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Stargazing in Kabul

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This article was originally published by WireTap.

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Ten days in the life and struggles of a young Afghan woman. Stargazing in Kabul


Anand Gopal

July 15, 2008

When 18-year-old Arazou Akbari grows up, she is going to be a star. She will wear long, flowing gowns that glitter, with purple high heels and maybe purple eyeliner. She will be all over the TV, peddling perfume and designer watches when she isn't performing. They'll sell her CDs in Kabul's bazaars. Her face will be splashed across the covers of magazines. She will learn English. She will use her fame to help other Afghan women succeed and discover their own talents. As Akbari tells it, the world will one day be hers, reality permitting.

In some ways Akbari is special: She is tall for an Afghan woman, on the sunny side of five feet. She has an undeniable éclat, whether she's wearing her form-fitting pinstripe suit or trademark purple nail polish. Usually a gemstone-studded headscarf frames her wistful eyes, and her young face reveals her Hazara ethnic background. She sings like a siren, and has a gift for playing instruments.

One more remarkable detail about Akbari's present life: She is getting a divorce.

Akbari is also quite ordinary: She is young, in a nation where war has done away with many of the older generations. She has been married, like most women her age, and is currently unemployed. She has a best friend; they gossip, but she won't tell you what about. She has never heard of Barack Obama. She is living in wartime, and doesn't really support either side.

She is all of these things--a young woman in modern Afghanistan doing her best to survive as U.S. and NATO forces fight an ideological and territorial struggle with the Taliban. For six weeks this spring, Akbari tries to ignore them both and make her own way.

March 7, 2008

Akbari and I arrive at the Ministry for Women's Affairs, nestled in central Kabul, early in the morning. She is here to petition for divorce--without a divorce, she cannot remarry, and without a husband, a normal life in Afghanistan is out of the question. The Ministry is abuzz; International Women's Day is in a couple of days.

The Ministry is an invention of the new Kabul government, formed with the United States' backing after the fall of the Taliban. It's one of the few places in Kabul you can actually see women; clutches of them draped in encompassing hospital-blue burqas wait patiently to see an officer in the complaints department. I try to talk to one of them but her minder, a slight, nattily dressed man, barks something in Persian and the woman walks away. After about an hour Akbari emerges: there will be no divorce proceedings today. The officer tells her to come back with a lawyer, a process that will take a few more weeks.

March 9, 2008

International Women's Day went off nicely yesterday, with muted celebrations around the capital. We are inside Akbari's home, formerly the servants' quarters of an abandoned shoe factory. Her father is here too, and he apologizes profusely that his two wives are too busy to welcome their guests. Akbari tells me about her childhood as she pours a cup of bitter tea. It all started simply enough, she says.

Born in Ghazni, a few hours south of Kabul, she fled with her family to Pakistan when the Taliban came to power. They returned shortly after the U.S.-led invasion. One day two years ago, a local merchant named Saleh caught a glimpse of her as she walked home from school, books in hand and running over the latest schoolyard gossip. The thirty-something Saleh immediately put out word that he was interested in the pretty young schoolgirl, which eventually reached her father.

"I didn't want to get married, but my parents made me," she says. Marriage is a profitable venture for families with daughters--grooms traditionally pay hefty sums to the bride's father for the right of betrothal. Akbari protested but to no avail. "To turn down a good offer from a member of the community would not look good on our family," says her father.

Within months, Akbari had moved in with her new husband and his five sisters. "Even in that first week he didn't talk nicely to me," she says. She was still going to school every morning, but a stray glance at a male passerby or a chance encounter with a schoolmate on the city streets was enough to enrage Salef. "I ran into my male cousin once and Saleh accused me of all sorts of things when I came home." From then on she would have to travel outside with his sisters, and even then only to school and back.

Eventually Saleh also put an end to her trendy ways, commanding that his new wife don a black burqua with a tiny slit for the eyes when she ventured out. Even at home, she should hide her flowing black hair behind a tight cloth. When neighbors put in a visit, she must stay unseen.

Saleh was always angry with Akbari, for one reason or another. Once she was late to school and left home without her minders. "When he found out he became furious," she says. At times, the recriminations would turn to beatings. "Sometimes he would see me walking in the house unveiled," she says, "and he would start talking dirty to me. He would punch me, kick me, sometimes beat me with a stick."

March 17, 2008

Back at the divorce office in the Women's Ministry. They have scheduled a hearing with a judge in three weeks. The signs are not hopeful; Akbari's lawyer says that Islamic law demands that a woman wait four years before attempting a divorce, although civil law clearly says otherwise. As we leave, a man bringing his wife to the ministry tells Akbari, who has the temerity to appear in public with only a head scarf and not a burqa, that he is going to rape her.

We head back to Akbari's neighborhood, a jumble of concrete and wires and houses that stack atop each other like dirty dishes. You can see the mementos of the last thirty years of Afghanistan's history here, all crammed into this tiny neighborhood as if the rest of the city didn't know what to do with them. Children roam the streets prowling for a handout. A one-legged beggar hops his way through the cars stuck in the grinding Kabul traffic, telling anyone who will listen that he lost his leg to a landmine.

There are people and debris everywhere crowding the narrow alleyways and sidewalls. On the margins of this scene, just behind Akbari's home, sits an old beige compound. It looks like a block of concrete Swiss cheese--bombs from recent wars have devoured large chunks of the facade.

