My only wish: The story of four Afghan women

Afghan women at a market
Afghan women at a market (© Eric Beauchemin)

Much has been said and written about the situation of women today in Afghanistan. Since the ruling Taliban movement took over power in 1996, women have been subjected to what many in the West regard as draconian measures. The Taliban have barred women from working and getting an education. Women must wear a burqa when they go out in public. The Taliban have even barred women from wearing shoes with heels that click, for fear that the clicking sound of their feet might corrupt males. Four Afghan women explain what it’s like to be a woman in Afghanistan.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Original broadcast: October 26, 2001


Radio Netherlands, the Dutch International Service, presents “My only wish: The story of four Afghan women.” The programme is produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin.

From that time, it started for women that they are helpless and they are hopeless and they are deprived of any kind of support and help, even from outside because the world now they forgot Afghanistan and its tragedy.

Much has been said and written about the situation of women today in Afghanistan. Since the ruling Taliban movement took over power in 1996, women have been subjected to what many in the West regard as draconian measures. The Taliban have barred women from working and getting an education, though recently some of these restrictions have been relaxed. Women must wear a burqa or chadori – a veil which completely hides the body – when they go out in public. Their only window on the outside world is through a fine mesh which covers their eyes. The Taliban have barred women from wearing shoes with heels that click, for fear that the clicking sound of their feet might corrupt males. Women also are not allowed to raise their voices in public and they cannot laugh loudly as this too could lure men into temptation. The list of restrictions is long, but even before the Taliban came to power, women’s rights were being curtailed. As a man, I’m officially barred from speaking to women in Afghanistan. So I spoke to four Afghan women who live as refugees in Pakistan. They’re are among the 1.5 million Afghans who have fled the war and poverty in their own country and taken refuge there. Najiba is in her early 30s. She lives in a village with other Afghan refugees, about an hour’s drive from the border. She and her three children live in a brick house, surrounded by a large walled garden. Najiba has fond memories of the days before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

My father was a factory worker and my mother was a kindergarten teacher. My parents earned enough to live, and at that time people also had coupons. There were special shops were you could use those ration books. Government employees received more coupons than others, and we could buy things very cheaply. EB: When the Soviets invaded, what type of changes did you see? A lot of things changed when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. Before then, people had a good life. We lived in a peaceful society. We didn’t have to worry about our safety or our children’s future because Afghans had everything we needed, and we children could go to school for free. But when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, they killed people. So many women lost their sons and husbands because they were arrested by the Soviet army and then put into prison and tortured. It was horrible. EB: But how did it affect you, in your life? A lot of things happened. Two of my cousins, who were 15 and 16, were killed in a rocket attack. The house of some of my relatives was destroyed. They lost everything, and they had to flee to Pakistan. Many, many people were displaced. Many people’s lives were affected by the Soviet invasion.

My name is Saher Saba and I’m a member of Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan.

RAWA is an independent organisation of women which was established in 1977 in Kabul, Afghanistan under the leadership of Mina and some other intellectual women. First its goal was to achieve women’s rights and democracy in Afghanistan. But when Russia invaded Afghanistan in 1979, RAWA with all its people and women took active part in the resistance movement in Afghanistan and also in Pakistan.

When I was 15, I got married. I was still attending school in Kabul. My husband got a job in Kandahar, so we moved there. The Soviets left in 1989, but the communist-backed puppet regime ruled the country till 1992. By then the mujaheddin were launching attacks on Kandahar Province. They eventually succeeding in taking over control. I was able to finish 12th grade, but things got increasingly difficult. I was always afraid during that time. EB: Why were you afraid? I was afraid of being killed because all those mujaheddin and fundamentalists, they were against women’s education. I was attending a public school and the mujaheddin knew about the school, but if they discovered that you personally were attending the school, they would kill you. All of us were afraid of being killed or beaten by them.

My name is Maria. I’m 22 and come from the northern city of Mazar-I-Sharif. Life was good there until the fundametalists took over power in 1992. A civil war started between the various fundamentalist parties. Mazar-I-Sharif was under the control of a faction led by General Dostum. But the city was attacked by a number of other fundamentalist parties, and the commanders would kill each other if they didn’t get what they wanted. Poverty started to increase and we started to suffer. We feared for our lives, and all our freedoms were taken away from us.

