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What Does Afghani Women’s Suffering Say to Us?

LILITH recently spoke to women with intimate experience of life under the burqa. Being both Jewish and female, we found that the knowledge of Afghan women’s suffering pierced our hearts in some singular ways.

As women, we understand that males who brazenly advertise how they victimize us are at the same time broadcasting, though it hardly seems possible, even more pervasive abuses in a culture—whether that culture be one’s leafy suburban duplex or one’s radical Islamic police state. In the former, when men physically bruise us so that it shows, we know that flags a poisonous household civilization. In the latter, when men banish women into visually stunning gulags that the rest of the world gasps at— those imprisoning burqas within which former nurses, teachers, shopkeepers, middle-schoolers, holders of car keys and owners of fashionable pumps slowly descend into profound depression and even psychosis—we recognize ourselves for what we women often are: the dead canaries in the dark mine of human-rights Gehenna.

As first-world women, we watched our Afghan counterparts— who once voted and wore mini-skirts and comprised more than fifty percent of the physicians in their country— be transformed into people who lost everything: the right to work, to wear clothes that allow one, literally, to breathe, to see, to use one hands and feet; the right to run to the corner for a carton of milk; to visit the doctor when one discovers that lump in the breast; to whistle; to earn money so as to never have to watch, God forbid, one’s own children starving to death.

Men who parade their empowerment through flaunting their successful degradation of women (what brilliant al-Qaeda public relations firm first came up with the semiotically potent burqa?) are a nation of males whose sadism, of course, is but a last-ditch effort on their part to ward off their own self-loathing. As women, for better or worse—well, for worse—we know this state of profound male self-hate intimately.

We also know—as women— know in our tears and our bones and in our aching feet, that when civilization vanishes—as in a culture depopulated of normalcy like Afghanistan—it’s females who miraculously stretch themselves to fill any breach, who are the nurturant Houdinis. Our own overworked lives have, understand, nothing in common with Afghan women’s sacrifices, yet we understand, empathically, that well deep within nearly all of us that never runs dry.

Who is taking care of that ocean of orphans we see swarming in photos of refugee camps in Pakistan? Women. Of all those old people and adolescents who have lost legs and arms to both land mines and Taliban raw justice and would die if somebody wasn’t, with divine patience, feeding them, cleaning them up and holding out their hearts to them so that they have a tatter of a life? Who is making donkey fodder into gruel for eight year olds who have been raped and three year olds who have watched their mothers raped? Women.

Indeed, under imprisoning burqas, women gather the lame and the hungry, the illiterate and severely traumatized— they are “gatherers” who collect up this mute country of grieving and anxious orphans.

As Jews, the resonances surrounding Afghan women’s oppression are equally powerful. When we see restrictive and humiliating dress—for the burqas are meant not only to impede mobility and render arms unusable, but to shame, to advertise sadistic triumph—it’s familiar to us. We know Jewish history, all those sumptuary laws meant to separate and debase; yellow-star epaulets and striped pajamas in 20th-century Eastern Europe hardly comprised the first sighting of House of Charnel couture. Previous centuries also featured restrictive dress for Jews, mandating, for example, “Jew-colored” pants we couldn’t walk in, shirts and shoes that made us into laughingstocks, “Jew tailoring” that called on seamstresses to create compulsory clothing meant to sanction scapegoating and mortifying. Here, the clothes said, kick us. laugh at us, steal our money, push us into cow dung.

As Jews, we also viscerally understand the horrors of incrementalism, its hair-raising creepiness—our special inheritance, after all, is the Holocaust. We remember how we were first required to register ourselves with the authorities, and then wear the Star, then the curfews and the expulsion from universities, the forfeited job, then the herding into ghettos. We have watched the vector of Afghan women’s forfeitures—the nonrestrictive veils becoming face-covering drapes, which in some places were first required in the city and then later in the villages, too, and first mandated only for older women, but then girls, too, and the no driving and then the no working and no school, and then the weighted tonsorial tablecloths with tiny netted eye-holes that give one very impaired vision and consequent chronic eye strain, under which, in hot weather, it is common to faint under the layers of what becomes a suffocating tent, and then the rules forbidding being seen outdoors without the company of a man, the weekly public executions . . . it murders by degrees.

