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Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Lowest in life: A case study of three Afghan women

The children playing with the worn out and rusted piece of barbed wire fence and their mothers saying that they are freest in the jail and fear being murdered if let free. Can there be a better metaphor than this for life? I think not.

Out of my inability to produce something authentic this time, I have resorted to reflecting something about life with the help of three beleagured Afghan women whose concept of freedom and liberty is upside down.

Nadjibe: the perpetually tormented woman
Nadjibe does not fear being killed the moment she has to leave the prison unlike the other two. But she is tormented to the core because she had to sell her child, her only hope. After repeated calls, her husband simply tells he will come to meet her 'some day' and never turns up. As the child grows, she can no more afford milk for the child and has to face a stark choice: let the child die with hunger before her or sell him. She goes for lesser of the evils but her conscience never forgives her. She gets devastating bouts of grief, remorse and despair the moment she sees the 'happy' women with their children in their laps.

Sima: her son looks as she mourns her husband's words
More unfortunate is Sima, who has five children with a husband decades older than her. Unable to tolerate the abuse and violence at home, she once made the bold decision to flee the home with her stepson of her own age for a safer harbor in some relative's house. They are eventually caught and sent to the prison. Now her husband comes to meet her and beats her there. More unfortunate: he threatens to kill her as well as her stepson in the men's cell of the prison. To make the matters worse, she overhears her husband in the visitor's area asking one of the male prisoners to kill his son for an amount. Her elder daughter who has come to meet her with the father says: 'Mom, let me stay here'. Her worst fear is that she may be set free earlier than the stipulated 15 more years in prison: that would be the end of her as well as her stepson.

Most heartrending of all, the stepson cries in front of camera: 'why would have I ever taken her to some relative's house had I known this would lead to this' and leaves wiping tears, unable to bear any more of it as the monstrous father keeps threatening both of them with death.

Now the third woman, Sara, with apparently better fate to the last moment. Sara defied her family by running away with Javid, her lover, just when they wanted to marry her off to some other man. But soon they were caught and imprisoned for 6 years or so. The two of them are in two sides of the partition between male and female sections of the jail and she consoles herself by seeing her lover through a small peep-hole on the wall. They exchange letters with help of kids and Javid liberally sends his clothes to her and she washes them with elation. She prays: 'may I wash his clothes all my life'. Unlike the other two, this pair has much left to do in life and she plans a happy future after being freed from the prison. She even exhorts other Afghan women to act before it is too late by avoiding forced marriages. Her life appears much better and happier than that of all others in the prison.

But when it is abruptly decided through the president's decree that the two get freed, uncertainty and apprehension climb down in life of Sara: is Javid the same devoted lover now after all these years? Her brother is all set to kill her for having tarnished the family name and the small hometown is no longer safe for her. Only way to life is to move to some remote town with Javid. But with all hopes pinned on one man, will he live up to the expectation?

Her last letter to Javid before release 'bounces back' as he says he 'cannot reply at the moment' to the delivering child. Her beautiful future gets aborted and dreams shattered at the moment and all she sees in front of her is darkness. She gets a glimpse of Javid outside the prison gates but he leaves in a car with the relatives without even replying to her call. Soon he marries off some other girl as arranged by his family. She is left dejected in the barren land.

What is the depth of human suffering? And how do people cope with such circumstances? Which ways of coping with trouble are good and which bad? How effective have been our attempts, if any, to liberate the fellow human beings from such suffering?

It would be preposterous to say that I have seen even a tiny proportion of suffering that the three women have had in their lives. But that should not prevent me from reflecting upon life's predicaments in general with help of their story.

During my teenage years, I would have probably promised to 'liberate' these women heroically probably by instigating some sort of revolution. That was exactly what the Russians tried to do when the Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan 3 decades back. Going by the accounts of Khaled Hosseini in his works of fiction, the Soviets had indeed succeeded to roll back some of the egregious inequality forced upon Afghan women. But as their puppet regime collapsed, so did the gains and soon Taliban were ruling Afghanistan with some of the harshest and most draconian laws in the world.