I should point out one thing that the situation of women, it got worse after Taliban came to power, but it started when the fundamentalist parties, before the Taliban. And unfortunately the world community and people, they really don’t know about what happened to women from 1992 to 96 during four years. The fundamentalist parties they didn’t announce officially like Taliban restrictions on women, but what they did in practice, what they committed under the name of religion and culture. Women they didn’t dare to go outside, because especially young women and girls they were abducted, they were raped by those fundamentalists commanders in their houses. Everything was looted, in the schools, the hospitals, the universities, the books. There was nothing left. That’s why from that time, it started for women that they are helpless and they are hopeless and they are deprived of any kind of support and help, even from outside because the world now they really forgot Afghanistan and its tragedy.

My name is Bibigul, and I am an educated woman. Life wasn’t so good because of the mujaheddin. Day by day, the war is going on and bothered people, also the women. They attack to the woman and bother the woman that your chador is like this or you are shirt is like this. Always they bother the woman. Did they bother you too? Yes of course. One day when I go to one of my colleague’s house. They don’t bother me but bother my colleague. T[hey wear the skirt and t]he skirt was a little short, not too short, but a little short. And one of the mujaheddin who was a young boy, he came to the woman and he showed his rifle, and warned my colleague why do you wear this kind of skirt? She was very frightened on that time. And we make sorry from the person and he go away.

The fundamentalists ordered all women to wear the burqa. They said we couldn’t go outside our homes without it. I had never worn a burqa before. The first days I had to wear the veil, it was really hard for me to walk and I constantly got headaches. It took me about six or seven months to get used to the burqa. EB: What did you think of the fact that you had to wear a burqa? It made me very sad, but I had no choice. I was afraid of the fundamentalists. I’d talk to my friends about the burqa. They felt the same way about it. Since we were in an all girls school, we didn’t have to wear it during classes, but we thought it was an insult that we had to wear it to go to school.

It was really difficult for me to wear. My mother said, no, it’s not that much difficult because she wore for all her life. But I said how can you walk in this, and she said it’s very easy. You can. You will used to, but even now when I wear it, it’s really difficult taking breath and looking and you have to look down all the time because if you look up you will not see the way and you should be careful. And also if it’s summer it’s very hot and it’s really like a prison, and I can’t find a word to explain the feeling when a woman wear the burqa.

EB: You say you got used to it after six or seven months, but did it bother you that you were going to have to wear a burqa for years and years whenever you went out? When it started becoming clear that we would have to wear the burqa for a very long time, I felt sad. I dreamed of living in an Afghanistan where women didn’t need to wear it. That was something I’d always talk about with my friends, about the time when women in Afghanistan could go outdoors again freely. EB: What other types of freedoms were taken away from you when the fundamentalists took over power? At first, the mujaheddin also removed women from their jobs. But then women started staging protests, demanding to be allowed the right to work. Many women had lost their husbands during the war of liberation and their sons were too young to go out and earn money for the family, so women had to work. After many demonstrations, the mujaheddin relented and they allowed women to go back to work. They told us we had to cover ourselves. We didn’t need to wear a burqa, but we should at least have a scarf to cover our heads and the rest of our body should be fully covered. We were always afraid of going outside alone, but unlike the Taliban, the mujaheddin didn’t say that we always needed to be accompanied by a close male relative. But still, we were afraid.

Regarding wearing burqa or veil, I can say that in most parts of Afghanistan, it was something traditional and women were wearing that, so for them it was not that much difference that they wear, but of course for those women, especially in Kabul and those who were educated and never wear burqa, for those it’s really psychologically it’s really very difficult like other problems. They were forced to be in house and don’t work. But it’s not a big problem with women in Afghanistan, wearing burqa, I think. When we are talking against wearing burqa, is that it is forced by the ruler of the country, and that’s why. But otherwise we think it should be a personal matter if some women want to wear to it, they can.

