"A powerful collection of testimonies that depict the struggles and hopes of Afghan women. An often emotional and at times painful read, this book is ultimately a poignant celebration of human resilience under unimaginable duress. " KHALED HOSSEINI, New York Times bestselling author of The Kite Runner
"I am deeply touched by these stories...Dear Zari should be read by anyone who cares and wants to know about Asia and Asian women." XINRAN
"All the stories in Dear Zari illustrate the suffering caused by deeply ingrained Afghan traditions. But [the women's} bravery and resilience shines through and Kargar touchingly reveals how hearing others' life stories finally gave her the courage to share her own. " The Independent
Moving, enlightening, and heartbreaking, Dear Zari gives voice to the secret lives of Afghan women. For the first time, Dear Zari allows these women to tell their stories in their own words: from the child bride given as payment to end of a family feud, to a life spent in a dark, dusty room weaving carpets, from a young girl being brought up as a boy, to a woman living as a widow shunned by society.
Intimate, emotional, painful and uplifting, these stories uncover the suffering and strength of women in this deeply religious and intensely traditional society, and show how their courage is an inspiration to women everywhere.
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Read an Excerpt
It's important for women to know their rights in a country like Afghanistan," one female listener of Afghan Woman's Hour wrote to us.
Another told one of our reporters in Mazar-i-Sharif, "I heard the interview on Afghan Woman's Hour about how Afghan women have started working and earning money by using their skills by taking up carpet weaving. I realized that other Afghan women were doing so much while I was just doing the housework. I now weave carpets at home to earn my own money and have gained my husband's respect because I'm able to contribute to our living costs."
A listener from the eastern city of Jalalabad said, "I always listen to Afghan Woman's Hour. I love it because it features women from all over the country and makes me feel closer to the people of Afghanistan." And a young man got in touch to say, "I'm writing on behalf of my grandmother. Every Monday night she tells us to keep quiet when it's time for her favorite show. She's asked me to let you know that whenever your program comes on the radio she has to sit down quietly and listen to it, and that her favorite part is the stories, as the women featured in them sound so lovely. They make her feel as if they are telling her own life story."
Just as it was for this older woman and for so many others who regularly tuned in to the BBC's Afghan Woman's Hour-both male and female-so too was it for me. I loved the program's life stories, and enjoyed them so much that I would sometimes find myself listening to them again and again. By the time I came to be working on the program I had been away from my country for so long that I'd forgotten just how arduous and cruel life in Afghanistan can be, especially for women and girls. And these women-mothers, wives, grandmothers, sisters, and daughters-all have their story to tell.
When I left Afghanistan in 1994 women were still going to work and girls attending school, so while they may have been limited in what they could do in certain respects, they still enjoyed a great deal of personal freedom. At that point the Mujahedeen were in power. The Mujahedeen were a collection of opposition groups that considered themselves to be engaged in a "jihad"-a holy war-against non-Muslim invaders, and were financially supported by the US, Saudi Arabia, and a handful of Muslim countries. They had begun forming into rebel groups in the 1970s when Russian troops first invaded Afghanistan and made the country-not for the first time-a pawn in the battle between the two superpowers of the Soviet Union and the United States of America.
When the Mujahedeen first took control of Kabul in 1992 they seized power from President Najeebullah's government. Dr. Najeebullah was to be the last president of the communist era in Afghanistan, elected at a time when the Afghan communist party was still responsible for selecting the country's president. It was in the decade of the communist era that I was born, becoming a child of what was to become known as the "revolution generation."
In the late seventies and early eighties, a coalition government backed by the Soviet Union had ruled Afghanistan. There was a treaty dating back to 1978 in place with the USSR that allowed the Afghan government to call on Soviet military force, were it ever needed. On April 14, 1979, the Afghan coalition government called in this favor and asked the USSR to send troops to help in the fight against Mujahedeen rebels. The Soviet government responded to this request by deploying a huge number of forces and heavy arms to Afghanistan on June 16th of that year. And so began the Soviet-backed Afghan government's war against the Mujahedeen.
According to what I've since learned, the Afghan government at that time was very powerful. Its institutions were strong; its control extended to all the country's many different provinces and its army was more than capable of taking on the Mujahedeen, even though the guerrilla war that had first been fought in remote villages near the border with Pakistan was gradually spreading to the rest of the country. On the whole, the Mujahedeen forces were backed by ordinary Afghan people, who saw the Russians as non-Muslim invaders, bringing with them non-Muslim values and ideas. The invading Soviet forces, meanwhile, tended to be supported by those Afghans employed by the government in public services and in the factories.
