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Breaking Points


new internationalist
issue 227 - January 1992

Illustration by CLAUDIA SCHMID
It's dangerous for Afghan refugee women to talk, let alone write,
about life under Islamic fundamentalism. But Zahra shared her experience
with fiction writer Sarah Miles - who now tells the story.

Zahra shivered as she finished her morning prayer. The chill air reminded her of home in the mountains of Afghanistan and she was grateful that Pakistan's hot season had not yet begun.

She made tea in the yard and carried it to her husband who was hunched under his quilt listening to the radio.

'They shouldn't go - it's too dangerous,' he said sharply. Zahra's face betrayed nothing.

'The teachers won't close the school. We must support them by sending the girls,' she said quietly.

The day before their daughters, ten and eight years old, had returned home terrified. They had been accosted by three Afghan men who threatened to punch them and insisted that the girls' school for Afghan refugees was closed by order of a fatwa or religious edict.

The edict had been pasted on the street walls but the teachers and parents were determined to ignore it.

'That fatwa is the work of narrow-minded bigots,' Zahra continued, contemptuous of the fundamentalist Resistance leaders who had grown so powerful in exile. Their harking back to the Prophet's ideals was a sham and a travesty of Islam, motivated by vested interests.

Of course after the 1978 coup she had actively supported Resistance efforts to overthrow the communist regime. But now the Afghan Resistance was split into two factions: moderates and fundamentalists. Here in Peshawar, capital of Pakistan's north-west frontier province, the fundamentalists held sway - for they received the bulk of the foreign arms and money. To Zahra they had become the enemy.

'Those men are armed and dangerous,' her husband warned. 'They have already driven one headmistress out of the country.'

'But the school is still open,' Zahra insisted. 'Anyway Aisha, the head-mistress, was sick. She had to go to America for treatment.'

'She went because she was afraid they would kill her,' he retorted.

Zahra knew he was right. Not that anyone could call Aisha a coward. She had done so much: defying those who opposed secular education for girls by opening the first girl's secondary school for Afghan refugees in Pakistan. Eventually the fundamentalists broke her nerve. The irony of it: Aisha, tortured by the communists for her work in the Resistance, was finally thwarted by fellow Resistance fighters.

'Please give permission,' Zahra pleaded. 'It's a sin to deprive girls of education. Their brother will go with them - don't worry, they'll be safe.'

Her husband silently assented, twiddling the radio knob for better reception. He constantly listened to Radio Afghanistan and the BBC World Service. But what good did it do? The news was always bad. After so much fighting and bitterness how could peace ever come to Afghanistan now?

Subdued, the girls put on their long grey uniforms and white head veils. Their very outfits expressed the repressive form of Islam that Zahra despised. Watching her children leave, she offered a prayer for their protection.

* * *

Unlike the majority of Pakistan's three million Afghan refugees, Zahra's family did not live in a camp but rented two cramped rooms and a tiny yard in a poor section of the city where Afghans and Pakistanis lived side by side. As relative newcomers to Peshawar they were not eligible for refugee assistance.

Three years ago it had become too dangerous for them to stay in the Afghan capital, Kabul. Boys younger than Zahra's eldest son Samad were being snatched from the streets and taken as soldiers by the communists. Also her husband discovered that an an enemy in the Ministry where he worked had proof that he was passing information to the Resistance. He was in danger of summary execution.

Within a week the family left everything and made the treacherous journey across the border, paying most of their savings to the guides who smuggled them out. Now their main income was 1,300 rupees: Zahra's monthly wage at a sewing project for Afghan women. Her husband became a street-trader.

Zahra had been brought up in a liberal household. After passing twelfth grade at school she got a job at the national airline office, dealing with customers. But now in Peshawar she had to observe strict purdah and wear a full-length veil in public, which she hated.

Today she dressed her smallest son, Nassir, put on her black gauze face-covering and wrapped herself in her black veil. Only her shabby patent leather shoes and the hem of her trousers showed beneath its voluminous folds.

She and the child hurried through crowds, choking dust and petrol fumes, and caught the minibus to work.

Once Nassir was in the creche, she went straight to the cutting room where she and five other women ran an embroidery project for outworkers in the refugee camps. The others listened horror-struck as Zahra told them how the girls had been threatened.

