Saina Hamidi, a psychological counsellor in Kabul, Afghanistan, says she was around nine years old when she first heard mention of women who bleed. Her older sister had come across one of their cousins washing bloodied clothes and told their mother about it. “I overheard my mother reprimand my sister for talking about it and tell her not to mention it to anyone else,” Hamidi recalled.
The message was clear, Hamidi added: “If we were to ever see it again, we should hide it.”
In Afghanistan, menstruation is referred to — on the rare occasion that it is mentioned at all — as zan marizi, which literally means “a woman’s illness.”
The tone of the conversation made Hamidi, now 24, believe that perhaps their cousin had done something shameful. “We both didn’t know what it really meant to bleed like that,” she said. “But between my sister and myself, we came to the conclusion that this probably happened to our cousin because she hadn’t been a good girl.” Neither Hamidi nor her sisters had any knowledge or access to information about the perfectly normal and expected physical changes their bodies were about to experience. In fact, they didn’t even know the word for menstruation or period, which in Afghanistan is referred to, on the rare occasion that it is mentioned at all, as zan marizi, which literally means “a woman’s illness.”
The experiences of Hamidi and her family are by no means isolated in this part of the world, where a prevailing pall of shame and dishonor still hovers over women’s puberty. Misinformation about the subject of women’s health and hygiene is widespread, and young women are nudged toward traditional — and often unhealthy — practices to cope with their biological development. These include everything from avoiding vegetables in the diet to not bathing for the duration of a period — a purported hedge against infertility. This, coupled with the lack of access to affordable hygiene products, has resulted not only in poor physical and mental health, but also in girls dropping out of school after they begin to menstruate.
In response, small but significant efforts to change these perceptions have recently taken root in Afghanistan. Most prominent among these is a campaign by the Ministry of Education with support from the United Nations to train teachers to help female students better understand and prepare for their periods.
Laila Haidari is considered a criminal, despite never committing a crime. The 40-year-old works with drug addicts in Kabul. “The addicts I work with are considered criminal and dangerous and by extension I am considered criminal,” she says.
Despite opposition and death threats, eight years ago, Haidari opened the city’s only private drug rehabilitation centre, which so far has helped nearly 4,800 Afghans who would otherwise have ended up on the streets, or worse, dead.
She opened the centre, called the Mother Camp, after watching her brother fall into addiction. “I cared for my brother and helped him recover, even if it was briefly, because I believe that he deserved to be saved. He was a good man,” she says. Each of the addicts who pass through her shelter are good people who’ve gone astray, she adds, and they deserve a second chance.
Afghanistan’s drug problem is not a secret. The country is the world’s largest producer of opium. In November 2017, the UN reported that opium production had increased by 87% over the previous 12 months to a record high, despite almost two decades of counter efforts by the US.
Afghans remain among the worst victims of the failed war on drugs. According to the 2015 Afghanistan national drug use survey, in a country of 35 million people, an estimated 2.9 million are addicts. But there aren’t enough government-run shelters to meet the growing needs. Kabul has 27 government shelters and there are about 115 across Afghanistan – all of which are over capacity.
Mother Camp, named by the first drug addicts Haidari took in, was established in 2010. “I used to look after them, clean them, cook for them and sometimes even feed the weaker ones. That is when they started to call me ‘mother’,” she explains.
I paid your father the bride price for you, so you have to sleep with me whenever I want,” my husband, Karim, who was several decades older than me, told me when I refused to have sex with him. Perhaps it was the dismissive laughter that followed that was the trigger, or perhaps it was an idea I had considered before, subconsciously. No matter which way I look at it today, I can’t recall the exact moment that I decided to end my life by setting fire to my body to escape the physical and mental violence I had endured for six years.
It just happened.
