Where are the women?
Why are there no photos of women in your body of work?
From the opening of our exhibition we were asked this question repeatedly in every city that we toured.
There is an old saying in Bengali, that no one has seen the ‘wife of the Kabuliwala’. This adage started from one of the most popular Bengali mystery novels ‘Chiriakhana’ written by the famous novelist Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay. We understood the meaning of this phrase once we started interacting with the Kabuliwalas.
In 2012, when we began our research, we set foot in the city not knowing if the community even existed. As we surveyed the city in search of the Kabuliwalas, we encountered many challenges while documenting the secluded community. Interacting with women and children or photographing their lives proved to be a cultural obstacle.
From the onset, all our meetings were with men who preferred to meet us at public spaces like restaurants or cafés that they frequented. Although an invitation to an Afghan home is a great honour, the few times we were invited, we only met in communal living areas - carpeted rooms surrounded by long, narrow mattresses running around the walls with cushions to recline on.
We wanted to photograph the Kabuliwala women and the minutiae of their everyday life. We thought it would be fascinating to document their inner world, how they spent time inside their homes, what occupied them and how they raised their children. We were, however, reminded of Pashtunwali, the traditional code of ethics that has governed Pashtun tribal affairs for thousands of years. Soon enough, we realised that women will be part of the missing and untold narrative of this project.
Photo: There were a few exceptions when the photographers were allowed to meet the women of the house. This photo is of an elderly couple and their son. Most Kabuliwalas who left their homeland and have never returned have married Indian Muslim women and set up a new home in a foreign land.
The code of life
Dating back to the pre-Islamic era, Pasthunwali means “the way of the Pashtuns,” or the code of life and refers to the traditions of the Pashtun people. These unwritten rules of behaviour have been passed down orally from generation to generation and are held as sacrosanct. While every Pashtun is expected to abide by the principles and age-old customs of Pashtunwali, violating the code will bring dishonour and shame not just to an individual but also to the entire tribe or community.
We were well aware of the code but we did not expect that it would be followed so closely in Kolkata in the twenty first century. The absence of women in our photography not only accentuated the traditions of the community but as photographers we had to acknowledge and accept the submission to cultural sensitivities. For us, the story remains incomplete but also authentic and objective to the reality of the world we entered.
And so the viewers did not get the chance to see the ‘wife of the Kabuliwala’.