Dear Zari: Hidden Stories from Women in Afghanistan

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9780099542186: Dear Zari: Hidden Stories from Women in Afghanistan

ZARGHUNA KARGAR was born in Kabul in 1982. After Soviet troops forced out the government -- in which her father was minister for information -- and civil war erupted across Afghanistan, she and her family sought refuge in Pakistan. Zarghuna completed her education in Peshawar in Pakistan: she studied at a refugee university and attended a journalism course organised by the BBC. Then in 2001 her family sought asylum in the UK, and she started working for the BBC World Service Pashto Section. She joined the team on the ground-breaking programme Afghan Woman's Hour, as producer and presenter in 2004, until it was discontinued in 2010. Zarghuna now works on current affairs programmes for the BBC Afghan Service, frequently covering topics relating to women's issues. She lives in London.

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About the Author:

True stories from women in Afghanistan, giving voice to these women for the first time and allowing them to tell their stories in their own words.

Moving, enlightening, heart-breaking -- Dear Zari gives voice to the secret lives of women across Afghanistan for the first time, and allows them to tell their stories in their own words: from the child bride given as payment to end a family feud, to a life spent in a dark, dusty room weaving carpets, to a young girl being brought up as a boy, to living as a widow shunned by society. Intimate, emotional, often painful but at times uplifting, these thirteen stories uncover how the customs of this deeply religious and intensely traditional society can cause real suffering for many women.

'Zari' is Zarghuna Kargar, an Afghan woman now living in London, with an incredible story of her own; growing up in war-torn Kabul, she and her family fled to Pakistan shortly before the Taliban took power, and in 2001 Zarghuna moved to the UK to begin a new life. Working on the BBC World Service programme Afghan Women's Hour, Zarghuna was part of a profoundly influential project that gave support, education and encouragement to millions of women and men across Afghanistan. For ten years Afghan Women's Hour aired discussions, covering difficult -- often taboo -- subjects, and Zarghuna heard from hundreds of women eager to share their stories. It is these life stories which have inspired her to write this book. She is a brave and compassionate advocate for these women, and gives hope and reassurance to so many by bringing their experiences into the light for the first time.

Through poignant and powerful testimonies, Dear Zari reveals the reality that newspapers and footage on our screens fail to show, opening up a whole country and a hidden way of life.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Introduction

It's important for women to know their rights in a country like Afghanistan," one female listener of Afghan Woman's Hour wrote to us.

Another told one of our reporters in Mazar-i-Sharif, "I heard the interview on Afghan Woman's Hour about how Afghan women have started working and earning money by using their skills by taking up carpet weaving. I realized that other Afghan women were doing so much while I was just doing the housework. I now weave carpets at home to earn my own money and have gained my husband's respect because I'm able to contribute to our living costs."

A listener from the eastern city of Jalalabad said, "I always listen to Afghan Woman's Hour. I love it because it features women from all over the country and makes me feel closer to the people of Afghanistan." And a young man got in touch to say, "I'm writing on behalf of my grandmother. Every Monday night she tells us to keep quiet when it's time for her favorite show. She's asked me to let you know that whenever your program comes on the radio she has to sit down quietly and listen to it, and that her favorite part is the stories, as the women featured in them sound so lovely. They make her feel as if they are telling her own life story."

Just as it was for this older woman and for so many others who regularly tuned in to the BBC's Afghan Woman's Hour-both male and female-so too was it for me. I loved the program's life stories, and enjoyed them so much that I would sometimes find myself listening to them again and again. By the time I came to be working on the program I had been away from my country for so long that I'd forgotten just how arduous and cruel life in Afghanistan can be, especially for women and girls. And these women-mothers, wives, grandmothers, sisters, and daughters-all have their story to tell.

***

When I left Afghanistan in 1994 women were still going to work and girls attending school, so while they may have been limited in what they could do in certain respects, they still enjoyed a great deal of personal freedom. At that point the Mujahedeen were in power. The Mujahedeen were a collection of opposition groups that considered themselves to be engaged in a "jihad"-a holy war-against non-Muslim invaders, and were financially supported by the US, Saudi Arabia, and a handful of Muslim countries. They had begun forming into rebel groups in the 1970s when Russian troops first invaded Afghanistan and made the country-not for the first time-a pawn in the battle between the two superpowers of the Soviet Union and the United States of America.

When the Mujahedeen first took control of Kabul in 1992 they seized power from President Najeebullah's government. Dr. Najeebullah was to be the last president of the communist era in Afghanistan, elected at a time when the Afghan communist party was still responsible for selecting the country's president. It was in the decade of the communist era that I was born, becoming a child of what was to become known as the "revolution generation."

In the late seventies and early eighties, a coalition government backed by the Soviet Union had ruled Afghanistan. There was a treaty dating back to 1978 in place with the USSR that allowed the Afghan government to call on Soviet military force, were it ever needed. On April 14, 1979, the Afghan coalition government called in this favor and asked the USSR to send troops to help in the fight against Mujahedeen rebels. The Soviet government responded to this request by deploying a huge number of forces and heavy arms to Afghanistan on June 16th of that year. And so began the Soviet-backed Afghan government's war against the Mujahedeen.

