“‘I hope other people – particularly women – listen to these stories and become kinder to their own sex,'” a woman laments, her life made unbearable by her female in-laws who condemn her because she literally flushed away the evidence of her virginal blood.
“‘I don’t understand why God allows men who don’t care about women and girls to have families,'” reveals a woman whose life has been “pointless, empty” since she was married off at 14 to a 40-year-old drug addict-abuser as punishment for falling in love with the boy she grew up with in the same home.
“Girls are kept like dolls in the corner of the house. If they are sent to school they are taught to see this as a big favour; if they are given the same food as their brothers they have the best parents, and if they are bought new clothes they have the best family,” says the author, the most privileged of the women whose lives are captured here in this wrenching collection, having enjoyed the relative freedom of a western life, and yet still judged by the standards of her family’s traditional Afghan upbringing.
Dear Zari is the Afghan equivalent to Xinran’s acclaimed international bestseller, The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices. Like Xinran (who offers her personal support of the book on its back cover!), Zarghuna Kargar is London-based, and met many of her subjects because of a radio show; in Kargar’s case, she worked on the influential BBC World Service program, “Afghan Women’s Hour,” for several years until the UK government ended its funding in January 2010. “Dear Zari …” these women began their stories … and from them and their often shattering experiences, Kargar found the courage to share her own which she weaves through the lives of the women who bravely speak here.
Reading these chapters is a disturbing experience, especially knowing these stories are now – post 9/11, post-Taliban, 21st century. Most of the men here are, in a word, inhuman: if they are not violent pedophiles enslaving child brides, or giving away sisters and daughters to pay off their debts, then they’re discarding innocent girls for not bleeding on the wedding night, or, in one of the worst stories, a once-loving husband coldly abandons a young wife who lost a leg during a tragic bombing.
Shockingly, worse than the men are the women: the mothers trapped by their own abusive husbands, the mothers-in-law wielding the only kind of power they have, the sisters-in-law staking their territories – their cruelties have no limits. Only the final three of the 13 total provide glimmers of hope, albeit muted: a successful home business, living life as a man, and choosing one’s own partner allow at least three women to escape horrific fates. Their inclusion holds necessary promise for Afghan women of an equitable life free of repression, denial, and erasure.
Kargar, working with journalist Naomi Goldsmith, is a heartfelt, caring moderator, although perhaps a better champion than a writer. That said, the stories themselves are more important than their exposition in providing unforgettable testimony by women too often lost and forgotten, especially following the “State of the World’s Mothers 2011”-report released by Save the Children earlier this month that revealed Afghanistan is the worst place in the world to be a mother.
A US pub date doesn’t seem to have been announced, but UK copies are available from international booksellers. For those of us with such lucky access, Dear Zari should surely be required reading at the very least, and a challenge to initiate sustainable change at the most hopeful.
Published: 2011 (United Kingdom)