The woman who's building a new Afghanistan

Mariam Guth at the building site in Afghanistan © Daniel-Dylan Böhmer - The woman who's building a new Afghanistan
Mariam Guth at the building site in Afghanistan © Daniel-Dylan Böhmer

According to the law, women in Afghanistan have equal rights. But the reality is that these laws are rarely heeded or enforced. For this
reason, a female engineer is designing and building a different kind of police station. A site visit provides a glimpse at the kind of changes she hopes to bring about with her work for women in Afghanistan.

When Mariam Guth moves around the building site in her violet dress, giving instructions to the bricklayers and examining their work, they silently do as they are told. They give the appearance, though, that they are doing so somewhat reluctantly – just like construction workers in Europe are sometimes reluctant when it is a woman giving the orders.

But this building site is not in France, the UK or Germany, but in Afghanistan. And when Guth is not looking, the construction workers eye her like a mythical creature: a woman as their boss. "Even if it might sound strange to you, I actually have fewer problems here than on a German building site," says Guth, smiling mischievously from under her headscarf made of raw silk. "In Afghanistan, women are regarded with special respect, and a woman in a role of authority is something so extraordinary that the respect is twice as great."

At the request of the NATO protection force ISAF, the 37-year-old graduate engineer, born in Afghanistan and trained in Germany, is building police stations in her home country. She has designed a building that includes separate spaces for men and women – both for the detainees as well as for male and female police officers.

In the shell of police station No. 6 in Masar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan, there are already separate offices for men and women. On the upper floor, separate sleeping quarters are to be established as well.

Today, years after the US-led invasion toppled the Taliban, the problems standing in the way of Afghanistan’s regeneration are so fundamental that it often seems as though the war has only just begun. In addition to war, there is crippling poverty: With a per capita gross domestic product of less than 500 euro, Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world. Life is particularly hard for women. According to a UN study, almost 90 percent of them are victims of domestic violence. Only 12.6 percent of women in Afghanistan can read and write, whereas 43 percent of men can. Presented with those numbers, you have to wonder: is there any need for physical walls?

The way Mariam Guth sees it, you can't have one without the other – rights without separation. And though to some it may seem counterproductive, this is why she is building walls. "Without this separation, there are just too few women applying to join the police," she says. Only very few families would condone their daughters, mothers or women to spend the day in a room with men from outside their families.

The Afghanistan in which Guth and her husband, Martin, have been living for the past six years feels like a completely different country from the one she left in 1988 as a 16-year-old girl. Then, her father worked at a bank, her mother was a teacher. "I went to school without a headscarf, let alone a burka," Guth remembers. "Us girls used to wear jeans in those days."

After her family fled Afghanistan because of the civil war, they became separated. It took two years before they were reunited in Germany. That Guth would go to university was almost always a given. But when she got to know a young German man there and wanted to marry him, her parents would not tolerate it.

"My father thought that I could simply not be happy with a man who was not a Muslim, not an Afghan," she says. Guth got married anyway. Her father did not attend the wedding. When she decided to go back to her home country in 2003, her husband gave up his job as a programmer and went with her.

When she’s done with the police station, Guth would like to build a women's prison in Masar-i-Sharif, too. Whether there will be enough female warders and instructors depends mainly on the women there. "If you conduct yourself in an independent manner, others will follow your lead," says Guth cheerfully. "Lately, the little girls in my street have been saying that they want to become architects."

Daniel-Dylan Böhmer


Women in Focus Editor
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