The NI Interview
Afghani freedom-fighter and feminist Nooria Jehan talks to Christine Aziz in Kabul.
Nooria Jehan sweeps into the room – her feet and hands the only visible part of her body except for a glimpse of her eyes behind the embroidered grill of her bourqa. Dramatically she flings the bourqa back behind her shoulders revealing an aquiline nose, piercing eyes and mocking smile. Women rise from the kelim cushions scattered around the walls to embrace her in greeting. A veteran freedom fighter in her forties and mother of seven children, she belies the Western media cliché of the submissive Muslim woman.
We sit together and she begins to speak in Farsi, in a voice that is both forceful and expressive. No doubt her companions have heard it many times before, but they sit spellbound. She speaks against a background of intermittent artillery and mortar fire and the thud of rockets less than 13 kilometres away. None of the women take any notice.
Before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan Nooria had been a young mother concentrating on bringing up her children. With the arrival of Russian troops in 1979 she became one of hundreds of women to join the mujahideen (Afghani freedom fighters) and fight the Soviet occupation over the next decade. Along with other resistance forces she helped oust the pro-Soviet regime of President Najibullah in 1992 in favour of Burhanuddin Rabbani and his military commander, Ahmed Shah Masud.
Nooria first became involved in the Jihad (Holy War) by distributing ‘night papers’ – resistance pamphlets – to civil servants. ‘These people had no access to the mujahideen activities,’ Nooria recalls. ‘After one year the mujahideen asked me to take part in terrorist activities and gave me a gun. But I found it difficult just to shoot people and it was easy for the enemy to capture us because everyone was looking for guns. So I learned explosive techniques and began supervising and teaching the younger men. I was leading them into ministries like the Ministry of Defence, aiming directly at Russian offices. We would stick explosives and detonators under the Russians’ tables and chairs.’
Early one morning the Russians came to her house and arrested her. ‘They said I was a leader and sentenced me to 18 years in prison. The Russians were lawless, but their interrogation was of a human nature. There was no beating up, but a lot of electric shocks,’ she recalls. After two years in prison she was released in exchange for an Afghan communist and a Russian who had been held by General Masud.
Afghan women have borne the brunt of 16 years of war and internecine fighting. When territory changes hands after long battles, the conquerors often celebrate by killing and raping women. In Kabul, women have been ordered to stay home by the Government and to wear the bourqa. But many have defied orders from Rabbani’s Islamic State, settling instead for small scarves that cover the hair. The Government has little choice but to turn a blind eye. ‘We have to go out in the streets to get food, firewood and water,’ Nooria stresses. ‘There are so many widows in this city who are struggling to bring up families on nothing. If women have to stay at home all day, the city will starve.’
Nooria and her friends now face a new threat: a group of Islamic extremists called the Taleban. This group emerged in 1994 as a major force in Afghan politics. Composed of young men from Pakistani refugee camps, they captured Afghanistan’s second largest city, Herat, and have laid siege to the city of Kabul since October 1995. As the Taleban continue to launch rocket attacks on the city, women’s support for the besieged Rabbani Administration has become a critical factor in his Government’s survival. If he is ousted the Islamic extremists would almost certainly strip Kabul’s women of what rights they have left.
Nooria considers the Taleban as much of a threat to her land and the dignity of the country’s women as the Russians. But what will she do if the Taleban succeed in capturing Kabul?
She pauses for a moment and then claps her hands laughing: ‘We will fight them as we fought the Russians. The Taleban think they will be able to force us into our homes at gunpoint like they did the women in Herat. They will be mistaken. But we are tired. What we want more than anything is peace. We want the rockets to stop.’
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996