For these women, after the hunger comes the incapacitating fear, and the acute depression and the vacant contagion of hopelessness. There is a terrible communicable rash of suicides among women in Afghanistan. Says Sima Wall from Refugee Women in Development, “Mostly women kill themselves by drinking battery fluid and caustic soda. It’s a painful, terrible way to die, it takes days. But we are sick and hungry and crippled and sensory deprived and utterly isolated and we’ve been terrorized for over twenty years. Through our suicides we give hope to one another. I know you can’t understand this.”

And we know, as Jews, too, Gregory Bateson’s famous “frog study” about the accommodationist nature of people who are victimized incrementally, whose fingers slip, as it were, from the ledge one by one: Frogs thrown directly into a pot of boiling water have the sense to jump out immediately. But frogs in a pot of water that is heated up gradually, boil to death. Such is the case with victimizaions that happen degree by degree.

Finally, as both Jews and women, we understand the black tragi-comedy of political resistance. It is not just the smuggling of guns or the theft of cabbages in a Lithuanian field or pomegranates from a Taliban-guarded orchard. Not just underground schools and daring to strap a laptop under your burqa. It is sex amid rubble, the illicit hiding of a bauble, risking death to get one’s hair frosted just the right shade of Clairol in an unlit closet.

Defiance is a coping strategy. Yes, we will sneak down the alley after curfew to whisper among other women and do each other ‘s nails—this suggests civilization, loans women the solace of art, expresses how we take care of one another. As one Afghan woman told LILITH, “They want to break your soul, to shatter you as a human being—so the moral response is not to let them do it.”

In speaking with Afghan mothers, we discover an entire nation of women with post-traumatic stress disorder, suffering intrusive, terrifying flashbacks, recurrent nightmares, hallucinations, an acute sense of past events being experienced again and again, desperate efforts to avoid much of life because it awakens unspeakable moments, intense .distress over exposure to harmless things, estrangement, detachment, an inability to love, a sense of life’s being already over. monumental struggles with sleep or concentration or anger, being exhausted in one’s gut from unending hypervigilance. These women are raising the next generation, how on earth can they successfully do it?

Trauma often has a flip side, however, and, with support and trust, can birth in people deep, positive changes, what researchers call “post-traumatic growth.” For some, pulverizing experiences can steep into an ennobled philosophy of life, can be shaped on a new potter’s wheel of self-perception, and fired into a transcendent commitment to the good, to humanity as if blessedly witnessed from above.

Because we are Jewish women, we can work to help Afghan women tell their stories. Because of our own experience—present and past—we may be able to bear the anxiety of others’ pain without turning from it, “disappearing” it. The concept of “healing” is fairly useless in such a magnified world of anguish and trauma. But as Jews and women, we can help our Afghan sisters move toward their empowerment, and help them build their wall for wailing.


In October, Lilith Spoke with… Sima Wal, an Afghan Working with a Relief Agency in The U.S.

What has been most painful for you and other Afghan women?

Wali: You know, believe it or not, Afghan women had the right to vote before American women did. We won the right to go to school and dispense with the veil in the 1920s. Our mothers wore miniskirts in the ’60s and ’70s. Multiply the losses of Sept. 11 to begin to sec the horrors for Afghan women. The last 20 years of women’s dehumunization is unprecedented in Afghan history. In educated families, it has not been unusual for everyone to be under house arrest, for intellectuals to be tortured and put in prison, for women to be raped. No one comes out of Kabul prison alive—you’re in a tiny, damp room where you are eonstantly interrogated, you have no contact with anyone, no one knows where you are, if you are alive or dead.

We don’t leave our homes. Some women can’t afford to buy burqas, so they don’t leave their homes ever. Can you imagine? Some borrow someone else’s burqa but then how does the woman lending her burqa get home? The rest of us are afraid to go out. The Taliban flog people with twisted wire cables that are 4 feet long, or with branches of willow, they beat you, on your head and feet, all over. They want to demean you in public.