According to what I've since learned, the Afghan government at that time was very powerful. Its institutions were strong; its control extended to all the country's many different provinces and its army was more than capable of taking on the Mujahedeen, even though the guerrilla war that had first been fought in remote villages near the border with Pakistan was gradually spreading to the rest of the country. On the whole, the Mujahedeen forces were backed by ordinary Afghan people, who saw the Russians as non-Muslim invaders, bringing with them non-Muslim values and ideas. The invading Soviet forces, meanwhile, tended to be supported by those Afghans employed by the government in public services and in the factories.

But the Soviet support wasn't just military, as the USSR also provided social, economic, and educational aid, and since the Soviet-backed Afghan coalition believed in sexual equality, many Afghan women and girls also traveled to the Soviet bloc for educational purposes. Meanwhile factories were built in Afghanistan that women could work in, and those who had lost their husbands in the recent war were given priority when it came to securing jobs. It appeared then that both the law and prevailing social attitudes saw women as equal to men, free to walk by themselves in the street, go to the cinema, enjoy mixed-sex education, appear on television singing and dancing, and even wear miniskirts. But despite the liberal social climate in the cities, many families in rural areas continued to practice more traditional customs that they expected their women and girls to follow. For example, while the Afghan constitution decreed the legal age of marriage to be sixteen for both boys and girls, many families in rural areas were still marrying off their children as young as eleven or twelve.

Of course, my personal experience was predominantly a Kabul-based one-a developed city with more open-minded social attitudes, where the law was enforced by the police and security forces, a public bus service operated, and men and women worked side by side in schools, hospitals, and factories. I even remember going to weddings where men and women danced together to live bands. All around me, Afghanistan's cities were gradually modernizing. Women were no longer forced to wear a head scarf or burqa-although some women chose to. Women from different regions of Afghanistan continued to wear traditional clothes: I remember seeing Hazara women in their long, baggy dresses and colorful scarves, Tajik women in their column dresses and loose-fitting white shalwar trousers, and Pashtun women with their brightly colored shalwar and loose dresses.

Just as Afghan women were becoming active in politics and working as doctors, lawyers, journalists, pilots, senior army officers, and government officials, so too were they appearing in films and being encouraged to perform on national television. Alongside these developments in opportunities for women, the Afghan state media was busy broadcasting Western films and music, Bollywood movies and Russian programs, all of which contributed to the sense of Afghanistan opening up to the outside world. Kabul itself was a great ethnic melting pot of people from all over Afghanistan: Hazaras, Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Sikh minorities, and Kuchi nomads were all given the same access to education, training, and jobs, as the government was committed to ensuring equal opportunities for everyone. I remember my father telling me at the time that Afghanistan was beginning to move closer toward democracy.

Yet in many ways, life in Afghanistan was the same as it had always been, particularly in rural areas. People with strong religious beliefs tended to continue to follow traditional practices, marrying off their children young in defiance of the national law and allowing women to be given away as a means of settling family disputes, and also denying them any share of family inheritance. There may have been a stable government in place capable of creating new legislation and dispensing justice, but the future of young Afghan girls was still seen by many as a family affair and not one in which the government should interfere. The more traditional communities within Afghanistan generally did not embrace the communist values of the Soviet-backed government, and as a result, the Mujahedeen's propaganda enjoyed greater success in the country's more remote areas. This split between urban and rural values resulted in a number of rural girls' schools being burned down, and in some cases their teachers, or women who dared to appear on television, were even murdered. Fortunately, these attacks were rare.

The government of the time was accused by many of adhering only to communist values and neglecting Afghanistan's own laws. But in practice many Afghans-including my father, who was for four years the Minister of National Radio and later the Minister for Printing and the State Committee-believed deeply in traditional Afghan cultural values. In those days, being seen to be active in party politics was a prerequisite for a successful career in politics; my father was in a high-ranking cadre of the ruling People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan. Like many of his peers, he believed in Islam and traditional Afghan cultural ideals but was careful not to do anything that could be seen as defiant of the country's Soviet-backed rule. Yet interestingly, even though the school my sisters and I attended (one of the best and most modern in Kabul) was built by the Russians, staffed by Russian teachers, and had Russian language as part of the curriculum, we were also taught the Quran and learned about Islamic history and studies.

Everyday life for the ordinary Afghan was full of hardship. It was compulsory for every young Afghan man to spend two years in the army during the tumultuous period between 1978 and 1992. These men were conscripted and trained to fight against the Jihadi groups. Many Afghan families lost a son, husband, or father in this war against the Mujahedeen; and many young men returned from the fighting severely disabled. While the government made special provisions for war widows by giving them a monthly income, job opportunities, and special benefits for their children (sufficient to keep them off the streets), girls and women still suffered through the decades of war in Afghanistan.

Regardless of which political faction was in power, women were always affected badly.

