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Book Review: Dear Zari: Hidden Stories from Women of Afghanistan by Zarghuna Kargar

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With reflections from all and sundry on a decade of war in Afghanistan everywhere just now, there could hardly be a better time to read Dear Zari: Hidden Stories from Women of Afghanistan. The cover quote is from the famed chronicler of Chinese women’s lives Xinran, fittingly, since its author is also a radio producer. Zarghuma Kargar was the presenter of the BBC World Service Afghan Women’s Hour, and this book records some of the stories she heard in producing that programme (including some too controversial to include), and her own.

Most of them, it won’t surprise anyone who knows anything about Afghanistan, are not happy stories.

One that has many echoes is that of Shereenjan, married at the age of about nine as a blood payment after her father killed a man in a quarrel. She’s treated worse than an animal, sleeping in the stable and regularly beaten, but fed only scraps, but she says she was a little lucky in that she wasn’t forced to sleep with the man to whom she’d been married until she had been through puberty. “I think I could have coped with it, though. Someone like me can endure any amount of suffering.” As Shereenjan continues, “Their aim had always been to take revenge on me for the death of their son, and they were very good at it. From the older members of the family down to the very youngest, they would always find some new way to hurt me and take satisfaction for my suffering.”

When Zarghuma speaks to her she’s 40, feeling very old and tired and looking forward to paradise – her only consolation the son she bore through rape at the age of 14. And Zarghuma at the same time is hearing the tale of an 11-year-old relative, an orphan, who’s being given in marriage by her grandfather to settle a dispute. There’s nothing Zarghuma can do but ask that the family try to ensure that Pana is given plenty of food.

Then there’s Anesa’s story: “That first sight of him [after they had been married] stayed in my head and it wasn’t a nice one. This fat man wasn’t young or handsome; he was no Bollywood hero. Just one look at Jabar had destroyed my dreams.” But there was much more than romance destroyed.

She learns, after they’ve had two sons and she is again pregnant, that her husband is in fact homosexual, that her mother-in-law arranged the marriage to protect him from the vengeance of the village, and when she tells her own mother she’s going to leave the marriage, she’s told she can’t “shame” her family that way. Eventually her husband moves his lover into their house, and the way she and the children are treated depends entirely on the man’s mood.

There are new mechanisms, but they’re of little use. “I went to the independent Human Rights Commission in Kunduz but they couldn’t help either. According to their rules, Jabar would get custody of the children if I got a divorce… I have lost count of the number of times I’ve decided to end my life, but because of the children I’ve always stopped. Sometimes I think of ending mine and my children’s lives together.”

A further virtue of this book then emerges – it’s not just a simple account of woe, but also an exploration of the nuances of the Afghan experience, particularly for the many Afghans who have lived abroad. Kargar tells how she realised her reaction in London was different from that of the local journalist, who has no sympathy with the gay Jabar and his predicament. She tried to get doctors to come on to the programme to talk about the very existence of homosexuality. One tells her: “As an Afghan citizen I have to bear in mind the sensitivity of the topics I talk about.”

And yet despite all of her advantages – having good English, living in London, having her own income — Zarghuna’s own story is not so different. As she recalls: “In those early days, I believed that if I was a good Afghan girl and did my duty, accepting what our parents wanted, then I would have a successful family life.” So when she arrived at Heathrow in 2001, it was to meet her fiancée for the first time – two years later, at the age of 21 she was married. It was a short marriage, and a very unhappy one.

But perhaps the saddest story of all in this book is at the very end. Afghan Women’s Hour clearly had a positive effect, both in providing information to women and in giving the usually voiceless a chance to tell their stories, but Zarghuuna tells it simply: “In January 2010, the British government decided not to fund Afghan Women’s Hour any longer and turned their attention to other broadcasting projects.” You’ve really got to wonder what could have been so important, or whether it was simply embarrassment at the story of Afghan women’s lives, after nearly a decade of an occupation that (remember Laura Bush and Cherie Blair’s claims) was supposed to be in part driven by a concern for women’s human rights.

Aid agencies and women’s groups are highlighting the continuing huge problems for women in Afghanistan. Dear Zari is an essential fleshing-out of their concerns.

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About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.