One time an older woman was in the vegetable market haggling to buy food—haggling is the customary way Afghans shop. She was carrying children and groceries under her burqa and was trying to maneuver, to pay, to haggle with her arms, gesturing. A Taliban saw her arm showing and pulled her away and started beating her. But there was only the one Taliban there and a lot of other people. So she started screaming and took onions and threw them at him. Shopkeepers came to her aid. He had to run away. People are so tired of the Taliban. This woman had welts, bruises, it’s very painful when you are flogged. Women are all numb with fear. In Kabul, the Taliban dominate you. If they beat you, you don’t resist—you accept it, because they will take you to prison. If you are a young widow and pretty, you are subjected to sexual violence. If you are seen sitting in the front seat of a taxi, they flog you, 4 or 5 men will beat you. You don’t want to resist or you will be dead.

Why is there such hatred of women?

Wali: They pick on women because we dominate society. The men have nothing; if women have jobs what the men see is that wc have taken their jobs. Taliban men are bent on showing their power in public—through what they make women wear and through floggings and public executions. If you see what happens to women, it gives the impression that the Taliban are in charge—the female form covered from head to foot is symbolic that they are in power. They believe that women are not humans. That God gave us human faces so we’re more palatable, but that we are really demons, only for reproduction.

It is a well-known fact that Taliban men believe in being with boys. They are born and raised away from women, so they practice sex with boys, against the will of very young ones, even though they issue lifc-and-death edicts against homosexuality. In Kandahar, in fact, it’s a common practice; they get into fights over who gets to keep which young boys.

Look how powerless they make women look, invisible, imprisoned in our homes and tents, away from jobs, barred from doctors and hospitals. Male doctors are forbidden to treat women. A woman I know was giving birth at home and she was in trouble and at risk of dying and had to go to the hospital. It was after curfew so the taxi she was in was stopped and she and her husband were flogged.You go home, you have bruises, it shatters you as a human being, as a woman, as an Afghan. This woman died. They want to break your soul. The Taliban are holding all women hostage, they are anathema to our Afghan culture.

People around the world are outraged when they hear even a small part of these atrocities. What else should Western women try to understand about your lives?

Wali: You don’t understand that in Afghanistan families, the men are dead, or fighting, or driving a taxi in Kuwait. The women are all widows— so there are a million orphans and handicapped children and those who have lost limbs due to landmines in our country (Afghanistan is the most heavily landmined country in the world.) Who is taking care of everything? Who do you think? The women; there are a half a million war widows. It all falls on women, to take care of all the orphans and disabled children, to feed children when there is no way to make money because you are forbidden to work. All of this falls on women.

But some of what the West sees as repression of women is more complicated, or, in fact, is what women have chosen for themselves. For example, during the late 18th and early 19th century, women of higher echelons wore the chador as a symbol of prestige. Before the Taliban, some women chose to wear it in the cities but not the fields, to protect themselves from what they saw as the evil of the city. For some women it is a fashion—to declare that you are religiously conservative, not Westernized. It was a cultural symbol of Afghan pride, of pride in yourself as a woman in a land that demeaned you and in a country with no hope. Afghan women feel misunderstood by Westerners, even if you mean well.

You also don’t understand that we have been tired and hungry and terrorized for over 20 years. We have absolutely nothing. What thwarts us is having no money to enhance women’s position in society, and the fact that we have no international recognition. It’s so painful.

Why aren’t we hearing more? Real incidents, with details? Reporters have said that it’s like interviewing Holocaust survivors who can’t talk about what happened to them because it exposes them again to the trauma, it re-awakens intense distress. Is this one reason why it is so hard to get women’s stories?

Wali: Yes, it is the same as Holocaust survivors. You have to understand, we are all traumatized. I too am a war victim but a lucky one who managed to come to the U.S. Others like myself suffer from secondary trauma. The events of September 11 triggered my memories, it all comes back, horrible memories of war, absolute lawlessness, that we arc raped, killed, cannot leave our house. [She starts crying] . . . that I am so claustrophobic, when I feel trapped, tired, my friends were killed, my classmates, just because they were women, they had nothing to do with politics. My closest friend from childhood, her sin was that she married into the royal family, she sat next to me at school [silence, crying]. . . from age 13, compassionate . . . beautiful. First they murdered her children then, then her . . . gunned her down. Why is this happening? We made this promise, we have walked away from the promise of never again, over and over. [silence, crying]

I sleep, but it is hard. It never goes away. I work tirelessly now in memory of the innocent women of Afghanistan who lost their work. It is emotionally draining, nobody listens. I’m carrying the screams of these Afghan women, no one hears, they have skills but they have been transformed into a nation of beggars, they are kind and gentle. I will never walk away from them. I have not been paid for more than six months, there is so little funding for our work, [Weeping.] Bombs are being trained on them, they have empty stomachs. I can play a very small part in this. To bear witness.

