Terry Prone: Another generation of women to be denied the everyday freedoms we enjoy

In a bank thousands of miles away, female employees looked up to see armed men entering the premises. Not to rob the institution — just to rob the women of their jobs. 
Terry Prone: Another generation of women to be denied the everyday freedoms we enjoy

Internally displaced Afghans who fled their home due to fighting between the Taliban and Afghan security personnel take refuge in a public park in Kabul last Friday. Picture: Rahmat Gul/AP

Why would we need a national, discount Freedom Day? We’re already there, in many ways. 

Last Friday, for example, I had a business breakfast in the middle of the city, surrounded by properly-distanced people having their business breakfasts. My client and I shared the simple joy of face-to-face discourse.

The two of us have spent much of the last two years on Zoom, the only difference being that she has a corporate background that goes frilly around her, and I have to check the bookshelves behind me to make sure none of the titles will offend the other people on the call. 

Zoom works. But face-to-face works in a different way. It allows for interruptions, indrawn breaths, faster pick-up of the unexpressed.

Afterwards, I went into a shop to bulk-buy extra-large coffee filters, only to discover, when it came to paying, that I’d left my wallet in the car. Would the guy hold the four bundles for me? Of course he would. 

Next stop was Newstalk, where both myself and a male panellist did our best to disagree — to add heat to the discussion — but mostly were in accord. We received punctiliously equal airtime. 

Then it was back to the coffee filter shop where, sure enough, the guy had my bag, and had told all his colleagues about the crazy lady trying to buy things without money.

The streets were so crowded, it took a zig-zag sprint to get from one side of Grafton St to another. Restaurants filling for lunch. Queues outside coffee and crepe shops. A shorter queue outside a bookshop. Two buskers playing and bantering with the crowd about it being payday (hint, hint, give us some of your cash). Lots of mask-wearing, but no glances of reproof at the maskless. Girls in crop tops and slashed jeans pushing buggies with babies, guys in hoodies sharing ice-creams with toddlers.

In a children’s bookshop, I browsed, benignly ignored by the owner, then handed over my credit card, grateful to the BoI executive who last week sorted the complications caused by my name being different on that card to how it appears on every other bit of bank documentation. Don’t ask — I wasn’t paying attention at the time I applied for it.

It does, however, remind me of how far we’ve come. 

It’s been a while since banks demanded you produce a responsible (male) adult to vouch for you before they would let you own a credit or debit card. Any more than a library today requires such a male adult (ideally a husband) before it will lend you a book. Laughable, aren’t they, the constraints our mothers and grandmothers had to tolerate? Couldn’t happen these days, anywhere in the world. Of course not.

I took my purchases to the car, said car being another of the great facilitators of freedom. Once you have a car and can legally drive it, you can, like that pelican who got fed up with Fota, just take off by yourself and go wherever you want, whenever you want. In addition to transporting you, it entertains and educates you through the radio.

My entire morning was an expression of my individual freedom. Every action I took, from driving the car to speaking on radio, was an expression of a liberated life. 

Every encounter with women and men alike, that morning, was predicated on a happy assumption of equality. Equality when it came to opinions, to expertise, to professional competence.

I smiled at strangers, and they smiled right back at me. A man laughed out loud when we did that “after you” dance right and left, showing each other such inept courtesy we became slightly ridiculous.

The day before, women working in a bank thousands of miles away had looked up to see armed men entering the premises. Not to rob the institution. Just to rob the female employees of their jobs. 

Grim-faced, the men ordered the female tellers into the vehicles drawn up outside, demanding their home addresses from each of them. One by one, they were dropped off, accompanied by men who talked to their fathers and brothers to arrange that one of the brothers, or perhaps a male cousin, would take over their jobs, right there, right then.

Taliban fighters pose for a photograph yesterday while raising their flag Taliban fighters raise their flag at the Ghazni provincial governor's house, in Ghazni, southeastern, Afghanistan. Picture: Gulabuddin Amiri/AP
Taliban fighters pose for a photograph yesterday while raising their flag Taliban fighters raise their flag at the Ghazni provincial governor's house, in Ghazni, southeastern, Afghanistan. Picture: Gulabuddin Amiri/AP

From that point on, it was made clear to each of the former bank employees, they would stay at home. At all times. Unless a husband, a father, or a brother gave them permission to leave the house, along with that male relative, wearing a top-to-toe robe with a girded peephole through which to see where they were going. Not that it would matter: they would go nowhere that wasn’t chosen for them. 

That some of them were more educated than their mothers and grandmothers had ever been was irrelevant: they shouldn’t have been. It wasn’t a woman’s place to be educated. 

One way or the other, their outrageous aspirations were at an end. The women, some of them in their 20s, looked down the decades of a subservient future and knew there was not a thing they could do about their situation. 

The Taliban had taken over their city and were on the march to Kabul, the capital of their country, Afghanistan.

President Joe Biden in the East Room of the White House. Picture: Evan Vucci/AP
President Joe Biden in the East Room of the White House. Picture: Evan Vucci/AP

The Taliban were flooding into the vacuum left when US president Joe Biden pulled the troops out, after the agreement made with the Taliban by his predecessor. It was time, the president said, that the Afghans stood up for themselves, fought for themselves. 

As US planes landed and took off, loaded with US troops, British planes also landed and took off, loaded with their citizens, because, as UK defence secretary Ben Wallace said: “Protecting British nationals and ensuring their safety as they leave Afghanistan is our first priority.”

A US Chinook helicopter flies over the city of Kabul, Afghanistan, yesterday as panicked workers fled government offices and helicopters landed at the US Embassy. Picture: Rahmat Gul/AP
A US Chinook helicopter flies over the city of Kabul, Afghanistan, yesterday as panicked workers fled government offices and helicopters landed at the US Embassy. Picture: Rahmat Gul/AP

He did add a wider commitment. “Over the next few weeks, we shall all do our very best,” he said, sounding like a member of the Famous Five, “to support the Afghan government and those that have worked with us over 20 years.” It had a discomfiting ring, that statement, of the noises made as Vietnam was abandoned.

Back then, America’s Vietnamese fellow-travellers were in no doubt as to what was coming for them, their desperation exemplified by their absolute determination to get into the embassy grounds and get onto one of the helicopters some of us shudderingly remember lurching off the roof as shelling came closer.

The model of foreign policy that justifies boots on the ground on the basis that they are temporary while the local lads are trained up to do what they’ve been strangely unwilling to do up to that point, continues to this day, leading, inevitably, to evacuation and abandonment. Writer/soldier Peter Fleming maintained that “however daringly executed, a military evacuation is an ignoble proceeding … it leaves behind it bitterness and a squalid havoc.”

In Afghanistan, it leaves a generation of women remembering the lost, sweet taste of freedom.

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