Monthly Archives: November 2011
I recently read the “Dressmaker of Khair Khona” (by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon) which is the story of a woman who, with her sisters, supported themselves through the Taleban era, by sewing clothes and selling them through male shopkeepers in their local markets. Her contact with these non-relatives was forbidden at that time but they needed a way to sell their work.
This book suggested that women through necessity have become successful entrepreneurs in this country and reminded me that perhaps we should celebrate the strength of Afghan women. Our celebration of their strength doesn’t mean there are not individuals and whole groups who need our assistance but we are not helping a helpless creature but one with inherent dignity, strength, experience and much to build on.
Mahiba is one such strong woman. Her husband became addicted to opium after their village, in eastern Afghanistan was destroyed in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Overnight, he changed from being a farmer, with pride, to a traumatized and depressed man. His friends offered him drugs to give him short term relief from his troubles and so he became addicted. In the land which produces more than 90% of the world’s opium, it is relatively cheap and widely available, unlike medicine, counseling or psychiatric care.
His mental health deteriorated further after their new home in a refugee camp outside of Peshawar in Pakistan was bulldozed and they were forced to return to Afghanistan. One day when he was withdrawing, he came home and broke everything they had in their one bedroom mud-brick house, screaming at Mahiba to give him money. Every plate and cup was thrown at Mahiba or her seven children and so the next day her poor neighbours brought an offering of a cup or a plate (whatever they could spare) to her to help. Then as arranged, she came with her children to our house to gather grass to feed their few animals, never mentioning what had happened. Smiling and enjoying her youngest son’s joy as he played on my son’s tricycle. Her older children gathered small white flowers from our tree – they told us they were like candy and ate them hungrily. (My children tried them but were unimpressed).
Mahiba is such a strong, active woman, who somehow manages to help her family survive her husband’s outbursts and feed her seven children. She is not seeking handouts, just work if we have any to offer. She is now a facilitator of women’s self help groups in her area, respected by her peers who see her succeeding despite the adversity she has suffered. She is one of so many Afghan women struggling in the hope that her children will have a life better than her own.
Let us celebrate all that our clients and other women in this country have to offer and have learnt through their suffering, while providing them with some small assistance, to lead them to life in all its fullness.
However, Afghans see the same covering as part of their protection. It shows they are good women and provides them the protection when they are away from their families.
Families in this country, do limit their women and girls freedom, both in terms of leaving the house and in terms of choices that are available to them, in order to provide protection.
The women who lived near us in Pul-e-Charkhi wore full burqas whenever they leave the house. The young woman who lived with her husband, children and in-laws across the road only left the house to go to the clinic or twice a year for shopping before the major celebrations (and then only always in the company of her mother-in-law).
But to be honest, she was content and happy.
She had what she wanted, a husband who loved her, two beautiful children and in-laws who helped her raise her children and do the tasks that running a house requires. She laughed easily and clearly enjoyed the company of her extended family. Her younger sisters in laws were excellent aunties to her children and helped her when they weren’t busy with their school work.
While she may not have had many choices in life, she would have chosen what she had but unfortunately, for many it is not so. And when the family does not provide the protection that Afghan culture is so proud of, then the woman is left without choice and without a voice, suffering behind the veil that is supposed to protect.