Supporters of the Western occupation of Afghanistan claimed it would rescue women from oppression. Mitra Qayoom reviews Dear Zari by Zarghuna Kargar, a book with a more complex message.

We don’t have to dig too deep into the Afghan culture to find out that it is often its women that face restrictions within the family and wider community and that their role in society is very limited.

For a long time I have been searching for a book about the women of Afghanistan, then I came across Dear Zariby Zarghuna Kargar. Dear Zari is a collection of testimonies from women across Afghanistan, from cities to villages, and highlights the strong role of cultural and traditional rules particularly when it comes to its women; rules so strong that even laws set by the Quran are ignored.

Many women are unaware of their Islamic rights and if you ask them about what rights they believe they should have in the society, they would tell you all about the traditional rules that they have followed, passed on to them by their mothers and grandmothers.

Information about Islamic rights is very limited. Dear Zaridemonstrates how mixed up the country’s traditions have become with its religion. There is nothing in the Islamic religion that says a girl should undergo a forced marriage, that you should beat your wife if she doesn’t give you a son, or that you should place a woman in prison because she complains of domestic violence. Indeed, Islamic law opposes all of this.

There are thirteen stories in this book but I have chosen five of these to summarise:

Sharifa and Bakhtawara’s story

In Afghanistan, women become mothers soon after marriage. If the pregnancy is delayed, people gossip about the new bride. The assumption is often that something may be wrong with her, not her husband. Gender inequality reinforces the importance of having a son. An Afghan woman is considered weak and useless if she is unable to produce a son. She is a failure in her husband’s and her in-laws eyes. However, a woman who gives birth to a son is praised and respected by her in-laws and the community. She is even more highly valued if she manages to give birth to a succession of sons.

Most women grow up in families where their brothers and other male members are treated as superior. The stories of Sharifa and Bakhtawara highlight these issues.

Sharifa is one of six daughters and also the eldest in the family. She has no brothers and although her parents want to have a son they have been unsuccessful in doing so. This means that if her father dies there will be no one to look after the family. Sharifa’s mother is blamed for not producing a son. Every time she gives birth to a girl, her husband leaves the house and disappears for weeks. When he returns home, he does not want to hold his daughter or even look at her.

Sharifa becomes a victim of this situation. She is then given the news that her father will re-marry and she will be exchanged for his new bride. She would be marrying a man in his forties who already has five children. In exchange her father will marry this man’s seventeen-year-old sister, same age as Sharifa.

It is a common practice in some parts of Afghanistan for families to raise their daughters as boys, especially in families where there are no boys. Bakhtawara is one such woman, she is the boy girl.

Her mother wanted two sons but gave birth to one boy and one girl. Due to her utter disappointment Bakthawara’s mother dressed her as a boy and brought her up as a boy. When her brother moves abroad and her father dies Bakthawara is left to look after the family and the land. She takes part in village Loya Jirga’s (a gathering of the village elders). Everyone in the village is aware of her gender; however the adults respect her for her bravery. On the other hand, the village children often tease her, make fun of her and call her a transvestite, but she promises her parents that she will remain a boy; dress and act like one in order to fulfil their dreams.

Like other woman Bakhtawara craves love, she wants to wash dishes and prepare meals, she wants to put henna on her hands and polish her nails. But when she looks at her reflection in the mirror she sees a man looking back at her, her skin has turned dark and rough from hard days of work under the hot sun, she has developed wrinkles around her eyes and her feet dirty from farming. She is a woman who has to continue her life as a man, but she also knows that as a man she has more freedom than any woman in her village, she can at least leave her house alone and whenever she pleases, and is respected by men.

Nasreen’s and Ghutama’s story

“Have you ever wondered about those women who end up marrying a man they don’t want to and don’t love?” In Afghan culture it is the father who makes all the decisions about his daughter’s future, including whom she marries, how much money to be paid for her exchange if required and how she should feel and behave. A good Afghan girl obeys all these rules. If she rebels, she is called many insulting names, her family often disowns her, and in many cases she is even killed for standing up for her rights.

I know how difficult it is to grow up as an Afghan girl. No matter where in the world you are living your circumstances remain the same. I’ve been approached many times by my parents with marriage proposals. Most of the proposals came from my cousins and family friends but I always refused them. My parents never understood why I rejected them and my father would always argue with my mother for raising me wrongly. Rumours started to go around that maybe I am in love with another boy or that something is wrong with me. This was very embarrassing for my parents to hear as in our culture it matters what people think of you and your family. I ignored all these rumours and kept rebelling. I am glad I did and didn’t give into marrying one of my cousins. Today my parents are very proud of the person I have become and they don’t’ talk about marriage with me any more, which has lifted some stress off of my shoulders.

This is not the case for Nasreen who lives in a society where even the mention of the word love is forbidden, especially if it comes from a girl. Nasreen is a Pashtun girl who falls in love with a Tajik boy next door, Abdullah. The feelings are mutual and Abdullah would always spend his pocket money on buying Nasreen colourful bangles. Abdullah’s parents come for Nasreen’s hand in marriage, but her father refuses the proposal. When Nasreen confronts her father she is beaten. Her mother is blamed for bringing shame on the family. For the father to accept this marriage proposal would mean accepting a marriage that he did not arrange but was chosen by his daughter.