After September 11, some Afghan women, at such risk to themselves, initiated a petition to support these Americans who died. To collect signatures, to implant their thumbprints for those who don’t know how to write, to smuggle these lists across the border to Pakistan. They are so afraid, but they do this, to say, “We are with you.”

Women’s organizing in Afghanistan is rarely publicized. What might be happening politically?

Wali: What’s hardest is that during the past 21 years of strife in Afghanistan—including America’s current attempts to shape a governing coalition—the world hears only the polarized voices—the Northern Alliance, the Taliban, the Soviets—when for a quarter century there has been this consistent, moderate, silent majority whose voice is never heard. This voice is tolerant-minded, strongly committed to peace and to democracy, and unwavering in its belief in human rights. Why is this voice not heard? Because it is the voice of women. We are kept isolated from the world and from each other. The world has lost 21 years during which it could have helped us at the field level. We need help in being entitled to come together, to be a political, organizational group, because we are the broad, .moderate spectrum that is Afghan society. The Taliban are largely Arab religious-extremist outsiders; they are not the Afghan people. When power is allocated, women have to be at the table. We are the only ones who aren’t bearing arms. We are the majority. How can we not be included?

What can American women do?

Wali: One computer costs $ 1000 to buy in Pakistan. We can then train Afghan refugees in computer skills. In the camps, it is a nation of women, we are the dominant displaced population. These women will train others. We will smuggle in computers back to Afghanistan. Afghan women want to work—in handicrafts, in schools. Help us acquire skills, how to run an orphanage, a health clinic, how to work with war-traumatized orphans, with a traumatized population. Remind us we are not forgotten.

I was a child in Iran, my father was in love with Afghanistan; he saw it as an exotic backwater, a world like that evoked in medieval Persian manuscripts, a harsh geography of ancient honorable men and silenced women. When I was 6, he traveled there as a tourist, and when he came back he said to my mother, “We should bring up our daughters there, so they won’t go awry.” He approved of Afghan society’s treatment of women. When I was 25,1 got a job in Afghanistan and I went, but not to become a silenced woman.

In Afghan society, gender-discrimination runs so deep. I have a friend who says, “Every Afghan man has a burqa inside his head,” meaning that men automatically think that’s where we should be, under a curtain. When the edict forbidding women to work was put out, Afghan men were delighted. They had been waiting for an opportunity like that. There is so much unemployment. Men think, ‘Why should women get the jobs?’ It’s not just the women who are sitting at home in Afghanistan; large numbers of men are also sitting at home.

There are many different Afghanistans, which is why— closed borders and communications restrictions aside—people outside the country often feel they can’t get a handle on the place. The Taliban is disorganized and erratic. They may issue a frightening edict but then weakly enforce it or leave town. There are sudden unexplained clamp downs where people are executed on the slimmest pretexts, or their arms are chopped off For women, city norms are different from village norms, and there are vast differences between the educated and the uneducated. Illiteracy is rampant, especially now for females, who are forbidden to attend school.

The biggest struggle is to get over the gender discrimination that’s rife in this society. I work in a relief organization and we fight to get women into the workplace. But it’s hard —hiring a woman is expensive and a big logistical nightmare. Since women are only allowed to work in healthcare, you must pretend that whatever job you are offering is really in healthcare; you have to get official permission. If you hire a woman you have to hire a driver and a car and outfit the car with curtains, because that’s the only way women are allowed to travel. On top of that, for every woman you hire, you also have to hire a man. He needs a separate car. Anywhere you go where women are working, there is an office next door where guys sit all day and smoke cigarettes. Any company that hires women is gender-segregated—there are separate buildings for women, separate computers for males and females; it’s disabling for the society.