But the Soviet support wasn't just military, as the USSR also provided social, economic, and educational aid, and since the Soviet-backed Afghan coalition believed in sexual equality, many Afghan women and girls also traveled to the Soviet bloc for educational purposes. Meanwhile factories were built in Afghanistan that women could work in, and those who had lost their husbands in the recent war were given priority when it came to securing jobs. It appeared then that both the law and prevailing social attitudes saw women as equal to men, free to walk by themselves in the street, go to the cinema, enjoy mixed-sex education, appear on television singing and dancing, and even wear miniskirts. But despite the liberal social climate in the cities, many families in rural areas continued to practice more traditional customs that they expected their women and girls to follow. For example, while the Afghan constitution decreed the legal age of marriage to be sixteen for both boys and girls, many families in rural areas were still marrying off their children as young as eleven or twelve.
Of course, my personal experience was predominantly a Kabul-based one-a developed city with more open-minded social attitudes, where the law was enforced by the police and security forces, a public bus service operated, and men and women worked side by side in schools, hospitals, and factories. I even remember going to weddings where men and women danced together to live bands. All around me, Afghanistan's cities were gradually modernizing. Women were no longer forced to wear a head scarf or burqa-although some women chose to. Women from different regions of Afghanistan continued to wear traditional clothes: I remember seeing Hazara women in their long, baggy dresses and colorful scarves, Tajik women in their column dresses and loose-fitting white shalwar trousers, and Pashtun women with their brightly colored shalwar and loose dresses.
Just as Afghan women were becoming active in politics and working as doctors, lawyers, journalists, pilots, senior army officers, and government officials, so too were they appearing in films and being encouraged to perform on national television. Alongside these developments in opportunities for women, the Afghan state media was busy broadcasting Western films and music, Bollywood movies and Russian programs, all of which contributed to the sense of Afghanistan opening up to the outside world. Kabul itself was a great ethnic melting pot of people from all over Afghanistan: Hazaras, Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Sikh minorities, and Kuchi nomads were all given the same access to education, training, and jobs, as the government was committed to ensuring equal opportunities for everyone. I remember my father telling me at the time that Afghanistan was beginning to move closer toward democracy.
Yet in many ways, life in Afghanistan was the same as it had always been, particularly in rural areas. People with strong religious beliefs tended to continue to follow traditional practices, marrying off their children young in defiance of the national law and allowing women to be given away as a means of settling family disputes, and also denying them any share of family inheritance. There may have been a stable government in place capable of creating new legislation and dispensing justice, but the future of young Afghan girls was still seen by many as a family affair and not one in which the government should interfere. The more traditional communities within Afghanistan generally did not embrace the communist values of the Soviet-backed government, and as a result, the Mujahedeen's propaganda enjoyed greater success in the country's more remote areas. This split between urban and rural values resulted in a number of rural girls' schools being burned down, and in some cases their teachers, or women who dared to appear on television, were even murdered. Fortunately, these attacks were rare.
The government of the time was accused by many of adhering only to communist values and neglecting Afghanistan's own laws. But in practice many Afghans-including my father, who was for four years the Minister of National Radio and later the Minister for Printing and the State Committee-believed deeply in traditional Afghan cultural values. In those days, being seen to be active in party politics was a prerequisite for a successful career in politics; my father was in a high-ranking cadre of the ruling People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan. Like many of his peers, he believed in Islam and traditional Afghan cultural ideals but was careful not to do anything that could be seen as defiant of the country's Soviet-backed rule. Yet interestingly, even though the school my sisters and I attended (one of the best and most modern in Kabul) was built by the Russians, staffed by Russian teachers, and had Russian language as part of the curriculum, we were also taught the Quran and learned about Islamic history and studies.
Everyday life for the ordinary Afghan was full of hardship. It was compulsory for every young Afghan man to spend two years in the army during the tumultuous period between 1978 and 1992. These men were conscripted and trained to fight against the Jihadi groups. Many Afghan families lost a son, husband, or father in this war against the Mujahedeen; and many young men returned from the fighting severely disabled. While the government made special provisions for war widows by giving them a monthly income, job opportunities, and special benefits for their children (sufficient to keep them off the streets), girls and women still suffered through the decades of war in Afghanistan.
Regardless of which political faction was in power, women were always affected badly.
Finally, in 1989-after ten long years in Afghanistan-the occupying Soviet forces left and President Najeebullah's government's grip on power became ever more precarious. He tried to make peace deals with different Mujahedeen factions but without much success; some of its leaders weren't interested in brokering partnerships-they were too busy building up their armies as warlords of lawless provinces.
