Thursday, February 28, 2013


Sitting at home after a surgery to remove my wisdom teeth and a few more for orthodontia in 2007, I spent my time recovering by devouring Khaled Hosseini’s books.

Until then, in my limited knowledge, Afghanistan had a huge presence only in the news I read, and the International Law papers I tried to write. When I read A Thousand Splendid Suns, I saw a world of women whose presence was not as prominent. One heard nary a whisper of them, their thoughts, and everything that they went through with the war and the warlords.

With that book, I became something of an Afghanistan-literature-junkie. I have a whole bookshelf devoted to Afghanistan – from Jean Sasson’s For the Love of a Son, to Asne Seierstad’s The Bookseller of Kabul, from Gayle Tzemmach Lemmon’s The Dress Maker of Khair Khana, to Deborah Miller’s The Breadwinner, from Khaled Hosseini’s magnum opus A Thousand Splendid Sons and painful story The Kiterunner, to Siba Shaqib’s Samira and Samir and Afghanistan – Where God comes to Weep. And now, the collection is eagerly coveting Khaled Hosseini’s next. Through these books, I saw how difficult it was to be a woman in the country – rape, domestic violence, forced confinement in their homes, prostitution against their will, marital rape and so much more. I learned of the horrors that grew to engulf their lives – enveloping and consuming their very existence in a thick mist of violence and deprivation.
Image from AWWP

But when I read about little girls were often forced to disguise themselves as boys just to get an education, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I read that in not one, but two books. Samira and Samir tells the tale of a person who was born Samira, but her father was too ashamed to father a girl, lest he fall from society’s pedestal for him. Samira is then brought up as a boy, and grows to embrace the acquired gender despite the ascribed gender. When I first read the novel, a part of me was disgusted at how Samira embraced being Samir – and how the author found the propensity for such a story to find authenticity. One part of me made me realize that there was sense in Samira’s choice of being Samir – because Samira knew nothing else. Having been brought up as a boy, to ride the horse, to fight like a soldier and to be the guardian of his family – Samira was only Samir in existence. The Breadwinner told the story of young Parvana, who would dress as a boy and try to sell wares in a market, just to be able to see that her family could eat. Little Parvana would run the gauntlet of watchful eyes of the ever present Taliban, as she would make her way to the sole water outlet to be able to fetch water for her family.

While I initially accepted and understood that the life of a woman was indeed difficult, another part of me wondered if Samira’s mother was a really practical character – allowing her husband to sheath her daughter in the public eye with the title of a son. I did know about Afghanistan’s history – and its women’s difficulties under the Taliban. But I still didn’t find myself relating with Siba Shaqib’s or Deborah Ellis’ plots.
But that was until I saw the picture of Aisha, with her nose chopped off. When I learned of Aisha’s nose being chopped off, when Malala was shot for wanting to study, when a woman was shot nine times in the head, and the whole thing was video-graphed most disturbingly, when I saw Sahar Gul’s case, when I saw Gulnaz’s case.

When I wanted to learn more and to connect with these women – as though reaching out to another connected by the sisterhood inherent in being women – I came across the Afghanistan Women’s Writing Project. I read stories, poems, and beautifully written articles. I learned that the girls were optimistic, hopeful, and were speaking for the world to hear. For the first time, I read of many, many young Afghan girls coming together to let the world listen to their voices. Even as there is hope in the form of a loving father, a loving brother, a nurturing grandfather, and even a wonderful husband, the sense of deep despair at the helpless condition of a majority of the women in Afghanistan really moves you. I chanced upon this beautiful poem by Seeta, on the AWWP website:

Who chose this life? I do not know—
maybe my heart, maybe my life,
maybe my God. But why?
I wanted to be free. Happy, a smile on my lips.
I smile, but not for this lonely life of tears,
looking out the window, waiting for another morning.
My life is listening to rules of the game they play with us.
They say
You are a woman. This is your fault,
This is the price you must pay for being
The wrong gender.
Yes, I am a woman
I am alone, a long way from my goal.
No one will help me, no one knows how.

It moved me profoundly. It didn’t surprise me that Thomson Reuters labelled Afghanistan as the worst place to be a woman.

I wish I could, Seeta, I wish I could help you. I don’t know how, but I want to, anyhow.