One day I went with my sister for shopping. There is a bazaar in Khai Khanar called Lycée Mariame. And we have gone for shopping. On that time, of course with chadori. We want to choose something. As you know, I am wearing glasses. With glasses wearing the chadori is very difficult. For choosing something, I want to lift our chadori and see something. On that time, one of the Taliban come to the shop and beat with a stick on my hand, and after he beat the shopkeeper also. EB: And when this happened, what did you think? Only I argued with this, that look, this is my problem that I can’t see something with chadori and glass together. This is my problem. You don’t know that I am wearing glass? Because of this, he beat the shopkeeper.

EB: What happened when the Taliban invaded Mazar in 1998? Initially they were defeated by Dostum’s forces who killed about 10,000 Taliban. The second time the Taliban came, they succeeded in taking the city and they started killing and massacring people too. They killed about 20,000 innocent civilians. EB: When the Taliban arrived, were you afraid? Yes, I was because we had heard a lot about the Taliban, that they were capable even of killing small children and infants. I belong to a different ethnic group than the Taliban, and we were afraid that they would kill us. I was studying at university at the time, and the Taliban said I could no longer study. EB: How did you find out that you were no longer able to go to university? We had heard that when the Taliban took over Kabul, they shut down all the universities. We knew they would do the same thing in Mazar. They didn’t have to make any announcements. People just left the universities and schools because they knew they would be closed down. EB: What were you studying at university? Engineering. I was in my second year of university.

RAWA’s main focus is to struggle against fundamentalists and now we are struggling in two fields: social and political field. In social fields we are active in Pakistan mainly in refugee camps and with all those social projects like schools and literacy courses and income-generating projects for women and even for men, and health care mobile teams. In Afghanistan also, as you know, there is nothing left for people, especially women, and so RAWA facing many problems, but we established home-based classes for girls and boys and literacy courses for women.

Education is like light for everybody. If we look around us and other countries, we see the importance of education. It’s education that opened the way, paved the way for other developments. And unfortunately as you know in Afghanistan, there is very low rate of literacy and when we go talk to women in refugee camps, after we insist and talk to them and they come to our literacy courses, and they know about their rights, and they know how to write and to read and read about other women’s movements around the world and their struggle, finally they persuade other women. And that’s why it’s really important because our country is ruled by uneducated people and for that it’s important that people with education should struggle against them.

Because I couldn’t continue my studies at university, I moved to the Central Province and I started teaching science. I heard later that the university had been re-opened, but only men could attend. EB: So the only reason that you were not able to continue your education is because you were a female. Yes, that was the only reason.

Women were fired from their jobs. Many of the doctors in my country were women, and they were sacked too. Sometimes women weren’t allowed to go shopping anymore, even when they were accompanied by their husbands or sons or fathers. I heard about many such incidents. If a Talib entered a shop with women in it, he’d beat the male relative and the shopkeeper. One time I heard about a Talib who yelled at a group of men, “how dare you bring this woman into this shop!” And the Talib beat them and beat them. Something similar happened to one of my cousins. She was sick and went to the doctor’s. It was so hot when she was going back home that she lifted her veil for a while. She was getting close to her house. Then one of those white pick-ups appeared. They belong to the Taliban’s special police, the Ministry for the Prevention of Vice and the Promotion of Virtue. They started beating her because she had lifted her veil. She was crying, and then some other Taliban came and they told them to stop beating her because she was pregnant. So they stopped. EB: Does this mean that you spent almost all your time inside the home, inside your house? Because of all those restrictions, I spent most of my time at home. I felt very sad and unhappy about that. My home became like a prison. The only people I could speak to aside from my family were my neighbours. All of us were praying that the Taliban would disappear and that we would see a peaceful and liberated Afghanistan again.

Everybody afraid from the Taliban because they were not as human being. They were as animals. Yeah. EB: Did you feel depressed also? Of course. Sometimes we feel depressed. EB: Did you talk to other women about this? Yes. During the mujaheddin time also, I always talk to the other womens. Sometimes we decided to say something to the Taliban, yes.