Given that the Afghan invasion of USSR precipitated the collapse of the entire edifice of communist regime itself in Russia and Taliban came to power in Afghanistan to live the indelible mark of terror and brutality, the history of the Afghan society and Afghan women has to be understood in alternative light. While, on the one hand, the protracted involvement of the Soviets turned out to be suicidal for themselves, on the other, the relatively swift and 'shock and awe' strategy of the US over the past decade also did not succeed either in really liberating the Afghans.

What can really liberate the Afghans, gradually and rather imperceptibly if that be, is a process of churning out in the society itself that involves brave men and women in the Afghan society itself who can challenge the status quo with their deeds, and of course, not with mere rhetoric. Fortunately, there are plenty of them and if the Taliban do not overwhelm the Afghan forces in coming five years or so, they have a substantial chances of changing the lives of the Afghans for the better.

To put it other way, while the patriarchal and oppressive way in which the society deals with these women is absolutely deplorable, the lives of these women reflect the extreme resilience and the factor of optimism that govern human lives in adverse situations. The momentous decisions that the women have taken at critical junctures show the nature of their rebellion to the society.

Sima, for example, could have stayed home with the elderly husband to give birth to many more children accepting a daily beating. Now she has only 5 children and lives in a relative safety of a prison for at least 15 years, and at the end of those 15 years, her husband will be an old man with potentially less brutality and less physical vigor to violate her. There is a community in the jail and the women live like a family beyond the grip of menfolk who keep them constrained in the society.

Then there is Sara, who is betrayed by the only man whom she loved and revered. But as the events unfold, she is not killed by her brother and went in to live in the women's shelter in other city. Even though the romantic life of her imagination did not materialize, she is literate and can see the patriarchal system for what it really is now. Unlike many other women, she is still unmarried and is relatively free to pursue the life of her interest once the imminent threat to her life subsides.

When last searched, Nadjibe had been transferred to some other prison for her unruly behavior. Despite the series of tragedies that befell upon her, she was the one to ask the prison guards to be more accountable. And she roared like a lion: "Nobody in the earth can beat me" when one of her friends threatened to beat her if she once again attacked the prison guard.

Not that I am romanticizing the miserable lives of these poor women. My point is, life is not always about black and white; there exists a grey zone and thereby take place the biggest struggle of our lives. The blackness in the life of these women has some definitive white spots and the brightness in our own lives does have some definitive dark spots.

From a macro or a societal perspective, it would be a crime to euphemize the despair, torment and misery in the lives of these women because the gender-based discrimination leading to such inequality and brazen oppression of the women has to be resisted at any cost. The same, however, does not hold true on the micro or a personal perspective. These women have to first live and see the day of the light to plan for another day. And to survive the daily onslaughts, they have to get around the day-to-day obstacles. It is during these steps in life that they learn to struggle and to say 'no' to established norms. While such tactics of these women may not form the part of an overarching process aimed at 'liberating' them, they do live through these and these form the important parts of their lives.

While the media across the world are awash with analysis of worst-case scenario for Afghanistan after the imminent departure of the foreign forces, let me predict a best case scenario: the Afghan security forces somehow avoid being overwhelmed by the Taliban despite the terrible cost of widespread conflict. The cohort of women who have enjoyed the relative security and progress over the decade since fall of the Taliban meanwhile engage in a low-intensity but continuous drive to improve the living conditions of fellow women in the country. Despite recent assassination of a top woman police officer by the rebels, there is absolutely no scope for pessimism among the women in Afghanistan today.

While a lofty goal of liberating all Afghan women at a time may be impossible to achieve, educating and avoiding forced marriage of a single girl saves a life from devastation and nurtures a potential fighter in a protracted struggle against discriminatory norms of the society. That is why the stories of Nadjibe, Sima and Sara need not make us predict doom for the Afghan women.

(My special gratitude for Nima Sarvestani for the wonderful documentary 'No burqas behind bars' which has captured the lives of many Afghan women including the three described in this article. Sarvestani's earlier documentary 'I was worth fifty sheep' was equally elegant and I have reviewed it earlier in this blog. I hope to meet him some day and have a serious discussion about life in Afghanistan.) 

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