Despite all these obstacles, I personally feel there are no doors that are closed in Afghanistan. As far as I’m concerned, there’s ‘official permission for this’ and ‘official permission for that’ but you can get around it. I go to meetings and fight Afghan men on behalf of Afghan women and I win. At this very moment male politicians are describing the future of Afghanistan; we women have to flag up the message, to publicize that there are only men at the table.

In the refugee camps now, a lot is happening for women. You have to understand, these camps are overwhelmingly female-led communities—the men are gone—and those of us who work in women’s relief organizations are desperately pushing to train these women to be managers and decisionmakers, not just to do nothing or hold the lowliest of undesirable jobs. The only thing that restricts us in our work is insufficient funding. The women watch female relief workers with envy. They don’t look at us and think, ‘oh this is bad secular values, the West gone bad.’ They desperately want these freedoms and opportunities for themselves, too. It’s dangerous for any woman who has a job. She has to be accompanied every day by an armed guard, because she took a man’s job. To work, you have to be very courageous.

The women of Afghanistan are heroic. Schools for girls are banned, yet it is a miracle that women show up to teach secretly anyway. In rural areas that can’t be overseen by the Taliban, there are women making sure that their girls illicitly have schooling.

The misogyny in the culture is shocking. I know a woman, a teacher, who was beaten for teaching secretly in a home school. She was teaching because her husband had been killed and she needed money to eat. So after being brutalized by the Taliban she went back to live with her mother and siblings and they also beat her black and blue. They thought it was irresponsible for her not to remarry and instead to move in with them and eat their food. On the other hand, there are women in the refugee camps who pretend to be widows because they get special treatment from relief agencies.

Afghan women are seen as the ones who keep the culture “clean,” meaning they will bring up a good Muslim, a good Pashtun. They are “pure.” In rural areas, men approve of the fact that women don’t speak Dari or Pashtun, the main languages, but only obscure local languages. Women’s ignorance means that is the culture is being kept pure. Even an educated woman who has been to the U.K. or America couldn’t go to a party in Afghanistan without her parents sending a man to supervise her. It’s symbolic “Women can’t control themselves morally, we can’t trust this woman on her own.” If she turned up on her own, other Afghan families would talk about how brazen she is.

Men and women in this country have seen a lot-people blown to pieces, constant landmine tragedies, people betraying one another and being taken away, rapes, mutilations, looting-all in relation to 20 years of war and Communists, mujahadeen groups, sub-groups turning on one another.

It’s not unusual to see little boys who arc the heads of families. Please let your readers know that Afghan people on the whole—especially women—have been hopeful since September 11. We women are gearing up, ready to step outside the oppressive, unending restraints. Afghan women’s problems are old—it’s not like we led this charmed life before the Taliban—but we feel, finally, that we are not alone.

Helping Afghan Women

The Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children provides education, health services and livelihood opportunities to women and children. The Commission has created an Afghan Women’s Fund specifically to deal with the critical needs of female and underage Afghans in Pakistan (who comprise the vast majority of refugees). WCRWC, 122 E. 42nd St., NY, NY 10168-1289, (212) 551-3088. wcrwc@womenscommission.org

Refugee Women in Development, focused on human rights abuses against uprooted women, is currently building Afghan women’s non-governmental organizations. One of the most chronic psychological tolls for many Afghan women has been their Taliban-imposed isolation, so RefWlD purchases computers for Afghan women. RWD, 5225 Wisconsin Ave. Nl.W., Suite 502, Washington, D.C. 20015, (703)931-6442.

The American Jewish World Service provides humanitarian support, technical assistance and emergency relief to over 50 countries represent “Jews as global citizens committed to social justice,” and, indeed, the Afghan women’s relief organizations to which LILITH spoke felt Jews in particular have been responsive to their unfolding crises. AJWS supports three projects in Afghanistan, including home schools for 2500 girls, clinics and two hospitals specifically serving women. AJWS, 45 W. 36th St., 10th floor. New York, NY 10010, (800) 889-7146. www.AJWS.org