I was on my way to the hamam (public bath), since we didn’t have a bathroom in our small house outside the city of Herat in Afghanistan. I saved money to be able to afford the luxury of bathing once a week at the public baths. As I was about to leave our tiny one-room apartment, Karim stopped me. He was of a much larger build and girth than I was, and a seasoned albeit unemployed martial arts teacher, and he was able to easily overpower me. And he often did, when he needed to satisfy his urges. He used to call it sex, but to me it was an extremely painful and horrifying violation of my body. Over the years, I had learned to block the trauma out, and eventually I even started to refuse him, at the risk of being severely beaten. On this day, he was angry at me from the night before when I had refused him sex. “I can’t sleep with you anymore, brother,” I told him. I hoped calling him “brother” would disgust him and discourage his advances.
“I do not consider you my husband, and I am not your wife. There is no relationship between us,” I said, which just made him angrier and more violent. I had been beaten and abused every day that I was married to Karim, whose name I’ve changed here for my safety.
He started calling me names and accused me of being unfaithful. “Why do you need to go to the hamam? Did you have sex with another man? Are you going to meet another man, sleep with him?” He shouted expletives loud enough for the neighbors to hear. He was trying to taint my character in the community. An Afghan woman’s reputation is everything, and without it she is vulnerable to all of the evils of the society. Women in Afghanistan have been stoned to death for much less, especially in the more remote and conservative parts of the country where the local tribal laws take precedence over women’s rights. Even within more developed urban parts of the country, the justice system does not favor women, and many women have been sent to prison on charges of moral crimes.
The accusation of being unfaithful and having to prove my innocence after everything I had been through was the final straw. The rage I felt, I hadn’t felt before and haven’t felt since. “You are not a man, you are not a woman, you are an animal,” I screamed at him, and he just laughed at me.
I grabbed the canister of cooking fuel from the kitchen and poured it on myself. He realized what I was about to do and grabbed the matches. The neighbors, who had so far been eavesdropping from a polite distance, barged in to our house. They tried to calm me, but I was wailing as they told me, “Don’t break your home.”
I was still crying when they left. Not speaking a word to Karim, I once again gathered my chador to go wash the fuel off of me. Once again, he pulled me back. I was shaking with anger and still covered in kerosene, and I didn’t think twice about picking up the box of matches from where he’d left it — and lighting one.
I must have caught fire quickly because the hot anger I had felt moments ago soon translated into hot searing pain that took over every particle of my being. I don’t remember much after that.
Roya wants to take a job in a local media company, but her father and brother aren’t keen. “What is the need for a young girl to work outside?” asks her father, seated on a toushak, the traditional Afghan low-seating cushions, sipping the customary post-dinner chai. Her brother chimes in with an answer. “There is no need for women to work,” he says.
And so begins the pilot episode of a series that is set to air on prime-time Afghan television in November.
The show, named after its central character, Roya, follows the life of the single, 20-year-old, educated woman in a post-Taliban Kabul, and that of her family – parents, two younger sisters and a brother. Inspired by the US hit show Ugly Betty, the series takes a lighter, and more humorous approach to some of the pressing challenges women face in Afghanistan. Its central message is that women should get out of the home and join the workforce.
Roya is the first woman in her family to seek employment. However, the challenges she faces go beyond having to convince her family to let her work. Roya’s experiences and interactions are often awkward, and complicated by characters who aren’t accustomed to being around working women.
“The story, infused with humour, traces Roya’s journey as much as that of the other characters who get to evolve and grow from the experiences of working alongside women,” says Masooma Ibrahimi, the show’s scriptwriter. “Over the course of 10 episodes, she encounters a variety of characters. Some are supportive and helpful, while others are negative and do not approve of the idea of women in offices,” she adds.
Shkula Zadran was at her local polling station in Kabul when a loud blast sent voters rushing for cover amidst panicked screams.
This was the latest in a string of attacks on Afghan civilians casting their votes on Saturday.
Despite threats by the Taliban and ISIS, an encouraging number of voters made it to the polling stations. Some made several attempts to reach their polling centers, amidst gunfire and explosions, at great personal risk.
“The situation got really bad and people panicked. Everyone was screaming and running, and I decided to go home then, without having voted,” twenty-five-year old Ms Zadran told The National.