Finally, in 1989-after ten long years in Afghanistan-the occupying Soviet forces left and President Najeebullah's government's grip on power became ever more precarious. He tried to make peace deals with different Mujahedeen factions but without much success; some of its leaders weren't interested in brokering partnerships-they were too busy building up their armies as warlords of lawless provinces.

The final death knell for the government came with the breakup of the Soviet Union; the USSR could no longer prop itself up, let alone support Afghanistan. The dissolution of the Soviet Union resulted in the end of all financial aid to the Afghan government. Overnight, Afghan factories closed, shops were empty, and the Afghan people were starving. Afghanistan became a forgotten zone no longer of strategic or political importance to the superpowers. President Najeebullah's government collapsed and the Mujahedeen took control.

We were still living in Kabul when the Mujahedeen took control. Everything changed very quickly: my dad lost his job, his government car, and his status. I remember he used to say: I didn't harm anyone while I was in the government, so no rebel group can have anything against me. But unfortunately it wasn't that simple; my father was branded a communist and forbidden any sort of governmental position. Soon after the Mujahedeen entered Kabul, different factions within the party started fighting over power, and war broke out in the now divided capital. Every group was armed and there was no appearance of law and order-anyone could use a gun, after all.

In the heat of war in 1994, my family decided to leave Afghanistan. My parents were scared for our safety and we worried about my father every time he left the house. Like millions of Afghans we fled to Pakistan, the nearest safe country. Life was very different there. My sisters and I went to school and my dad managed to get a job. Days, months, years passed and hopes of going back to our homeland were fading fast when, in 1996, the Taliban took over Afghanistan.

The Taliban were strongly dependent on the rules of Sharia law, especially in their beliefs about the treatment of women. They were supported by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and, unofficially, by the United States; the terrorist organization Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden also supported the Taliban. The new government introduced strict rules-for example, women had to stay at home, girls were not allowed an education-with harsh punishment for those who dared to disobey. These were dark days-Afghanistan was isolated and poor.

When the Taliban came to power we gave up all hope of returning home. For a family with many daughters, Pakistan seemed the best place to be at that time-there, my sisters and I had access to education, university, jobs. I went to university and studied journalism and started working as a freelance reporter for the BBC. Yet even then my parents were not totally settled in Pakistan, and they decided that for a better and more secure life, it was best move to the West. My uncle and his family lived in the UK already, so we applied for a visa to move to London. In August 2001, my father was granted a permanent visa to come to the UK. After only a few weeks of living in London, the World Trade Center in New York was attacked; the lives of many Afghans were irrevocably changed, and not just those living in Afghanistan-the attacks even changed my life as an Afghan living here in the UK.

***

After the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001, and the collapse of the Taliban, the BBC's Afghan section realized it needed more staff. By this time I was working in London and since I had relevant experience, I was offered a short-term contract and began work on the various different news and entertainment programs. During these early years at the BBC I gained more broadcasting experience and my skills were continually improving by working with senior journalists.

Then in 2004, when the Taliban finally lost power, I started work on a new program for Afghan women called Afghan Woman's Hour (developed by the BBC World Service Trust with financial assistance from the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office). The remit of this weekly magazine program was simple: to inform, entertain, and celebrate Afghan women through the power of radio. My knowledge of my homeland was key to my being asked to produce and present this program, and reminded me what my father had always said, namely that if I could understand and speak both the main languages of Afghanistan-Dari and Pashtu-I'd be able to connect with the people and understand the culture of my homeland. The idea was that I'd work with an editor who had experience producing BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour.

Afghan Woman's Hour was launched in January 2005 with the aim of providing women in Afghanistan with a radio show which would cut across all tribal, social, and economic boundaries. The program reached women in both rural and urban areas of Afghanistan and was broadcast in both Dari and Pashtu, which most women in Afghanistan's thirty-four provinces can understand. We chose each slot of ...

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Book Description Vintage Publishing, United Kingdom, 2012. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. Dear Zari gives voice to the secret lives of women across Afghanistan and allows them to tell their stories in their own words: from the child bride given as payment to end a family feud; to a life spent in a dark, dusty room weaving carpets; to a young girl brought up as a boy; to life as a widow shunned by society. Compelling and enlightening, Dear Zari uncovers the reality of life in Afghanistan in stories that are by turn heart-breaking and uplifting. Bookseller Inventory # AAZ9780099542186

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Book Description Vintage Publishing. Paperback. Book Condition: new. BRAND NEW, Dear Zari: Hidden Stories from Women of Afghanistan, Zarghuna Kargar, "Dear Zari" gives voice to the secret lives of women across Afghanistan and allows them to tell their stories in their own words: from the child bride given as payment to end a family feud; to a life spent in a dark, dusty room weaving carpets; to a young girl brought up as a boy; to life as a widow shunned by society. Compelling and enlightening, "Dear Zari" uncovers the reality of life in Afghanistan in stories that are by turn heart-breaking and uplifting. Bookseller Inventory # B9780099542186

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