Interview: American Woman on 5 Years of Intimate Life in Afghanistan

Walk into the aouli, or courtyard, of an Afghan woman and follow the little girl into the living room where the female host sits on the carpet waiting to have tea with her guest. You are that guest transported to that living room in faraway and foreign Afghanistan as Kate McCord's book In the Land of Blue Burqas sweeps you up and gently sets you down in rickety rickshaws next to an intimidating-looking man with a black-beard below his sneer, or a small living room with cotton floor mats where a gathering of women sit with small plates of candies, nuts, and raisins each within arms' reach as they share stories and laugh.

This is Afghanistan where people struggle against ever-present hardships, poverty, violence, gender discrimination, and anti-American indoctrination, but somehow opened their hearts and homes to a blond, blue-eyed, middle-aged unmarried American woman who learned the local Dari language, respectfully followed the dress code and culture, and shared about the love and teaching of Jesus Christ.

Kate McCord (protective pseudonym) recently spoke to The Christian Post about her five years in Afghanistan and the Afghan people, including common misperceptions – on both sides – the life of Afghan women, child marriage, and the underground Christian population.

Below are excerpts from the interview.

CP: Why did you write In the Land of Blue Burqas?  What did you hope to achieve with its publication?

McCord: I wrote the book because when I had to evacuate from my town in Afghanistan, I locked myself in a cabin in the woods in America and spent several days in prayer and worship and seeking God's face in worship to see what was next. And one of the things that struck me as very clear in that process was it was time to write this book. It had been on my heart for a long time but I never knew what shape or form it would be, or when I would write it, or how I would write it. And so the "why" came out of a season of prayer and worship.

There are a couple of things I hope to achieve through the book. One is to humanize Afghans for Americans. We see Afghans in the news. We see war, we see bombings, we look across the world and scratch our heads and ask, "What in the world is going on there? And who are these people?" We've given the lives of our service members and humanitarian aid workers in Afghanistan; we've lost a lot of blood there. And so we have to ask, who are these people and what makes them worth something to us. And I think as a follower of Christ, what makes them worth something to us is that God loves them and has loved them since the foundation of the earth and still does, and has a plan and purpose for Afghanistan that doesn't include violence, oppression, hatred and bigotry. So part of the reason I wrote it is because I want to humanize the Afghans. These are people I know and love. They are not just images on television.

CP: I think what is inspiring for Western Christians reading your book is your daily walk with God and how you ask Him continuously to give you wisdom in everything you do, from what you say to how your heart is before you leave your home. How much do you credit your hostile environment for your close walk with Jesus?

McCord: Boy, that's a good question. I had a close walk with Jesus before I went to Afghanistan, but I think like many people here in our culture, we live our lives in the comfort zone, we know how to live. And so we don't turn to Jesus to ask for wisdom for all the little details in our lives.

I entered the Afghan culture as a middle-aged, affluent, American woman and found myself a complete stranger in everything. And coupled with that, there is such oppression in the culture – not only hostility of pending war, but the oppression of society, the darkness of society and the opportunities for me to offend people were just with every step I took. All of those elements compelled me to draw deeper from Scripture and the presence of Christ.

And also it was just hard. It is amazingly hard to move through each day in Afghanistan, and there is no respite, no beautiful views, no restaurant, no movies. There is no place you can go to forget about Afghanistan. In a sense you are always on duty and it's utterly exhausting. I knew before I went there that everything I needed to live there I would be able to find in Christ. And I needed a lot to live there so I drew much closer to Christ.

My faith was also strengthened through watching how Afghans reacted to Christ, and realizing in deeper ways the profound beauty of who he is. And the Gospel took on even greater definition for me. I understood it better in Afghanistan.

CP: The CIA World Factbook says there are less than 1 percent Christians in Afghanistan's population, yet Christian organizations have been in the country for decades helping the people. What do you think is the biggest obstacle to the Gospel in Afghanistan?

McCord: There are a number of obstacles. These organizations that you speak of, their people have been there, but the organizations have not. And so we have Christians who work in Afghanistan in various capacity and have since the days of Christy Wilson (he spent 22 years as a teacher and missionary in Afghanistan), but they are not missionaries. They are doctors and teachers and humanitarian aid workers, and they spend a great deal of their energy and time doing work to build the capacity of Afghans, to relieve suffering and hunger. So I think that is one factor.

It is not really a comparison of "hey, we sent all these missionaries and they have been doing missions in Afghanistan for 50 years, what is going on?" That is not really an appropriate comparison. They have been doing hard work to strengthen Afghan individuals and families, and they have been sharing their faith along the way. We have seen lives changed in Afghanistan through the many people who have been there over the years.

There is on the other hand strong resistance to anything that is Western and anything that is Christian. The control that the conservative religious leaders have in the country is profound, and when people do come to faith, which they do, they're often beaten and sometimes killed. Often they flee the country; that is sometimes their only alternatives. So that is certainly an impact.