90% of women in Afghanistan are with psychological problems. The rate of suicide are increasing every day, especially for young girls that they don’t see any hope for their future. They were in school or at universities, but now their house is like a prison. When they see there is no any other movement, nothing for them, the only way is to commit suicide. Committing suicide is forbidden in Islam and religion. Most women and girls they don’t do this because of the religion. But if there was not the issue of religion, I’m sure there would be many thousands of such cases committing suicide but even we should imagine that how horrible and terrible is the life for those women that even they don’t care about the religion and what will happen to them there and what will they say to God, but they commit suicide. And we get reports and there are many cases that nobody knows about it, because the families or the parents or the husbands, they don’t want to talk about it. It’s like an honour issue for them and something like that. It’s shameful. Yes, yes, shameful.

EB: You decided to leave after a year of living under the Taliban rule, why? We left Afghanistan because the Taliban asked my husband to give them some weapons. The Taliban often do that. They go to people’s houses, knock on the door and say, “we heard that you have weapons, and you have to give them to us”. And so they asked the same thing of my husband, but we didn’t even have a bullet in our house. We didn’t have any money to give them either, because that’s often what happens too. If you don’t have any weapons, they’ll demand that you give them money. I heard that some people who didn’t were killed. When this happened we were afraid. My husband thought they would come back and kill him, so that’s why we decided to leave Afghanistan. We came here to Pakistan, and life was very difficult in the beginning. For the first 7 months, we lived in a tent. It was hot, very hot. We never could have imagined that we would be living one day in a tent. My husband and I were always talking about how unhappy we felt, how disappointed we were with life. We spent 7 months in the Akulee Refugee camp, living in that tent. EB: What was it like for you to leave Kabul and to be able to get out of the house again and not have to wear the veil any more? My life was so miserable those first 7 months in that tent that I completely forgot about the veil. Having to wear it or not, it didn’t matter to me. I would have preferred to wear the veil and to live in a decent house. But life has improved now. My life has improved and I’m very happy now, because now at least I have a house. My husband is working in Iran. My daughter and my son, they’re working too, weaving carpets. That’s how we survive.

Like other refugees, I’m planning to stay here in Pakistan till the situation gets better, but I don’t think the situation will improve soon. I think the war is going to continue and it’ll be a long time before I can go back to Afghanistan. EB: If the Taliban were to win the war and were to control the entire country, would you return to the country then? If they lift the restrictions on women and allow women to go to school, to go to university, to have the right to work, then perhaps I will go back to Afghanistan. EB: Are you more concerned about yourself or your children’s education, your children’s future? I’m not only concerned about my future and the future of my children, I’m also concerned about the future of other women, of all Afghans.

The world community and the media, they forgot Afghanistan. During the Russians, Afghanistan was the centre of attention of all media and other world community, but now… And why if they can write and show the life of like Kosovo refugees, but in the same time, thousands of Afghan refugees are dying, just that they cannot find a piece of bread, but in no newspaper, in no other media or TV, there was nothing about Afghanistan. And we want them that they should come to Afghanistan and they should tell the world and other people how they can help to stop the human rights violations in Afghanistan.

At this point, it’s not important for our people who rules the country, be it the Taliban or the former king or whoever. What’s important for our people is peace, security and a normal life. I don’t care who will provide us these things. But I don’t think the Taliban are strong enough to bring peace and security. They may win the war and take over the entire country, but I don’t think they’ll ever bring peace to Afghanistan. But what concerns my husband and me most of all is our children. What type of future will they have?

The Taliban claim all the restrictions they have imposed are Islamic. They do whatever they want to under the guise of Islam, but nowhere in Koran does it say that women should not be educated. They misuse religion. I just want to convey this message to people throughout the world. I want to see Afghanistan become as developed as other countries in the world. That’s my only wish.

I love Afghanistan, I love Kabul. In that time, with chadori, if there is education in Afghanistan, I want to go to Afghanistan, with a deep feeling I love Afghanistan. I never crying but when I think about Afghanistan, when I think about my people, I cry.

“My only wish” was produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin. This has been a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.