The final death knell for the government came with the breakup of the Soviet Union; the USSR could no longer prop itself up, let alone support Afghanistan. The dissolution of the Soviet Union resulted in the end of all financial aid to the Afghan government. Overnight, Afghan factories closed, shops were empty, and the Afghan people were starving. Afghanistan became a forgotten zone no longer of strategic or political importance to the superpowers. President Najeebullah's government collapsed and the Mujahedeen took control.
We were still living in Kabul when the Mujahedeen took control. Everything changed very quickly: my dad lost his job, his government car, and his status. I remember he used to say: I didn't harm anyone while I was in the government, so no rebel group can have anything against me. But unfortunately it wasn't that simple; my father was branded a communist and forbidden any sort of governmental position. Soon after the Mujahedeen entered Kabul, different factions within the party started fighting over power, and war broke out in the now divided capital. Every group was armed and there was no appearance of law and order-anyone could use a gun, after all.
In the heat of war in 1994, my family decided to leave Afghanistan. My parents were scared for our safety and we worried about my father every time he left the house. Like millions of Afghans we fled to Pakistan, the nearest safe country. Life was very different there. My sisters and I went to school and my dad managed to get a job. Days, months, years passed and hopes of going back to our homeland were fading fast when, in 1996, the Taliban took over Afghanistan.
The Taliban were strongly dependent on the rules of Sharia law, especially in their beliefs about the treatment of women. They were supported by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and, unofficially, by the United States; the terrorist organization Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden also supported the Taliban. The new government introduced strict rules-for example, women had to stay at home, girls were not allowed an education-with harsh punishment for those who dared to disobey. These were dark days-Afghanistan was isolated and poor.
When the Taliban came to power we gave up all hope of returning home. For a family with many daughters, Pakistan seemed the best place to be at that time-there, my sisters and I had access to education, university, jobs. I went to university and studied journalism and started working as a freelance reporter for the BBC. Yet even then my parents were not totally settled in Pakistan, and they decided that for a better and more secure life, it was best move to the West. My uncle and his family lived in the UK already, so we applied for a visa to move to London. In August 2001, my father was granted a permanent visa to come to the UK. After only a few weeks of living in London, the World Trade Center in New York was attacked; the lives of many Afghans were irrevocably changed, and not just those living in Afghanistan-the attacks even changed my life as an Afghan living here in the UK.
After the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001, and the collapse of the Taliban, the BBC's Afghan section realized it needed more staff. By this time I was working in London and since I had relevant experience, I was offered a short-term contract and began work on the various different news and entertainment programs. During these early years at the BBC I gained more broadcasting experience and my skills were continually improving by working with senior journalists.
Then in 2004, when the Taliban finally lost power, I started work on a new program for Afghan women called Afghan Woman's Hour (developed by the BBC World Service Trust with financial assistance from the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office). The remit of this weekly magazine program was simple: to inform, entertain, and celebrate Afghan women through the power of radio. My knowledge of my homeland was key to my being asked to produce and present this program, and reminded me what my father had always said, namely that if I could understand and speak both the main languages of Afghanistan-Dari and Pashtu-I'd be able to connect with the people and understand the culture of my homeland. The idea was that I'd work with an editor who had experience producing BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour.
Afghan Woman's Hour was launched in January 2005 with the aim of providing women in Afghanistan with a radio show which would cut across all tribal, social, and economic boundaries. The program reached women in both rural and urban areas of Afghanistan and was broadcast in both Dari and Pashtu, which most women in Afghanistan's thirty-four provinces can understand. We chose each slot of the program according to what we believed our target listeners wanted to hear and learn about. Before the program had been set up, Afghan women and girls both in the country itself and in refugee camps in Pakistan had been asked by the BBC World Service Trust what they would expect to hear if they had their own special radio show. Surprisingly enough, the level of interest for such a radio program was similar to what we have here in the UK for Woman's Hour.
