Tales of the Disaffected

Dear Zari: Hidden Stories from Women of Afghanistan, by Zarghuna Kargar

The Times, Saturday 23 April 2011

One of the most frequently expressed opinions about Afghanistan is that it is a backward country that cannot and should not be modernised. According to this view, conservative religious values have always held sway and any initiative to improve the lot of Afghan women is doomed to failure. Images of Kabul in the 1980s, when women travelled on buses, uncovered their heads and wore miniskirts, are part of the country’s forgotten history.

So is the fact that the city had its own feminist movement as early as the 1970s, long before an extreme religious cult called the Taleban forced women to cover up in burkas. Zarghuna Kargar’s remarkable book is a corrective to simplistic views of the situation of women in Afghanistan and a shattering exposé of abuse. She comes from an educated middle-class family in Kabul and was a child during the Soviet occupation, when her father was a government minister. This was a period when Afghan women began to train as doctors, lawyers and journalists, as well as appearing in films and on television. The country’s Russian-backed Government was committed to equality, and Afghans who were able to afford TVs could watch Western films and music, Bollywood movies and Russian programmes.

“I remember my father telling me at the time that Afghanistan was beginning to move closer to democracy,” Kargar recalls. The observation seems optimistic, given the autocratic nature of Soviet rule, and some educated Afghans disagreed even at the time; an Afghan feminist called Meena, who founded the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan in 1977, campaigned with equal vigour against the Russian occupation and religious extremism until her assassination a decade later. Soviet forces withdrew in 1989 and Kargar’s father was a potential target for the various Mujahidin groups who fought for control of the country, while life changed dramatically for his daughters.

When fighting in Kabul subsided, they returned to school wearing black clothes and headscarves for the first time, and heard terrifying stories about girls being abducted by warlords. A neighbour’s daughter jumped from the balcony of her sixth-floor apartment when a Mujahid gunman burst into the flat and tried to rape her. Before the family fled to Pakistan, Kargar witnessed a rocket attack on her school and saw a classmate die from her injuries. But Peshawar was even more repressive than Kabul under the warlords, and on their first night as refugees, Kargar’s mother was told that her daughters would have to cover their faces. Kargar quickly discovered that Mujahidin fighters in refugee camps in Pakistan looked down on Afghan women, calling them “Kabulis” to signify that they’d come from a liberal country that didn’t strictly follow Islamic law.

This portrait of Kabul as a city in transition to modernity, suddenly cast back into clerical fundamentalism by a brutal civil war, doesn’t fit the popular image of Afghanistan. Kargar’s own story, which includes an unhappy arranged marriage in London, is emblematic of the conflicts endured by women who find themselves torn between notions of individual freedom and traditional family values. But as an educated Afghan woman in London, Kargar found herself in a unique position to do something on behalf of women in her home country who wouldn’t otherwise have a voice; in 2004 she became a producer and presenter on a new programme, Afghan Woman’s Hour, broadcast in Dari and Pashto by the BBC World Service.

Its content was a response to research conducted by the BBC World Service Trust in Afghanistan and refugee camps in Pakistan, and from the beginning it covered controversial subjects such as domestic violence and early marriage as well as songs and recipes. The programme’s most popular slot consisted of Afghan women telling their life stories, material that forms the core of this book. Kargar worked with a team of journalists in the UK and Afghanistan, collecting first-hand accounts that were broadcast alongside discussions about gender and women’s legal rights. The women talked to Kargar and her colleagues — she is the “Zari” of the book’s title — with astonishing candour: they described being forced into unwanted marriages, being treated as domestic servants, struggling to feed their children after their husbands died, and even cross-dressing as boys when there wasn’t a son to protect the family. In some cases their experiences were made worse by Afghanistan’s three decades of conflict, but what they reveal from the inside is everyday life in patriarchal families where women and girls have little value.

These are not the middle-class women that Kargar’s family mixed with in Kabul. One of the most heart-rending interviewees is Wazma, who was abandoned by her husband when she lost a leg in a rocket attack. He even took their baby daughter, telling Wazma that she was no longer any use to him as a wife or mother. When Wazma begged him to be allowed to return home after she was discharged from hospital, he turned her away, saying: “You can’t come into the house. It isn’t your home any more.” Like all the women in the book, she was keen that other women should hear her story. “I really want to explain my life to the listeners of Afghan Woman’s Hour,” she told Kargar. “It’s the first time I have spoken openly about my feelings and I’m hoping that people will understand what I’ve gone through.”

Another woman, Nasreen, described how she was married off at 14 when her father discovered that she had fallen in love with the boy next door. Her husband, whom she had not met before the wedding, was a 40-year-old drug addict. “He kept repeating I was ‘his now’, and when he smiled I could see his yellow teeth. He was laughing, happy that he would soon be having sex with a 14-year-old virgin. A part of me died then, and my family ceased to exist for me.”

Shereenjan was even younger when she was forced into marriage, handed to another family at the age of 9 in settlement of a dispute — a practice known as dukhmany in Afghanistan — between her father and another man. Too young to understand what was happening to her, she was taken to her future husband’s house by her grandmother, who ignored her entreaties to be allowed to return home. Shereenjan was thrust into an outhouse with the family’s animals and fed beside their dogs, enduring years of punishment — slavery, in other words — because her father had killed one of their sons. “Men, women and children would beat me whenever they felt like it,” she told Kargar, “and my life was no better than that of a dog.” Three years later, when she reached puberty, her husband started having sex with her: “If they had been an even crueller family they would perhaps have forced me to sleep with their son earlier.” Shereenjan’s life became a little easier only when her in-laws grew old and died, her son married and she was able to go and live with his family.

The events that Shereenjan related happened many years ago. But the story had a profound effect on Kargar because something similar happened in a distant branch of her own family in 2007, when a bright eleven-year-old called Pana was removed from school in Kabul and promised to another family to resolve a dispute. After she finished recording Shereenjan’s story, Kargar approached Pana’s aunt and pleaded with her to intervene. She refused, insisting that the girl had been promised to the family and nothing could be done. “I felt helpless,” Kargar writes. “I could do nothing to save this eleven-year-old girl.” That was the last that she heard of Pana, one of many children around the world forced into sexual slavery — such events are not confined to Afghanistan — in the 21st century.

In the midst of such unremitting misery, there are glimpses of hope. By the time that Kargar met Wazma, she was in a welfare centre for female amputees in Kabul and was being trained as a tailor so that she could support herself and her elderly parents. After her story was broadcast, an Afghan man called Kargar’s office in London and said that her story had made him cry. He offered to send Wazma money on a regular basis, demonstrating the extraordinary impact that the programme was having both inside and outside of Afghanistan.

In January last year, the British Government decided to stop the funding for the programme, and it went off air. This book is a testimony to its impact on the lives of Afghan women, summed up in the words of Suraya Parlika, an Afghan human rights activist: “Dear Zari, Afghan Woman’s Hour has been very successful in exploring human rights in our country. I went into a village and saw some women working; I asked them how they had learnt to do this and they said they had been taught to work by listening to Afghan Woman’s Hour.”

After reading these astonishing stories, the decision to axe the programme seems both tragic and short-sighted.

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