We, the women

Updated December 04, 2016


Broadcasters at Radio Shaesta prepare to go on-air in Kunduz, Afghanistan. — AP
Broadcasters at Radio Shaesta prepare to go on-air in Kunduz, Afghanistan. — AP

An Afghan woman has been in the news recently. Thirty-one years ago she became the face of the war-ravaged nation, her green eyes coldly confronting the world about why it hadn’t done more for her people. Sharbat Gula has been deported from Pakistan for document forgery and her illegal stay here. She’s rumoured to be suffering from Hepatitis C and is the sole breadwinner for her three children.

Gula’s story, however, is not an aberration. Afghanistan has not been kind to its women and neither has the world. Our neighbouring country has often been described as the worst place to be a woman. Systemic suppression of and rampant violence against women has fostered a pervasive culture of deprivation in nearly half of the Afghan population.

But instead of waiting for their knights in shining aid-agency-funded armour, many women have stepped up to save themselves. Beneath the mandatory burqa, inside their walls, behind closed doors, Afghan girls have started a quiet rebellion to do what many in their culture deem unthinkable: stand on their own feet.

####Narratives of Afghan women are presented in a compilation of stories that is reflective of their deeper strength

And so enters We Are Afghan Women: Voices of Hope, a compilation featuring women who have meandered down their own path in a society conditioned by chauvinism, war and a rigid tribal mindset, as threatened by strong women as it threatens them. Divided into five sections — ‘Living’, ‘Learning’, ‘Working’, ‘Surviving’ and ‘Challenging’ — the collection walks us through stories of doctors, businesswomen, athletes, entrepreneurs, midwives and activists, all of whom have made an effort to salvage the status of women in Afghanistan.

We meet Razia Jan, a Rotary scholar who opened a school for girls on a site where a school built by the Afghan king had been burnt to the ground by the Taliban. There is Zainularab, who maintained a beekeeping business in secret during the Taliban regime, and Zahra, who worked for years without ever seeing what an Afghan banknote looked like.

Their stories are united by the ubiquitous nature of tragedy, the kind specific only to war. Many of the women mentioned are in their early to mid-20s. As development expert Hodei Sultan puts it, “we have an entire generation in Afghanistan that has never known peace”. Most of the narratives start with displacement. Home for many women has meant refugee camps in Pakistan, or mud houses from where they are not allowed to escape. Their journeys to move away from this always culminate in terrified girls metamorphosing into women who are sure of their position in society, if still filled with trepidation about their future.

Platitudes litter the way, such as “we have to be patient and not give up,” and comparing empowerment to “taking flight”. One could call their use trite had the reality on the ground not been so grave.

####“In a colony, the queen is the one bee that will never leave the hive. She spends her entire life inside the honeycombs. ... We, too, survived by working in darkness, behind curtains under the cover of cloth; even my beekeeper suit hid who I was. But the darkness was appropriate, because the Taliban period was a very dark time for women. When the Taliban fell, however, we found that we had our own honey. The girls who had been in seventh or eighth grade when the Taliban took hold were now in 12th grade. Those years had not become a void in their young lives. They had continued with their education. Like the bees, they couldn’t leave the hive, but when it was over, their learning was our honey, the residue of all their hard work.” — Excerpt from the book

But when you consider why this is so, this collection of otherwise heart-warming stories becomes troubling. The book has been commissioned by the George W. Bush Institute, a project chaired by former first lady Laura Bush. It seems particularly rich, not to mention exploitative, for the purveyor of destruction in Afghanistan to present these women as proof of the necessity of going to war post-9/11. There is a blatant agenda being pushed through the narratives presented. Cynical as this may be, the book reads like a thinly masked attempt to vindicate a war that has cost US taxpayers trillions of dollars, and 104,000 Afghans their lives.

The book also appears to serve the purpose of absolving the Americans of their involvement in the undoing of Afghanistan in the 21st century. There is always mention of Soviet boots on the ground. The Taliban are rightly and repeatedly described as brutalising women. And while both have contributed significantly to offsetting Afghanistan’s progress, the scant mention of the American invasion in 2001 is an unforgivable omission. Even when it is referred to, there is no allusion to the havoc it wreaked, the human rights violations that took place and the war crimes it enabled. The US dismantled the Taliban, but at a gratuitous price that many in Afghanistan are still struggling to pay.

Similarly, Voices of Hope suffers from the quality of writing found when stories are relayed to a ghostwriter and not penned down by oneself. The experiences recalled are poignant and gut-wrenching, the solutions proposed by these women creative and wise. And yet, they read with all the blandness of a grant report. For a title that aspires to pay tribute to the exceptionality of these women, the voices seem to blend into one that ultimately says the same thing over and over. This is not a rebuke to the women featured in the book, and certainly not a misappropriation of the admiration the reader can have for their strength.

Nang Attal, a man working tirelessly for women’s rights in Afghanistan, says, “In many houses, the woman is responsible for the cow; she has to do all the milking and clean up after the cow.” For a society determined to keep women under its thumb, entrusting them with perhaps the household’s greatest asset seems ironic. Razia reprimands Taliban fighters by reminding them that “the women of Afghanistan are the eyesight of Afghanistan.” A teacher asks her students what resilience means to them moments before a bomb detonates in the neighbourhood.

There is a force unique to Afghan women which powers them through to not only help themselves, but others around them. But did we really need a think tank named after ex-president George W. Bush to tell us that?

The reviewer is a journalist.

We Are Afghan Women: Voices of Hope
By George W. Bush Institute
Scribner, US
ISBN: 978-1501120503

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 4th, 2016