April 1, 2008

Akbari has started piano lessons. A few weeks ago, a female contestant on the country's version of American Idol had, improbably, made it to the final round and inspired a whole generation of young female musicians. That contestant is now in hiding after receiving death threats, but for Akbari it was a clarion call to develop her skills and strive for a career in music. Already a talented singer, she had been going to the local radio station after school to record jingles. Neighbors found out and in the ensuing scandal--"Women should not appear on the TV or radio, they should stay modest," one cleric tells me--she was forced to give up the job.

April 5, 2008

The judge delivered his final verdict today: women cannot divorce their husbands; Akbari will have to wait until Saleh initiates the separation. She thinks it is all bunk: "Men and women are equal under Islam," she says.

The judge was unmoved by hearing about some of the worst beatings: Once when Saleh asked for some water he noticed a smudge on the glass and roared to Akbari, "Why is this glass dirty?" He threw the glass in her face and beat her to a pulp. Later he asked her to fix a wobbly bed but wasn't satisfied with the results. "He grabbed a fist full of my hair and smashed my face against the bedpost," she recalls. He continued punching and kicking his wife until she was left, ear damaged and nose cracked, slumped on the floor in a pool of blood.

At the time Akbari didn't tell anyone, but she might have found sympathetic ears, or at least many who shared her experience. The British NGO Womankind Worldwide reports in a recent study that 87 percent of Afghan women suffer domestic violence, 60 percent of marriages are coerced, and half are married off before the age of 16. $2000 will buy an interested suitor a child bride, sometimes two. One in nine women die in childbirth--the second worst rate in the world--and most have very limited access to healthcare.

The Taliban famously prevented female education, but seven years later, still only five percent of girls go to school. Only twelve percent of women can read or write. Most women cannot venture outside their homes without a male relative. In their despair Afghan women have taken to a new solution: self-immolation. Aid workers are reporting hundreds of cases of women who burn themselves to escape family disputes or forced marriages.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. The United States had promised, upon its 2001 invasion, that with the fall of the Taliban, Afghan women would be liberated , free to work and study. The new Washington-backed regime in Kabul quickly overturned the most oppressive laws: women were allowed to work and go to school, appear on TV and run for office.

But while eliminating the Taliban, the U.S. had turned to some of the very warlords and mujahideen commanders whose bloody internecine fighting had brought about the Taliban in the first place. Some of the most conservative commanders and religious clerics were now in parliament and itching to curb women's freedoms. And throughout all of this, the basic patterns in the life of an Afghan woman remained untouched: it was as if this latest war had never happened.

And you'd believe it too, if you strolled through Kabul's poor neighborhoods with their squalid open sewers, musky alleys that go nowhere and roads cracked like a hardboiled egg. Except for the occasional passing convoy, the soldiers don't spend much time here, on reconstruction or otherwise. "I don't think this country is getting better," Akbari says. "The newspapers say that the foreigners are here to help, but we don't see much change. My friends and I don't even talk about politics anymore."

April 12, 2008

Akbari learns that Saleh runs a liquor store in Belgium. He had gone to Europe a couple of months before to "look into business ventures." Once he had called and she asked if she could visit her parents--Saleh had not allowed her to see her father even once since the marriage began--and he replied, "If you dare leave the house then don't bother coming back. And if I catch you, may God help you." Yet somehow she had summoned the courage and stole away one morning, turning up at her parents' home.

April 16, 2008

I get a late-afternoon phone call. Akbari is on the other end.

"They tried to kidnap me today."

Who?

"I don't know--I think it was my music teacher."

What? What happened? Are you okay?

She hangs up, crying.

April 23, 2008

It has been one week since Akbari was almost kidnapped. She was practicing piano when her piano teacher went into the adjacent room with a "strange man." Pressing her ear against the wood-paneled door, she could make out the plans to abduct her. She ran, as hard as she ever has, back home, slammed the door behind her and started sobbing. The family is convinced that criminals had sighted her as a sex slave, to be sold to a wealthy Arab master in the Gulf.

April 24, 2008

"I'm so scared. I haven't left home in a week," Akbari says. She has dropped out of school, and piano lessons, needless to say, are a thing of the past. The family thinks that Saleh might be involved in the attempted heist. She has also given up on getting a divorce, at least until someone finds Saleh.

Akbari's father went to the police station today. But the officers blame Akbari's father for her near kidnapping. "When you allow your daughter go outside and learn music, well, then she's asking for it. There's nothing we can do," a policeman explains.

April 25, 2008

Akbari has started playing the piano again. Her father bought a smallish Casio so that she could practice without leaving home. Today she is practicing a somber tune of unrequited love, an old Persian number. She sings as she plays:

I will never laugh without you
If you don't make me happy, I'll cry until the sky changes
If you don't make me happy, I will burn the world.

Akbari says she will sing this number again when she becomes famous. And then all of us will marvel, from our barracks and our coffee shops and our poppy fields and our dorm rooms, at Akbari, who shakes off war and gender like unsightly dandruff. We will marvel at Arazou Akbari, the star.

Read more on conditions for women in Afghanistan at Afghan-Web.

Anand Gopal covers Afghanistan and the "War on Terror" for a variety of news outlets. Read more on his website.

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