premises.

In Jowzjan, where ethnic Turkmen and Uzbeks make up a majority of the population, women and girls have enjoyed relative freedom in recent years.

Government agencies, schools, and hospitals employ dozens of women, while female students make up more than 40 percent of the students enrolled at local schools and Sheberghan's university.

Conservative Mentality

But according to Sheberghan resident Ajmal Naseri, the local mentality remains conservative when it comes to the role of women.

"I wouldn't expect the park to be full of women anytime soon, because I don't see many men allowing their wives to go out," he says. His Kabul-born wife is a nurse by profession but stays at home to look after their two young children. "Wives having fun in a park -- it simply doesn't sound right for many people here."

Another resident, shopkeeper Basir-Agha, says that roughly 20 percent of people who are educated take their wives and children to eat out. There is a green place in Sheberghan called Jangal Bagh, he says. “During spring, some families go there for a picnic. There isn't any other such place in Jowzjan."

Basir-Agha says he would allow his wife to go to the planned women's park, although "not frequently."

Shahla Majruh, the schoolteacher, says she can't wait. "In Sheberghan, some ice cream shops and kebab houses have segregated rooms for women, which are separated with curtains,” she says. Women's rooms are usually a lot smaller than the men's section. But there is not any special, spacious place built exclusively for women."

While a day in the park will be a brand new experience for women in Sheberghan, similar parks do exist in Afghanistan. In the capital, the old Kabul Women's Garden has been restored. Mazar-e Sharif, located in the northern Balkh Province to the east of Jowzjan, also boasts a women-only park.

And some other big cities, including Jalalabad to the east, have parks that have designated two days a week exclusively for women.

Written and reported by RFE/RL correspondent Farangis Najibullah in Prague, with additional reporting from Sheberghan by RFE/RL Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Alim Rahmanyar
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the region’s ongoing struggle with the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.