By Jackie Munn
I remember feeling the sun’s warmth on my face, my neck growing sweaty thanks to the headscarf I’d wrapped in careful layers around my head. It didn’t help that our Afghan hosts kept feeding us boiling-hot chai milk. Not one to shirk customs, I smiled as I drank sips of the intoxicatingly sweet drink, careful to hold the cup with the tips of my fingers in an attempt to avoid completely burning my hands off. No one seemed to notice my discomfort, thankfully, while our Afghan hosts busily offered us plates filled with sweet treats. They asked us about our families, our health, and the weather, as is customary in rural Afghanistan—never jumping directly to business or pressing matters. Always time for pleasantries and a treat.
Placing my glass of scalding tea beside me on the grass, I slowly adjusted the ends of my headscarf wrapped tightly around my neck, careful not to expose my hair too much. In that moment, I noticed a group of girls peering at me from behind a walled compound. When I caught their gaze, they screamed in a fit of giggles, excitement exploding from behind the brick walls. I gave them a small smirk, chuckling under my breath as I picked up my tea, much too quickly, spilling it all over my lap and yelling out in pain. The scorching warmth seeped through my dirty MultiCam uniform, and I knew instantly that I would find a lovely first-degree burn on my leg later that night.
Once again, I heard the excited shrieks and giggles of girls from behind the compound. Shaking my head over the excitement that my clumsiness had apparently incited, I stood up and attempted to wipe away the remnants of sticky milk tea from my pants—in vain, of course. Apparently my gasp only merited a shameful sideways glance from my teammates and the elderly Afghan men, who quickly returned to their talks about security and the local police force. Since the damage was done and I was not actively a part of the conversation with the village elders, I made my way over to the compound to meet the group of curious, giggling girls.
They peered once more from behind the safety of their brick wall before finally bounding out in throngs to greet me when they realized I was heading their way. They huddled closely around me, taking turns holding my hand and asking me questions. With the help of an interpreter who’d followed me toward the compound, I was able to answer their questions and gained a glimmer of an idea about why they were so excited to see me.
Are you married? Do you have children? Can we be friends? Will you visit us tomorrow? Why are your eyes blue?
Their questions came like a flood, and I did my best to answer each curious inquiry. In between doling out answers and handing out bracelets and candy for everyone to enjoy, I eventually got around to my own line of questioning. I found out they had been at school that morning, but class had stopped because their teacher was taking part in the meeting with the Americans and the village elders. I explained that I was working with local teachers in nearby villages and would love to make my way back to see them and their teacher again soon. This sent them into a fit of giggles, and they began dancing. Everyone smiled, and in that instant, I was infected with their enthusiasm and jubilation.
Suddenly, in the midst of their joy and excitement, I heard the loud crack of a whip, and the sounds of pure happiness turned into shouts of pain and terror. A young man with a switch burst into the walled compound, hitting the girls on the sides of their faces, their backs, and their legs. It was like a watching an angry cook beating back hungry stray dogs with a broom: the girls hungry for attention like poor dogs begging for scraps, the cook infuriated with the presence of the filthy and menacing nuisances.
My instinct was to react. Do something! You can’t hurt these sweet, innocent little girls just for being curious and inquisitive. Can you?
You can in Afghanistan. And I knew this. And in that instant I hated myself for approaching the girls in the first place. I should have known this could have been a possibility. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen girls and women pushed, beaten, or battered; it never got easier to witness.
I showed myself out of the compound just as my interpreter turned to have a conversation with the young whip-bearing boy and an older man in a white shalwar kameez who suddenly had appeared out of nowhere.
Finishing their conversation and walking over to me with his head hung, my interpreter said that the boy was punishing the girls for bothering me, explaining that the girls needed to be disciplined for failing to wait patiently and silently for their teacher—the older man in the white shalwar kameez. The teacher disapproved of the boy’s force, but he agreed that the young girls knew better than to display such flagrant jubilation and folly.
I was appalled. “Did you tell them that it was my fault? That I was the one who approached the girls?”
“It doesn’t matter,” the interpreter said, shrugging his shoulders. “Here, it’s expected they behave as proud Afghan daughters and not like giggling fools.”
I looked at the compound, the heat of the sun blazing down on me, my headscarf soaking up the nervous sweat from my neck. The only audible noise was the murmurs of the conversations wrapping up in the distance and the ambient sounds of rural farm life: donkey whines, chickens pecking the ground, and young boys running around. The girls had been silenced.
I stared down at my feet, catching sight of my milk tea-stained pants. I gritted my teeth, thinking angrily about the saying, “There’s no use crying over spilt milk.” No, I thought to myself, unless a girl’s beaten because of it.
Jackie Munn is an army brat, West Point graduate, and former Army Captain. Her time in service brought her to Iraq as a Logistics Officer; Washington, D.C., working with wounded soldiers at Walter Reed; and Afghanistan as a Cultural Support Team leader with Special Forces. After leaving the service, Jackie earned her master’s in nursing from Vanderbilt University and was named a Tillman Scholar in 2015. She now works as a family nurse practitioner and yoga instructor.