But she refused to be deterred by the violence she experienced earlier that day.
Armed with courage the young political activist waited until evening and set out for the second time to cast her vote in the country’s parliamentary elections.
Fearing for her life, Ms Zadran’s family discouraged her from going.
“I feel responsible for my country’s future,” she said. “So many people voted in insecure provinces, so why not me?” she asked, adding that the sacrifice of those who died in the service of Afghanistan inspired her to go back and vote.
ne of the longest wars of our generation took an unexpected turn last month. The Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan accepted the government’s call for a three-day ceasefire during the Islamic festival of Eid al-Fitr.
For the first time in years, Taliban fighters – known for their brutality on the frontline of the spiralling conflict – entered the capital, Kabul, and other urban centres in Afghanistan and socialised with the locals.
They marched through the streets of Kabul with their flags, hugging civilians, offering Eid prayers alongside the security forces, and even enjoying a scoop of the city’s best ice creams. Many civilians went up to the fighters, welcoming them, engaging in conversation about peace and taking selfies. Missing from most of these images of brotherhood and bonhomie were the Afghan women who have been among the worst victims of past Taliban atrocities.
Amid the swirl of excitement, hope and fear, however, a few women did make their presence felt during the ceasefire celebrations. Kabul, Baghlan and Jalalabad were among several cities where a handful of women not only joined the predominantly male celebrations, but also took selfies with the Taliban fighters.
The resulting photos, which show conservative, extremist fighters alongside determined and progressive Afghan women, went viral on social media.
One picture, taken by the Afghan photojournalist Farzana Wahidy, resonated especially profoundly with women and men alike. In it, Wahidy is seen with a few Taliban fighters. Her eyes are defined with green eyeliner, and a headscarf of similar colour lightly covers her fringe. It is a look that would earn her the ire of the Taliban were they in control. Instead, the fighters stand next to her smiling meekly in a photo that has become a symbol of resistance.
When 28-year-old Breshna Musazai walked on to the dais last month with the help of her mechanical walker to accept a college degree, she was already making strides into Afghanistan’s history. Her limp, the result of polio in her right leg that she contracted as a kid and injuries in the left leg that she suffered during an attack on her university, didn’t seem to slow her down. Musazai, a student of law, was among the many students who were caught in an attack on the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) in Kabul on the evening of August 24, 2016. Thirteen students and staff members lost their lives when the war-torn country’s prestigious education center came under heavy attack from the Taliban. Several other students like Musazai were severely injured in the attack that lasted for more than seven hours.
“Can I tell it in short? Because when I talk about it … ” Musazai’s voice trailed off, and she had a distant look on her face, as though she was someplace else, and not in the living room of the Kabul home that she shares with her parents and seven siblings.
“I was in the campus mosque and had just finished my prayers. I was about to step out when my friend and I heard loud gunfires,” Musazai, recalling the horrifying events from nearly two years ago, told Women in the World. “My friend reacted first, she immediately shut the door. In that moment we heard a loud blast. I found myself on the floor of the mosque, it went dark,” she said, narrating the sequence of traumatic events that followed on that fateful day.
Musazai was slowed down due to her polio leg, even as many other students who were with her ran to the nearest emergency exit. “I was left behind and as I tried to find my way out through the building close to the mosque, I had to walk barefoot on shattered glass and splinters,” she said. Her goal at that moment was to make it off the campus without being noticed by the gunmen unleashing the bloody siege. With all hell breaking loose around her, Musazai managed to reach her fiancé by phone and he advised her to find a place to hide rather than try to escape.
“I came across other students who were trying to find a safe place to hide,” she said. “Many of them were injured,” Musazai said their next move was to try to break into the administrative office in the hopes of finding a safe hiding spot. “While we were trying to get inside the room, the girls who were with me turned towards me and were looking at something behind me with an expression of shock. That’s when I turned around and I saw him, the gunman. But before I could even react, he had shot me.”
It was a cold winter day in mid-January in the northern Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir when a disturbing news report about the rape of a young girl in the Kathua district of the state caught the attention of Deepika Singh Rajawat.