With the help of senior BBC producers, I learned how to put together different kinds of material relating to Afghan women's lives. The program had a variety of different slots-for example, a discussion section where an important topic like domestic violence or early marriage would be considered-and both experts and ordinary women would be invited to share their knowledge and experience. We also broadcast educational reports on issues like child mortality and contraception, and shone a spotlight on such female high achievers as Habiba Sarabi, who became the first female governor in Afghanistan in 2005. She was invited on to the program as a guest interviewee, as were a variety of female poets, writers, and musicians. Meanwhile the cultural diversity to be found amongst Afghanistan's different regions was celebrated through songs and recipes. Some days we tackled such taboo subjects as rape, divorce, and virginity; on others we exchanged recipes. Each week we featured women from all over Afghanistan cooking healthy meals good to feed a hungry family. The aim of this slot was to draw on and share the vast repository of recipes from the country's different ethnic groups and tribes. The program also covered any newsworthy achievements of Afghan women. The objective was quite simply to cover the wide range of issues that matter to women-our listeners often told us precisely what subjects they wanted the program to cover.
It was this intervention from our listeners that led to the development of our most popular slot: the life stories. Every woman who told us her life story effectively represented hundreds of others from any number of different ethnic backgrounds. Both Afghan women in Afghanistan and those in refugee camps in Pakistan wanted to hear about other women. They wanted to share their life stories, and they wanted to tell others about the hardships they had endured. Some were ready to share the problems they'd experienced in their marriages; others wanted to seek medical advice from doctors or family planning experts here in the UK. Some were keen to know about their legal rights, and others to share their skills and experiences with us. We organized the program as a series of different slots; the first consisted of an interview or discussion with experts mainly on taboo topics relating to gender, the rights of women in a family and society, and the practicalities of dealing with domestic violence. The second slot was all about jobs, and this was where women shared with the audience their skills, the story of how they acquired them, and their experiences of working in Afghanistan.
It wasn't possible to do all this with just a producer and an editor in London. I returned to Afghanistan regularly to do interviews and also communicated with reporters there. It was Afghan Woman's Hour's aim to train Afghan women to make a radio program for themselves, and to this end we'd begun to hire and train women from the country's different provinces, often those who loved the show and were full of new ideas for developing it. The program first started with two reporters in Kabul, but after a couple of months we managed to find young women in provinces across Afghanistan who could send audio material to us via the Internet. Discussions and interviews with guests and experts were mainly conducted by me from London over the phone, or down the line to the Kabul studio.
Radio is the main source of mass communication in war-torn Afghanistan. Most people in the cities and rural areas have access to it. If you travel to even the most remote part of the country, it is very rare to find a home without a radio, and so it was after just a few months of being on the air that I started receiving letters, phone calls, and emails from our listeners. These were mostly from men-some of whom wrote on behalf of the women in their families-but women and girls also started getting in contact with our local Afghan reporters. Then in 2007, we won the BBC's Best Team of the Year Award. And although Afghan Woman's Hour was already being repeated twice a week on the BBC, a couple of local radio stations also started rebroadcasting the program several more times a week. Following the success enjoyed by Afghan Woman's Hour, other radio and TV stations started their own women's shows. While most media outlets are still run by men in Afghanistan, there are now women working as presenters, producers, and newspaper editors, and there are even women who run their own radio stations. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) play an important role in making this possible, by helping train Afghan women to make their own radio programs.
After eleven years of absence from my country, I went back in 2005. I touched down at Kabul airport, which I had never seen before. I found the whole experience of returning to my homeland extremely stressful. The city was nothing like I remembered. The Kabul of my childhood was green and calm, and far from crowded; when I got off the plane, I couldn't believe this was the same city. This land of wild mountains and dusty people scared me and I suddenly questioned why I was there. Why had I left my family behind and come to a dangerous place like this? Was my work really so important? It was even difficult for me to identify with my own people, although I wore a large scarf in deference to my culture. As I sat in the car, being driven from the airport to the BBC office in the center of Kabul, I spotted the block of flats where I'd grown up. We even passed my old school, but I found it hard to make a connection to these places. I had to keep asking the driver where we were as the fighting had damaged many of the buildings and roads so badly I no longer recognized them. But it also seemed as if the war had changed the people themselves; sometimes men would stare at me as if I were an animal in a zoo. Yet despite my initial fear, I fell in love with my country all over again and have returned several times since. The energy and commitment of the women who came to the BBC to be trained to make radio programs inspired me. The bravery it took for them to leave their families and homes and come to Kabul gave me strength and hope, and their powerful stories energized me to continue my work with Afghan Woman's Hour.
During that period I helped train more than twenty Afghan women from different parts of the country to interview and make reports about women in their provinces. Some of these women were still at school or university, while others had very little education and had to be taught how to use a computer. Take Kamila, for example. She reported for us from Khost province in the southeast of Afghanistan and was only partially educated. She contacted our Kabul office as one of the program's fans and told me she had many interesting stories she could record for us. She lived up to her promise by sending us a number of fascinating stories from her region, which we were able to broadcast from London to all over the world.
