The News International on Sunday, April 21, 2002
A woman of substance
By Rehan Aslam Piracha
An Afghan Woman's Struggle for Freedom
Zoya with John Follain and Rita Cristofari
Published by the Review
Zoya is an eye-witness to the horrors perpetrated in Afghanistan by Taliban and Mujahideen warlords who defeated Russian occupiers of that country. But her memoirs are not mere images of devastation and outrage but a message of optimism against all odds.
She begins her story with her first encounter at the age of four with a Russian soldier -- a woman with a face like her favourite doll. Zoya says she felt confused about how to deal with the woman soldier who was so unlike the description given by her grandmother of the invading Russians.
Zoya then describes her early family life in Kabul. Her mother, a liberal and university-going woman, was her role model. It was through her mother that Zoya first became acquainted with Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). She also adored her father who taught her how to fly kites as well as Persian language.
Her parents never sent her to school and taught her at home. But the most important person in Zoya's life was her grandmother who spun stories out of her father's bulky chemistry and biology books for her. The grandmother imbibed in her young granddaughter the spirit to fight for survival and rights.
Zoya was devastated when her parents disappeared one after the other and were killed on the orders of the Mujahideen warlords.
Zoya and her grandmother left Kabul for Quetta due to the worsening situation in Afghanistan after Mujahideen factions took over Kabul on April 28, 1992. She joined a girls boarding school run by RAWA where she was taught Persian, English, mathematics, history, biology, political studies, cooking and sewing. It was here that she had her first lessons in women rights and sex education.
There she also had her first name change, a practice followed by the school to protect students from Afghan religious fanatics studying at the madrassas in Quetta. She changed her name to Zoya on the insistence of a Russian journalist whose daughter with the same name had died of cancer.
At sixteen, she joined RAWA and wrote articles for the association's magazine, Payam-e-Zan. She also sold the copies of the magazine in the city's main bazaar to Afghan refugees.
When the Taliban took power in Kabul in September 1996, women were ordered to wear veil outside their homes. They could go outside only if accompanied by a close relative. Women were banned from working and could be treated by women doctors only. Schooling was forbidden for girls.
Zoya returned to Kabul to document evidence of atrocities perpetrated by the Taliban regime. She poignantly describes as to how Taliban would publicly cut hands and lash sick women at hospitals. But Zoya also chronicles the little resistance that the Kabulites put on -- women wearing make-up under the veils and cursing Taliban under their breaths at public places.
Zoya also describes the pitiable conditions at the refugee camps in Peshawar where she was assigned to work by RAWA. She also points out the difficulty in operating a school in a camp where most fathers thought a daughter was more useful weaving carpets than acquiring education that will make her an 'infidel'.
Zoya also speaks about the dangers faced by RAWA members from Taliban supporters in Pakistani cities.
The book has been written in an engaging and simple narrative in first person to involve the reader in the story. The co-writers, John Follain and Rita Cristofari, have used all their journalistic and language skills to make Zoya's Story interesting. The book is highly readable because of the simplicity of its language and the unity of its style of narration.
Though Zoya's Story is primarily meant for an anti-Taliban readership in the West, it is also relevant for people in Pakistan because of our country's proximity and historical links with Afghanistan.
And even a cursory reading of the book is enough to show the readers that something worthwhile can be done even in the darkest times of historical turmoil. It reads like an inspiring story of a young, helpless girl who grew into an important member of an important movement. She is no doubt a brave daughter of Afghanistan, a woman of substance.