Hazel McHaffie

Kabul

Forbidden faces

You probably saw in the news this week that a leading Iranian model, Elham Arab, has been forced to publicly apologise for posting photographs of herself online without a head covering. Seven of the country’s leading models have been arrested, charged with ‘promoting corruption’ and ‘promiscuity’. This crackdown on the fashion industry is part of increased pressure by the new regime to honour ‘Islamic values’, and it leads me nicely to a book I read last week that I found both challenging and fascinating.

Imagine … you’re sixteen (the same age as my eldest granddaughter, so I’m using her as my personal yardstick). The year is 1996. The place is Kabul. To a great extent, the norm of living your whole life in wartime, never experiencing true peace, has numbed you to ‘the overall tragedy’ encompassing your country, to the ‘ultimate threat’ that’s to come. Having said that, until today you’ve enjoyed life, relative freedom, and the security of an enlightened and loving family.

My Forbidden FaceBut now … it’s 27 September. Suddenly everything changes. The Taliban have taken over your city. The president and his brother have been publicly tortured and hanged. Ferocious laws and prohibitions are imposed. Fingers are sliced off for sporting nail polish. Faces and backs are whipped because white shoes peep from beneath an all-enveloping burqa. Innocent young girls are gang raped and genitally mutilated for no reason at all. Women are dying because they are denied medical care. Small children are kidnapped, raped, strangled and thrown onto a rubbish dump for daring to seek clandestine lessons.

And in one fell swoop your whole future has been taken away. Why? Because you are female. You can’t study. You can’t work. You can’t go out without a male escort. You can’t be seen without oppressive clothing and heavy veiling.

Nor are men protected from degradation and horror. Football is replaced by a new atrocity. ‘Now justice takes place in public. They hang the accused from the goal posts, cut off the hands of thieves, execute supposedly adulterous women with a bullet in the back of the neck. This is a monstrous spectacle, intercut with obligatory prayers. Spectators are forced into the stadium with whip lashes.’ Two criminals are butchered to death by the father of their victims, a macabre spectacle watch by an estimated audience of 35,000.

Your brother is summonsed to the university where he sees the aftermath of an appalling massacre, bleeding human remains everywhere,  which he is expected to help clear up. ‘I saw a woman completely undressed … She was … she was nailed to one of those swinging doors at the faculty. They had cut her in two … in two parts. On each panel of the doors, there was half of her. Half of her nailed up body … And the door opened and shut. It was appalling.’

Propaganda attributes the ‘cleansing’ to religious motivation. But as your father explains to you: ‘A Muslim doesn’t kill another Muslim. Nowhere in the Koran is it written that we should take life. This is the final proof that they’re inventing their own Sharia, all the while wanting us to believe that whatever they decide is written in the Koran. Their laws aren’t written in the sacred book. They come out of the heads of a few mullahs who would do better to keep them for themselves.’ I’d guess most fathers in this country would use much stronger language that he does to condemn these atrocities!

If you still find it hard to imagine, I recommend you read My Forbidden Face: Growing up under the Taliban. Even the cover says so much: unseen dark eyes looking from behind a mesh of intricate embroidery onto a hostile unfathomable world, the very size of the mesh proscribed, reduced.

Mesh in burqa for eyes

The author is known only as Latifa – unlikely to be her real name. She modestly hopes that her story will ‘serve as a key for other women, those whose speech has been padlocked and who have buried their testimony in their hearts or their memories.’ She dedicates it to ‘all those Afghani girls and women who have kept their dignity until their last breath; to those women who have been deprived of their rights in their country, and who live in obscurity, despite the fact that we are in the twenty-first century; to all those executed in public, without trial and without pity, and under the eyes of their children and loved ones.’ Read it and weep.

Weeping is seldom allowable for Latifa. Emotions are frowned upon. ‘We each keep our sorrows to ourselves … This is a particularly Afghan way of proceeding.

She perceives the Taliban as dangerous and virulent bacteria propagating by spreading serious diseases, diseases that strike a mortal blow at freedom. She believes the world has forgotten her people. ‘I asked myself what kind of a world this was, so very distant from God.’