Nasreen’s family are forced to move and soon it is arranged that she marry a forty-year-old drug addict. “I left my precious bangle behind. My relationship with my parents is no more. It was the start of a lifetime of suffering. But my love for Abdullah lives till this day.”

When I was younger, still living in Afghanistan I always stopped in my tracks when the Kuchis walked past me. I always found their dresses so mesmerising and beautiful and wanted to follow them. The Kuchis travel all over Afghanistan to graze their animals, they love to pitch a tent wherever they please. Ghutama is a Kuchi woman whom every man in the village is in love with. “She stole their hearts with her free nomadic spirits and her songs. Her beauty was irresistible.” Ghutama’s mother had passed away giving birth to one of her brothers. Her father is a lazy. This leaves her as the main breadwinner. As well as running her own embroidery business, every morning and evening she takes the animals to the hillside to graze.

Many men in the village are in love with her but Ghutama’s heart beats for another Kuchi man, Babray. Her beauty has also caught the eye of another man who now keeps coming to her father for her hand. Her father refuses initially but after being offered a large sum of money agrees to give Ghutama away. When Ghutama hears this, she is furious with her father and says to him “well father you asked for this.” She then storms out of her tent and runs towards the mosque where she knew Babray would be. In front of all the men she stands in front of Babray and announces her love for him and asks to be his wife. Babray agrees.

Stories like Ghutama’s are rare and when they do happen, they shake the whole community, the woman is called shameless, she is believed to have brought dishonour to her family and in most cases these stories do not have a happy ending.

When reading Nasreen’s and Ghutamata’s stories my mind kept going back to one of my friends who is in a very similar situation to these two women. She has fallen in love with the boy next door. The feelings were mutual. They want to get married. They hope that their parents give them their blessing, but her parent’s object. Eventually an agreement was made that when my friend finishes her degree she will be allowed to marry. However, she believes that her parents hope that by then she’ll change her mind. She also believes that the reason her parents object is because she chose the man she wants to marry and not her parents. Her father could never let this happen.

It does not matter whether you are living in Afghanistan, London or anywhere else in the world, as an Afghan girl you are not allowed to fall in love and marry the man of your choice. I admire my friend’s bravery and wish her story a happy ending.

Shereenjan’s story

It is not uncommon in Afghanistan for girls to get married at the age of twelve or thirteen. Girls in Afghanistan grow up really fast and have no childhood. Instead of playing outdoors with their friends, they bear children, cook for their husbands and are busy doing household chores. The legal age for a girl to get married is sixteen, but many families are unaware of this law, especially in villages where the majority are uneducated. Many premature and forced marriages are arranged as a way to resolve a family dispute.

I was on the tube in London, on my way to work when I read Shereenjan’s story. The more I read, the more upset I got. When Shereenjan was nine years old she was given away as a child bride to resolve a family dispute. Her father had accidentally killed a man during a fight and in order to stop the whole family being murdered, he agreed to give away his nine-year-old daughter.

Zarghuna Kargar, Dear Zari: Hidden Stories from Women of Afghanistan (Chatto & Windus 2011).

When she reached puberty, she was married off to one of the sons in the family but only to bear children for this man. Child brides are still widespread in Afghanistan and no laws have been enforced against this practice. Young girls in positions like that of Shereenjan are physically and psychologically injured and traumatised. They are sex slaves for their husbands and treated like an animals by their in-laws.

As this book demonstrates, cultural roots run deep in Afghanistan and many believe in them completely, often even more than they do in Islamic faith. Many of these rules only apply to women and it’s the women who end up suffering and being ignored because it is these traditional rules that have led to their oppression.

One of the reasons why Afghanistan was invaded was to liberate its women, or at least this is what is claimed by the US and its allies. However the stories in Dear Zariare post 9/11 and happened after the fall of the Taliban. This makes them even more shocking and shows the failure of the so called war on terror. It is true that women can now go back to school and work, although not in all parts of Afghanistan. But during my recent visit to Afghanistan I noticed how little things have changed for women.

Women are even mistreated by the police. Those women who go to the police to complain of abuse are in most cases put in jail for doing so.

But we must not forget the bravery and the courage of these women for they have endured so much pain and suffering and have managed to survive to tell the world their stories. “The building of a nation begins with the women” and I truly I believe this. Only Afghan women can end this oppression by continuing to educate themselves and fight for their rights, whatever the cost.

I have been deeply inspired by the women’s stories in Dear Zari, for these stories show that despite all of the suffering, there may be light at the end of the tunnel, whether we live in Afghanistan or London. They have given me encouragement to keep fighting for what I believe in and to stand up for my own and other women’s rights.


Mitra Qayoom

Mitra Qayoom is an Afghan activist and writer. Mitra is a member of Afghans for Peace, an alliance of Afghans from various ethnic, religious, socio-economic, cultural, and political backgrounds with a united vision for a democratic, all inclusive, just and peaceful Afghanistan.

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