It is acceptable for foreigners to be followers of Christ in Afghanistan. It is not acceptable for an Afghan to be a follower of Christ – that is a crime punishable by death. Whereas in other countries we might see nationals come to faith and they go out and share their faith broadly. When we see that in Afghanistan, we see those individuals go to jail, beaten or killed and that has limited the growth of the community of faith in Afghanistan.

And also the wars. Afghanistan has had 40 years of war now. It is hard to imagine the impact of war on a culture and society. All that said, we see Afghans coming to faith. We see Afghans growing in their faith. We see changed lives and changed families and changed communities. The truth is we don't know how much is happening because so much is hidden. It is more hidden than the underground church in China. It is very dangerous for Afghans to gather in more than small groups. But they do, but they hide these things carefully. And actually where they grow the most is after they have stepped away from the foreigners because the very presence of foreigners, shining a spotlight on their activities and calling them into question and danger. So much is happening amongst the faith community in Afghanistan happens hidden from Afghan eyes and Western eyes. It is very hard for us to measure what God is doing there. We see that God is doing things in Afghanistan, we hear of people having dreams and vision. We hear of house churches in Afghanistan, we meet believers who come to us and quietly say, "I'm a follower of Christ and I just want to tell you that." We know God is doing something in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is one of the very few countries in the world where there is no indigenous national church. Iran has its Armenian church, there are Coptic Christians and Maronite Christians in the Middle East, there are Catholics in many countries. Iraq has a minority Christian community. Afghanistan does not. And I think there are only a handful, maybe two or three countries in the world that have absolutely no legal minority Christian church. And I think that affects the spiritual climate of Afghanistan.

CP: When you first arrived in Afghanistan, did you carry preconceived notions about the country, its people and Muslims that you later found out to be wrong? What was the biggest misperception you had about Afghanistan, its people or Muslims?

McCord: I learned a lot about Afghanistan before I went. I don't think that I understood how generous and welcoming, particularly Afghan men, would be toward me. That was a real surprise and continues to be a surprise when Afghan men inconvenience themselves to protect me or to help provide for me or guide me. I didn't count on that. I expected Afghan men to be colder toward me and more hostile toward me.

I can remember one situation very early on when I went to an open bazaar to change money and I changed several hundred dollars into Afghani (Afghan currency). And I said to the man who was the money changer, I called my driver and handed the phone to him and asked him to tell my driver where I am. And he did. Then I said, "I am your guest now." And he said, "Oh, you are my guest!" And he immediately found me a plastic chair and put it under the awning, brought me a warm can of Coca-Cola, and shooed away men and boys who tried to get near me. And I saw that kind of protection and generosity so often in Afghanistan, and it changed my view of Afghan men. I expected women to be hospitable, but I didn't expect men to be so welcoming.

Now that is not all the men. There are men who are highly conservative and feel very threatened by me, and those are the individuals who kill foreigners and kidnap foreigners. But overall, the Afghan men were so helpful to me and so welcoming.

 What is a common misperception that Afghans have of Americans?

McCord: (Laughs) Let me count the ways! I'll tell you a funny one. Afghans understand almost nothing about Americans. I guess the most common misconception is that they view America as a Christian country, and by that definition, they assume we are all Christians and our government is Christian. In Afghanistan, there is no separation between faith and politics. There is no secular aspect of society. So they assume that when America does things we do them as Christians. That is a real misconception and hard for Afghans to tread through.

I'll give you a funny misconception. One of my Afghan friends had a meal with me. We were with a group of men and women, and he leaned back and said to me, "Is it true that every New Year's Day, everyone in America throws out everything they own, including their cars, and buys everything new – carpet, curtains, furniture – everything?" I laughed at him, and I just laughed. He rebuked me gently saying, "You should not laugh at me. We do know."

CP: Afghans live a hard life, especially Afghan women. What is the best way that Christians around the world can help Afghan women?

McCord: The most obvious in my mind is pray for them. I do believe prayer changes things. Not only pray for Afghan women, but Afghan women live their lives in relationships and specifically in relationship to their father and husband and children, in their compounds with their mother-in-law and daughter-in-laws. Really we can pray for those relationships, for health within those relationships. And the best thing that can happen for Afghan women is for Afghan men to love them like Christ loves the church. And really I know that sounds quite simplistic, but for most Afghan men, Afghan women are less than, and half way between human and cattle, and not quite as valuable as cows. That's very difficult.

From a more development level, we can give to projects that benefit Afghan women and families. From a larger advocacy level, I think as a Christian community, one of the things we haven't done well is both support the family and stand up for the rights of women and children. I think we tend to be hesitant to stand up for the rights of women because those who do stand up for the rights of women are often sometimes hostile to the family.

