Hidden Stories from Women of Afghanistan
This is not a book to read on a lazy beach holiday. It is quite possibly one of the most harrowing books I have ever read, and even though a tremendous amount of hope shines out from the despair, I felt reluctant to follow on with any of the books I had lined up. To read something light-hearted would have seemed an insult to the women in this book; I wasn't sure if I was emotionally strong enough to read another serious book.
Zari is an Afghan woman living in London and was a presenter of Afghan's Woman Hour on BBC World Service. This book is a compilation of some of the stories she was sent by women living in utter oppression in Afghanistan. There are as many different stories as there are women but there are common themes linking them: ignorance and superstition, a miserable combination of ancient tribal customs and unenlightened repressive religion. Women are sold and forced into marriage, often before they become women, ignorant of sex, punished for not bleeding on their wedding night, held responsible if their husband dies fighting, beaten by husbands and in-laws, denied access to their children, and treated as slaves. In this century, in a country where some Western nations have been involved for too long for no clear purpose.
I read story after story, and I defy anyone to read it and not be depressed. Although, towards the end, the mood lightens and one senses that there is hope. Especially as long as people speak out.
The book is well-written, and easy to read, at least in terms of following the prose. The contents are uncomfortable, and one can only feel sorry for the victims. And, in most cases, for their perpetrators too. Those that beat and bully these women are the product of the same society, trapped in horrific marriages themselves. What struck me repeatedly was how often a woman - widowed or abandoned - was insulted by other women as being a sex-mad whore, desperate for a man. And how can one blame a husband for being cruel when this is the only behaviour he knows, when society tells him to be like this, or when his homosexuality is so taboo.
I know one is supposed to be tolerantly multi-cultural, and, repeatedly, Zari tells us that these tribal societies confuse ancient tribal customs with Islam, in an attempt to defend Islam. But I cannot accept this. Whoever seeks to impose Islam on these people is equally happy to impose the 'tribal traditions'. I can see no justification whatsoever for the violence and abuse these women endure. It perpetuates the power of certain men, and of 'tribal elders', and it is pure evil. No amount of hand-wringing or weasel words form the religious apologists can persuade me that there is some societal benefit in treating women - and girls - like slaves and worse than animals, and of institutionalising and normalising rape. It is barbaric and intolerable. And this oppression can't stop unless people stop defending the religions that encourage it.
I do realise that me reading the book and writing this blog post does nothing to address the problem; all I'm doing is wringing my hands and wailing "Something must be done". But do please read the book.
More on Zarghuna Kargar in the Guardian My arranged marriage disaster