Broadcasting a silent repression…
“It’s important for women to know their rights in a country like Afghanistan.”
Zarghuna (Zari) Kargar opens her collection of stories with these very wise, resonant words.
Born in war-torn Kabul in 1982, Zari was commissioned in 2005 by the BBC to broadcast “Afghan Women’s Hour”; a magazine style series which gave a platform and a voice to some of the most marginalised victims of a profoundly patriarchal society. These women were able to retell their stories through the safety and anonymity of the medium of radio, and then in turn many thousands of women across Afghanistan had an opportunity to listen, discuss and find solace in each other’s common circumstances.
The radio show ended in 2010 and Zari chose thirteen of the many life stories, including her own, to be collated in her book, Dear Zari. Zari allows the reader to transport themselves into the lives of women with limited options and freedoms. Women struggling against adversity within their own family, their husband’s family, and within society at large. Women having the courage to claim the love and happiness they deserve… And also women who are resigned to a life of suffering and pain, after years of abuse, injustice and poverty.
The stories of these women represent the principal issues facing a woman constrained within a deeply traditional society. One of the opening stories explores the anxiety “the man of the family” feels when a daughter expresses the natural feelings of love and attraction. One of the victims to this anxiety is a woman called Nasreen. She tells Zari of the danger of falling in love without her father’s “permission”. At the age of 14, she falls in love with Abdullah- the boy next door. For boys in Afghanistan falling in love is something to be proud of- having these kinds of feelings show they are becoming men. For girls, in many Afghan communities, it is strictly forbidden and shameful. Once Nasreen’s father finds out about her love for Abdullah, she is beaten and then sold into marriage to a man in his forties. On their “wedding night” he rapes her and she is never again to see the love of her life, or her family. Nasreen’s life, dreams and happiness are destroyed by her own father. As an old woman, Nasreen looks back on her miserable life with anger and defiance: “They thought I was a bad woman because I loved a man. Well, I still love him, and I want them to know that although I can’t be with him my feelings for him remain unchanged.”
There is also the story of Anesa, a woman who is forced to serve her husband’s gay lover, forbidden to reach out for help in order to protect her husband’s “honour.” Then there is Wazma, a woman who is deserted by her once loving husband after she is made permanently disabled in a rocket attack. Other stories tell how young girls are forced into marriage at very young ages, widows and their children are left to starve, young girls are forced into adulthood on their wedding night and they shunned by their in-laws when they don’t bleed and show “proof” of their virginity.
In amongst the sadness however there are real silver linings and genuine glimmers of hope. There is the story of the enterprising Mahgul, who sets up a kite making business to save her family from poverty. There is also the brave Ghutama, who refuses to give up on her love, her life and her own happiness- a story which deeply resembles the author’s own life story, and determination not to give up.
If you are looking for happy endings, then you will not find them in many of the stories in “Dear Zari”. Some of the women are utterly defeated. The anger that once raged within them against the injustice in their lives turns into a desolate resignation. It can be a hard read at times but we highly recommend it because it is a book about survivors. Not all of them live happily ever after, however they all survive some of the most impossible circumstances a human being has to face. They live to tell the tale and through their stories we learn that challenging deeply held traditional values remains at the heart of ending inequality and violence against women.