And that is what the Muslim women community sees in general when they look to America. They look for allies within the women's community in America and they find the strident women who are hostile to the family, and that is not what Muslim women want. They want healthy families. And they look at the Christian evangelical communities and they see silence. And if I had my dream world, I would love to see American evangelical women engage in the rights of women, not just in Afghanistan, but throughout the Muslim world and the third world. And I think it is a place we can engage biblically and maintain our commitment to the teachings of the Bible.

CP: You talked about how differently Afghan men and women view their wedding day. Men often say that is the happiest day in their life, while you write that no Afghan women you've talked to have ever recalled her wedding day as her most joyful day. In contrast, many women have said her wedding day was one of the worse days in her life. This can be attributed to the fact that many of these women were married to strangers when they are about 12 years old. Is there any progress in trying to stop child marriages in Afghanistan?

McCord: Yes, there are laws against child marriages in Afghanistan. A girl has to be at least 16 years of age and give consent according to the law to be married. But the reality is there isn't an adequate judicial system to protect girls from underage marriage. So in the villages, in the rural community, we don't see any progress. I haven't seen any progress and anecdotally we haven't seen any progress. In the cities and among the educated we have seen progress. In many places girls can go to school and mothers, primarily illiterate mothers, are doing whatever they can to keep girls in school as long as possible, and in college if their girls qualify for college. And that is a great sacrifice for their moms, and that also means holding off on marrying their daughters away for these moms, which is a great sacrifice for the family.

And we are seeing fathers who are supportive of this. This is a very new thing and we will maybe see in 10 to 20 years, if the progress continues, what impact that has on Afghan marriages. One of the things we have seen in the past is illiterate to illiterate marriages are the norm, and literate men to illiterate women, which is not educationally equal to her husband, and it just makes the marriage even more asymmetrical. Now we are starting to see literate women married to literate men. We don't know what impact there will be long term, but my hope is there will be a positive impact on society and how children are raised. But the jury is out and we'll have to wait and see.

CP: For Afghans the concept that God is love and is merciful even to those who are disobedient is completely foreign, you write in your book. How do you convey this message to Afghans, what is the correct setting and who do you tell this too?

McCord: Everyone and everywhere. I don't think there is any correct setting to say that God is love. It is fascinating. I think we walk into a place like Afghanistan with a great deal of fear, and are afraid to share some of the most foundational aspects of our understanding of God. At least for Afghanistan, they have a tremendous respect for God and a hunger to live righteous lives and have a better idea of who God is. The Quran is written in Arabic, most Afghan can't understand it. Even those who can read it can't understand it because it is not their language. I often meet people who want to talk about God.

With that said, when I talk about the Kingdom of God being a kingdom of peace and love and joy, when I talk about the nature of God being love, it is difficult for Afghans to wrap their minds around that because it is a new concept. But their hearts yearn for it. I have sat in very hostile environments and said quite simply, "I believe the God of the universe loves you and wants to bless you." And watch gray bearded men say thank you. I think when you start with speaking about God's love and God's love as shared, you tear down so many walls. If I start a conversation saying God loves you but you really need to repent because you are a sinner and you need to recognize that Christ died for sins – I believe all that is true – but it's an awkward way to start. But when I start with God wants all of us to go to heaven, Christians and Muslims, I am making out of us "we" instead of "us and them." And I am speaking about God's love as something that belongs to all of us. That's not a hostile word, not an argumentative word. That's a "wow, could that be? And even if it isn't, thank you for thinking that way."

CP: What is your future in Afghanistan?

McCord: (Laughs) That's the question I am not answering.

CP: Do you have anything to add?

McCord: I wanted to add something about your question about marriage. You had asked about underage marriage. But there is a related issue that is even more important for Afghans, and that is choice in marriage. The tradition in Afghanistan is the parents of the bride and groom make arrangements for the marriage. And one of the things we see happening in Afghanistan is more and more young people want to make those decision themselves. They want to choose their bride or choose their grooms, and not just agree with their parents' choice, but come to their parents and say, "Mom, Dad I want to marry this person."

I see that broadly as if there is anything Afghans desire from the West, that is the thing they want. But the older generation don't want it. I think we are facing a potential crisis in the culture as more young people want to make those decisions for themselves, and the older generation don't want them to.

One of the things we are seeing are parents who are allowing their children to make more of that decision. Another thing we are seeing at the same time, which looks like an uptick in suicide, particularly young women, but also young men. They are horrified at the thought of having to marry someone they don't want to marry, that they didn't choose to marry. We are not just seeing this in Afghanistan, but in Iraq and Kuwait, and some other places as well. As younger people are exposed to Western societies and Western ways, they see choices. Among the older generation, when I ask a woman how do you feel when you married your husband, she shrugged her shoulders and said, "What can I do? That is the way things are." The younger girls are saying that is not the way it should be. And I think it is putting a stress on the society, and it may not be pretty in the short run, it may be a very painful transition.

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