'Those bastards stop at nothing,' muttered her colleague Nasrat, who also had a daughter at the school.

'Some teachers change their clothes when they arrive at school these days - as disguise,' said Fatma, the project leader. The teachers were renowned for their courage. 'Don't worry, Zahra,' she added, 'the girls will be safe. You did right to send them.'

'I wouldn't have sent them if I didn't believe that!' Zahra commented with a slightly hostile look. 'But their father was unwilling at first.'

'Of course - mothers care more than fathers about educating girls,' murmured Nasrat.

Resolutely Zahra pushed the issue to the back of her mind. There was work to be done. She and Nasrat must visit out-workers, collect embroidery and place further orders. They caught a bus to Chenar Refugee Camp, where most of the permanent inhabitants were women, children and old men who depended on refugee rations.

The two women plunged down a dirt track alley into the camp, past crowded tea-houses, stalls and barrows of tangerines and blackening bananas. Nasrat lifted a dirty hessian curtain and led the way into the first dwelling.

Inside the yard a woman was washing clothes. The ground was muddy and water drained away through a hole in the wall. Zahra doubted whether the girls hanging out wet garments had ever had an education apart from some rudimentary religious instruction.

'It cost me a lot of effort,' the woman commented as Zahra examined her embroidery. 'In fact it's hardly worth my while unless you pay me more.

'Do you want another order or not?' Nasrat demanded brusquely.

'What else can I do?' the woman sighed. 'My husband's been fighting inside Afghanistan for months. I'm sick with worry; my children are hungry.'

She tucked the 150 rupees carefully away. It was poor reward for so many hours painstaking labour. Zahra wished there were more opportunities for such women to earn money - but they were trapped at home, conditioned into a state of virtual imprisonment.

Village women used to be so different in old Afghanistan. They had active lives, fetching water, gathering wood, spinning wool in the sun. And the parties! Drumming, clapping and dancing, story-telling and drinking tea until the early hours of the morning. Now everything was bombed and destroyed and the land was strewn with mines. So much depression, so little hope.

* * *

Zahra was exhausted by the time she got home. The house was uncannily quiet. One look at her son Samad's face and her heart began beating. Where were her daughters?

'Six men with guns went to the girls school!' he blurted out wide-eyed. 'They shot the porter. There was blood all over the floor...

'Where are the girls?'

'Mother of Latif's house. They were crying, so I took them there.'

Mother of Latif lived close by. Zahra was about to rush out.

'Wait, mother,' Samad checked her. 'Father's invited five guests tonight. He told me to buy meat and fruit. What shall I do?'

Zahra put her head in her hands. She couldn't think. She wanted her daughters. The guests would soon be here.

'Samad, fetch the girls,' she ordered, trying to appear calm. 'I need them to help me. Take Nassir with you - and tell Mother of Latif I must talk to her.'

Her hands shook as she measured rice onto a tray. What had the girls seen? She remembered turmoil on the streets of Kabul; school-girls demonstrating against the communist government were machine-gunned down. Blood all over the black and white uniforms. Screams filling the sky. She imagined her own daughters beaten and crushed. She felt sick. How could she dream of sacrificing their lives for a principle? Yet how could she condemn them to drudgery in a sunless yard like the women in the camp? Closed eyes - that's what the fundamentalists wanted. Closed eyes and blank brains. Women muzzled so that those bigots had more power to themselves.

Tears fell onto the rice as she sifted through it for husks and stones. Forcing herself to slow down, concentrate, she tried to form some plans. Tomorrow she would miss work and take the girls herself, she decided. She imagined herself physically shielding them, her flesh flinching from bullets.

She strained to hear their voices but they didn't come. Uncontrollable images invaded her consciousness: Aisha, the brave headmistress whose fingernails were forever blackened and split by electric needles. In Kabul she withheld information under torture. But there was a breaking point - that was the horror. The fundamentalists had broken her.

Faint with anxiety, Zahra rinsed the rice. The cold water shocked her senses, just as she felt her strength draining away. Automatically the holy names of God came to her lips. Her breathing slowed. 'Oh God, the Compassionate, the Merciful, this is not my breaking point,' she breathed. 'Help me. This is my battle.'

Sarah Miles is a British writer who has worked extensively with Afghan refugees.

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New Internationalist issue 227 magazine cover This article is from the January 1992 issue of New Internationalist.
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