The story would change her life.
Rajawat, a lawyer and mother to a 5-year-old girl, was horrified as she read through the details of the case.
“I could feel the pain,” she says.
The 8-year-old victim, from the Bakerwal tribe, a Muslim nomadic community in the region, was kidnapped, and raped in a Hindu temple by a group of local men, sparking communal tension between locals. Her mutilated body was found a week after she went missing.
The eventual arrest of eight accused, many of them police officials, provoked a strong reaction of the Hindu community, and several political leaders affiliated to the Indian ruling party of Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP).
As right-wing groups began mounting pressure on local police to release the accused men, Rajawat, 38, decided to approach the family to see how she could help.
Rajwat has spent her career in pursuit of cases that result in tangible social justice, but taking on the case of the Kathua rape victim propelled her into the national spotlight.
Today, she carries her 5-year-old daughter in one arm, even as she pours over the case files and documents, making notes and taking calls, mostly from Indian press who have developed a keen interest in Rajawat’s work and life.
Visible on her hand while she works is her rallying cry, tattooed onto the side of left palm: “Only the weak can be cruel,” it reads.
It is a city where the sound of bombs is part of growing up, recently becoming the epicentre of the violence that plagues Afghanistan. In western Kabul, however, a big blue bus is bringing joy to some of the capital’s younger generation.
Children emerge from alleys and houses, surrounding the vehicle and cheering its arrival, though a few watch cautiously given their fear of the unknown.
All that the bus contains, however, is books.
“Dear children, this is a library on wheels; we have lots of books and stories for you,” Freshta Karim, an Afghan woman and founder of Charmaghz, tells them.
The name, which means walnut in Dari, one of Afghanistan’s national languages, has special resonance as it represents the brain in local culture.
“It equates to logic. We are trying to promote critical thinking,” Ms Karim explains.
“We want the kids to have opinions and share them, debate and be willing to listen to others opinions.”
Nearly 17 years after the overthrow of the Taliban government, which outlawed women’s education, the United Nations says only 31 percent of Afghans are literate. The rate is almost twice as bad – 17 percent – among women. An estimated 3.5 million Afghan children have never gone to school and 75 percent are girls.
“Are you married?” a male colleague at the Times of India asked me in 2011, pointing to the gold ring on my wedding finger. It was my first full-time job as a journalist and I was excited at the prospect of making tangible social change through my work. One week into my new role at the largest newspaper firm in India, I was not yet close to anybody on my team. So the question felt both intrusive and unwelcome.
But before I could even begin to answer, another male colleague quipped, “More importantly, are you happily married?” stressing the word “happily”. Both of them laughed at what they evidently felt was a witty comment at the expense of my personal life, and a few others, including some women, joined in.
I smiled and dismissed it for a number of reasons I won’t explain fully here, but including the unfortunate fact that as a woman starting out in a competitive industry, I did not wish to be seen as “aggressive”, “unsporting” or “threatening”, all of which I have been labelled as being for asserting myself. If anything, that small exchange reiterated the reasons why I choose to wear a fake wedding ring (or an engagement ring, as it is referred to in India).
An unwelcome suggestion
In December, the Afghan National Union of Journalists recommended that women reporters working in Afghanistan wear fake wedding rings to avoid harassment, a suggestion that was received with little enthusiasm by women journalists in the country, where I have been working for nearly four years.
Women journalists in Afghanistan face a multitude of challenges, including an overbearing patriarchy and barriers of culture and tradition.
I have been wearing a ring on my wedding finger since I was in college, in an attempt to avoid the uncalled-for attention I sometimes received from classmates, and later, from colleagues. For the same reason, my Facebook status has always declared “In a relationship”, even when that was not the case.
I had hoped the ring would act as an unspoken declaration that I was not in a position to respond to the advances of my male colleagues. Because, despite all my feminist beliefs, I came to realize that the phantasmal dignity of my fictitious husband was a stronger deterrent for many men who I came into contact with than respect for my personal space.