Newsday, June 30, 2002
Behind The Blue Burqa
As their veils are lifted, Afghan women share their stories of persecution and the fight for freedom
By Marion Winik
Marion Wink is the author of "Telling" and "First Comes Love."
ZOYA'S STORY: An Afghan Woman's Struggle for Freedom, by Zoya with John Follain and Rita Cristofari. Morrow, 239 pp., $24.95.
UNVEILED: Voices of Women in Afghanistan, by Harriet Logan. Regan/HarperCollins, 106 pp., $29.95.
MY FORBIDDEN FACE: Growing Up Under the Taliban: A Young Woman's Story, by Latifa. Talk Miramax, 210 pp., $21.95.
Each of these three books has a woman in a blue burqa on the cover - or a blue burqa, anyway, with a glint of something human behind the eye-mesh. The burqa has been a focus of Western outrage about the Taliban. The freedom to move and breathe, to be seen and heard, to express ourselves through clothing and appearance, to be recognized by people we know: These are liberties so basic that it's hard to imagine losing them.
Now we have the chance to understand what it was like for an Afghan woman to live under the Taliban. The brutally enforced edict that she not leave home without a burqa was, as we learn, the least of it. Beneath the blue robe lies a more suffocating girdle of deprivation, grief and fear.
"Zoya's Story" is the memoir of a bright, serious young girl coming of age under insanely bad conditions. Zoya was born in 1978, a year before the Russian occupation of Afghanistan began, to an educated Pashtun couple with progressive ideas. Both her mother and father worked; Zoya was raised by an elderly family friend called Grandmother, who joined the household after the death of her husband.
The moments of fun in this childhood - flying a kite with her father, singing and laughing with other girls - are so few that they stick out painfully. "I think that Afghan people, when they are having fun together, laugh more than any other people in the world," Zoya writes.
As the only mention of laughter in 239 pages, this struck me as the saddest sentence in the book.
Zoya was 8 when she learned that both her parents were underground activists, her mother a member of RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, her father of an organization opposing the Russians and the Muslim fundamentalists. How desperate those parents must have felt as they watched the walls close in on their country and their daughter. When Zoya was 11, in 1989, Russian occupation ended and the fundamentalist warlords (also called mujahideen or jihadis - our good buddies, the Northern Alliance) began battle against the regime they left behind.
When she was about 13, both of Zoya's parents disappeared. This is disappeared as in Central America: no body, no funeral, no return. Attempting to take in this loss, she was deluged by others. A beautiful teenage friend jumped out the window to her death rather than be taken by soldiers who burst into her house and ordered her father to hand her over. Not long after, Zoya's grandmother asked some RAWA members to get her and Zoya out of the country.
In Quetta, Pakistan, Zoya entered a RAWA-run girls' boarding school, where a student body consisting entirely of survivors of devastation was lured gently back to life with study, exercise and friendship. At 16, she followed in her mother's footsteps and joined the organization.
The book opens with her return to Afghanistan at age 19 on a RAWA mission. Her passage through the Taliban checkpoint in a minibus on a sweltering day in "a small mountain of cheap blue polyester" is vivid: "The longer the drive lasted, the tighter the headband on the burqa seemed to become, and my head began to ache. The cloth stuck to my damp cheeks, and the hot air that I was breathing out was trapped under my nose. My seat was just above one of the wheels, and the lack of air, the oppressive heat, and the smell of gasoline mixed with the stench of sweat and the unwashed feet of the men in front of us made me feel worse and worse until I thought I would vomit."
This does not sound good, and watching your mahram, or mandatory male escort, be viciously beaten if a strand of your hair slipped out of your burqa sounds worse, and being clubbed on the street if you wore white socks or shoes (women were forbidden to wear white, as it is the color of the Taliban flag) is an outrage. And then you come to something like this. Zoya met a 20-year-old woman sitting in the middle of the road, having just tried to commit suicide by throwing herself under the wheels of a car. Why? She had taken her mother to the hospital for treatment of severe asthma. While waiting to see a doctor, the older woman suffered an attack and clawed her robe aside to try to get some air. Still no doctor arrived, but a Taliban soldier burst in and gave the smothering woman 40 lashes with a whip.
Women often wore lipstick, perfume or nail polish under their robes as a small rebellion, though if they were found out, their fingertips or lips could be cut off. Severed body parts were commonplace under the Taliban; soccer stadiums were converted to venues for public amputations. Shooting photos or video of these and other horrors was one of the missions Zoya and her friends undertook on return trips to Afghanistan.
Photography was also the mission of Harriet Logan, who visited Afghanistan in 1997, 15 months after the Taliban gained power, and again in November 2001, to make the portraits of Afghan women collected in "Unveiled." These are set for comparison against an opening section of file photos from Kabul in the 1970s: women in miniskirts, women demonstrating for "peace, democracy, social progress."
By the time Logan showed up, women were risking their lives by being photographed at all.
Her book is a lovely and somber one and makes an attempt to let
us hear a variety of perspectives. Fahrida, 14 when Logan photographed her in '97, lost her leg at age 7 in a mujahideen rocket attack that killed the two children she was playing with.
"Of course the Taliban will be better for us than those terrible men were," she said. Khanemgul, 69 in 2001, can remember the first time women were allowed to remove their burqas, in 1959. Today, she despairs for her grandchildren, who have missed five years of school. "What hope is there for them? They just play with dirt outside the house."
There is an interview with a woman who makes burqas and several comments by women about why they continue to wear them. Simply, they doubt they are safe without one. "Now that the Taliban is gone, my husband has asked me to burn my burqa, but so far I have refused," says Durkhanai. She is the daughter of the once-famous Shafika Habibi, who was a television anchor interviewing world leaders until the day she was sent home from work by the Taliban.
The career of Soraya, a stewardess for Afghan Airlines, ended just as abruptly, reports her little sister, Latifa, in her memoir, "My Forbidden Face." "Her flight attendant's uniform is hanging in the closet, and there it will stay. She's convinced she will never wear it again. It looks so nice on her!" she writes. In fact, in the next six months from the day the Taliban took over, the girls will leave the house only twice.
Like Anne Frank, Latifa documented her confinement to keep from going crazy.
"This morning, my father and I will not be going jogging with Bingo, our dog," she writes the day the Taliban occupation began. But soon they won't even be allowed to have a dog and will have to pack up all their family photographs and other forbidden items.
As the girls wander through their dreary, meaningless life, their mother, a doctor, falls into a deep depression. The task of sewing together the mutilated genitals of three young girls gang-raped by Taliban soldiers is about the last straw for this woman.
After two years, Latifa and a couple of friends get the idea of starting a secret school in their apartment building for the little children who live there, growing up without education.
The energy this project brings to their lives is amazing and recalls the rebirth undergone by Zoya at the school in Quetta.
If the bombs can stop falling and the earth can stop quaking and the forces of madness somehow keep each other at bay, I think these Afghan women will teach and learn their way back to the land of the living.