As well as presenting the program, I was also its producer, which meant I had to edit the items to fit the length of the program. A reporter like Kamila would send me a life story she had recorded in her province through the Internet, and I would then have to cut it down to fit the four-minute slot. The art of this job was to split the story into four pieces, and then broadcast one of them each week. As with all good storytelling, I had to end each section at a place where it would sound like a cliff-hanger so the listeners would be impatient to know what happened next. Before I'd started this job, I'd assumed that the life stories section would be the hardest to edit, but the sheer brilliance of the stories and the shocking realities of the women's lives made producing the slot an almost effortless process, with each paragraph so full of emotion and drama that every minute or so there would be another natural cliff-hanger.
Through my work I learned about the dark period that the women of my country had endured during the Taliban era, while I was living abroad. I heard just how hard life had been for them, how families had felt pressured into giving away their daughters to older men, how women were treated as if they were no longer of any use because they couldn't work or get an education. For a decade their faces had been hidden behind the walls of their houses and their voices had never been heard, but I decided-with the help of Afghan Woman's Hour reporters across the country-to give these women a voice by airing their stories.
These life stories had such an impact on me that I started having dreams about my childhood in Afghanistan during wartime; I also felt closer to these women as the memories of my years in Kabul came flooding back. It didn't matter whether the life story was that of Nangarhar in the east or Balkh in the north, or whether it came from a Hazara or a Pashtun woman, these were all Afghan women who lived amidst similar traditions and values. The women had all gone through a similarly wretched experience, yet back at the BBC office in London, I could somehow identify with them all and, to a certain extent, I shared their feelings.
Their candor and readiness to share their stories gave me, in turn, the confidence to discuss more sensitive and controversial issues on the program. Indeed these women inspired us to the point where I was often spoiled for choice about which life story to choose. When we'd first started Afghan Woman's Hour I'd worried about filling this slot every week and wondered what we could replace them with if we'd run out of stories. How wrong I was to be concerned. For six years Afghan women shared their stories with our reporters and listeners. Women would contact us and ask us to come and record their stories. After two years of being on air, an audience survey carried out by an independent research company for the BBC showed that Afghan Woman's Hour had become the second most listened to radio program in Afghanistan, and the life stories was its most popular feature.
Now people in Afghanistan were able to hear these amazing stories on their radios-about brave men and women who fought to liberate their country from its darkest hour and bring peace and democracy; and from women, whose voices have been suppressed for so long. But I believe these stories are so good and so important that they deserve a wider audience. And as I sat on the tube each day going to work I started to wonder whether the woman sitting next to me reading her newspaper might also be interested in discovering these extraordinary stories told by ordinary women. And what about women in the rest of Europe, the United States, and Australia too? They might lead very different lives to most Afghan women but they too understand what it's like to be a mother, a sister, a daughter, to fall in love, and to face disappointment. So I resolved that I would become the channel through which these voices could be heard, and from the hundreds of life stories I have heard, I've chosen a selection that I think are the most fascinating and inspiring to set down here.
Together these stories offer a glimpse into a closed and complex society and give an insight into what it's like to live in one of the world's poorest and most dangerous countries. What, for example, does a young bride pray for on her wedding night? How does it feel to be sold into another family to settle a dispute? And what happens to those who dare to love a man of their choice? What about the women required to dress and act like men in order to protect their families? And what does a young carpet weaver girl dream of when she's shut in a dusty room and expected to complete a rug so vast it's even bigger than her? If an Afghan widow wears makeup, does that mean she's searching for a new husband? And how do the Kuchi nomads live?
I hope, like me, you'll discover that Afghanistan has a beauty and richness all of its own and a character that's revealed in the cultural diversity of its people, from Turkmen and Uzbek carpet weavers, Hazara tailors, to Tajik cooks and Pashtun poets. All these different voices speak in unison of the common desire for the human spirit to be recognized.
Table of Contents
1. My Story
2. Sharifa's Story: The Family of Girls
3. Nasreen's Story: The Boy Next Door
4. Shereenjan's Story: A Daughter's Sacrifice
5. Samira's Story: The Carpet Weaver
6. Ilaha's Story: The Wedding Night
7. Anesa's Story: A Marriage of Convenience
8. Wazma's Story: The Injured Wife
9. Janpary's Story: A Mother's Story
10. Layla's Story: The War Widow
11. Mahgul's Story: A Family of Kite-Makers
12. Bakhtawara's Story: The Boy-Girl
13. Ghutama's Story: A Love Story
About the Author