When she becomes ill and has to travel to Pakistan for treatment, she can’t help but compare the girls there with her own lot in life; so carefree, blase about their opportunities, not valuing education enough. She says of her friend: ‘She seems more superficial, less concerned than she used to be. Maybe that’s one of the things that freedom does.’ 

So what of my granddaughter’s generation today, in this country, with unlimited choice, enormous freedom? What are the lessons for them? I leave the last word with Latifa’s father: ‘You haven’t done this in vain. Trust me. Women listen to other women. Your testimony will make people here understand.’

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Honour killing

If you are of a sensitive disposition and a member of the female persuasion you might choose to look away NOW – you can come in again at the asterisk below.

Ahah! Did you think I was going to talk about the BBC documentary on assisted suicide? Sir Terry Pratchett investigating the experience of the Dignitas option in Switzerland? Yes, I know it’s my kind of subject, but it seems to be being done to death (sorry!) elsewhere, so I’m not. Besides I feel too disturbed about what I saw to write about it at the moment.

No, today I’m turning my beady eye onto a different controversy. Women: their status,  their potential, and how they’re treated.

I didn’t go to the Hay Festival this year, but I did follow reports of it. So I heard about VS Naipaul (winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize for Literature)  insulting women big time. None of them, past or present,  could possibly be as great as he is, he declared. Full stop. (He even singled out Jane Austen as way beneath him. Jane Austen!!)

Of course, as you probably know, his history is littered with offended people. Why, his own philosophy includes: ‘If a writer doesn’t generate hostility, he is dead’.

But this time his boasting about his own achievements and his relegation of all women writers as doomed to inferiority by their ‘sentimental’ attitudes and ‘narrow view of life’, hit the raw nerves of way over half the population.  He even compounded his sweeping assertion with this partial explanation: ‘And inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too‘. Hello?!!

OK, you might say, what would you expect from someone whose private life is a study in misogyny and discrimination? Well, I for one would prefer to see great talent and acclaim generating humility and gratitude and deference to the success of others. Not arrogance, unwholesome pride and cruelty. End of rant.

*(Those females of a sensitive disposition may re-enter the fray here.)

So I turned with relief to a story of the suppression of women which sets a context of triumph over evil and the power of love.

A Thousand Splendid Suns‘For almost three decades now, the Afghan refugee crisis has been one of the most severe around the globe. War, hunger, anarchy, and oppression forced millions of people to abandon their homes and flee Afghanistan to settle in neighboring Pakistan and Iran. At the height of the exodus, as many as eight million Afghans were living abroad as refugees.’ So says Khaled Hosseini in the afterword to his novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns.

Hosseini was born in Kabul, Afghanistan and became US goodwill envoy to the UN Refugee Agency, so he speaks with both knowledge and sincerity. That authenticity shines through the story of the illegitimate Mariam, the ill-fated childhood sweethearts Laila and Tariq, the troubled children, Aziza and Zalmai. As does the author’s empathy and humanity.

But it’s the quiet depiction of abject poverty, of domestic brutality and female suppression, of sacrificial marriage between young teenagers and much older men, that makes this book the moving and sensitive tale it is. We in the UK read of honour killing with horror in our hearts, but Hosseini conveys quite masterfully the essence of a culture that permits such acts. We see how it happens that wives submit to constant abuse, husbands lock their wives out of sight, fathers kill or reject their daughters, and laws condone such discrimination.

Hosseini’s understated prose is eloquent in its simplicity.

Laila marvels that ‘… every Afghan story is marked by death and loss and unimaginable grief. And yet … people find a way to survive, to go on.’

Mariam’s mother warns her from infancy: ‘Like a compass needle that points north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman. Always. You remember that, Mariam.’

One of the judges in the trial of Mariam years later says, ‘God has made us differently, you women and us men. Our brains are different. You are not able to think like we can. Western doctors and their science have proved this. This is why we require only one male witness and two female ones.’

Naipaul would fit right in here, wouldn’t he?

As the cover says: ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns is an unforgettable portrait of a wounded country and a deeply moving story of family and friendship. It is a beautiful, heart-wrenching story of an unforgiving time, an unlikely bond and an indestructible love.’ Indeed it is.

And all the reader’s sympathies are with the downtrodden women. I salute Hosseini as a true master-storyteller.  As for self-acclaimed Naipaul, well, his ranting and posturing say much more about him than about women.

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