‘First’ Afghan female rapper seeks reason with rhymes #Womenrights #Vaw

Published: January 3, 2013

Soosan Feroz practicing with Afghan pop musician Farid Rastagar at a recording studio in Kabul. PHOTO: AFP

Soosan Feroz  practicing with Afghan pop musician Farid Rastagar at a recording studio in Kabul. PHOTO: AFPSinger raps of rape, abuse and atrocities that Afghan women have endured during decades of war. PHOTO: AFP/FILE

KABUL: Sporting a long leather coat and western jeans under a headscarf, Soosan Feroz looks like many modern women in Kabul.

But she is a surprising new phenomenon in this conservative country – the nation’s first female rapper.

Her lyrics though are not unfamiliar for many of her fellow countrywomen – she raps of rape, abuse and atrocities that Afghan women have endured during decades of war in a country gripped by poverty.

“My raps are about the sufferings of women in my country, the pains of the war that we have endured and the atrocities of the war,” Feroz told AFP in an interview in the office of a local company that is helping her record her first album, between local performances including at the US embassy in Kabul.

Like most fellow Afghans, the 23-year-old says her life is filled with bitterness – memories of war, bombing and a life at refugee camps in neighboring Iran and Pakistan.

She was taken to Pakistan as a child by her parents and later to Iran, escaping a bloody civil war at home in 1990s.

Two years after the 2001 US-led invasion of her war-scarred nation that toppled the Taliban, the then-teenager returned home with her family.

She worked as a carpet weaver with her other siblings for a living until she discovered her new talent.

Told that rap and hip hop had become a way for many artists around the world to express daily hardships in their lives, Feroz says: “If rap singing is a way to tell your miseries, Afghans have a lot to say.

“That’s why I chose to be a rapper.”

She recalls her woes at Iranian refugee camps in her first recorded piece of music, “Our neighbours”, which has been posted on Youtube and viewed nearly 100,000 times:

“What happened to us in the neighbouring country?

“We became ‘the dirty Afghan’

“At their bakeries we were pushed at the back of the queue.”

The lyrics are borne from personal experience, Feroz said. “As a child when I was going to bring bread from our neighbourhood bakery, the Iranians would tell me, ‘go back, you dirty Afghan’.

“I would be the last one in the line to get my bread,” she said.

Millions of Afghans still live in Iran and Pakistan, which together hosted about seven million refugees after the former Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979.

Feroz was too young to remember the bloody battles of the 1980s between the Russian soldiers and freedom fighters known as mujahedin but her first song is full of war tales, with one line proclaiming: “We went to Europe for a better life (but) in refugee camps we rotted.”

Thousands of Afghans put their lives on the line every year to reach Europe through dangerous and illegal routes on land and sea. Those who make it often spend years in isolated refugee camps.

Afghan pop star Farid Rastagar has offered to help the young artist release an album, the first song of which will be released in January.

One of the songs is called “Naqisul Aql” which can be translated as “deficient-in-mind” – a common belief about women among Afghan men.

“In this rap, she sings about the miseries of the women in Afghanistan, about abuses and wrong beliefs that still exists about women,” Rastagar told AFP.

Afghan women have made some progress since the fall of the Taliban but many still suffer horrific abuse including so-called ‘honour killings” for percieved sexual disobedience.

Feroz, the daughter of a former civil servant and an illiterate housewife who remarkably let their daughter sing, has already made scores of enemies not only among conservatives but within her own family.

After releasing her first song on the internet, Feroz’s uncles and their families have shunned her, accusing her of bringing shame on them.

Others, mostly anonymous callers, have threatened to kill her.

“What’s my fault?” she asks. “I always receive phone calls from unknown men who say I’m a bad girl and they will kill me,” she says, her dark eyes welling with tears.

Sitting next to her is her father, Abdul Ghafaar Feroz, who says he prides himself on being her “personal secretary”.

“I’m not deterred,” Feroz said, her father nodding his head in agreement. “Somebody had to start this, I did and I don’t regret it and I will continue. I want to be the voice of women in my country.”


In Afghanistan, underground girls school defies Taliban edict, threats

By , Published: April 25

SPINA, Afghanistan — Every morning in this mountain village in eastern Afghanistan, four dozen girls sneak through a square opening in a mud-baked wall, defying a Taliban edict.

A U.S.-funded girls school about a mile away was shuttered by insurgents in 2007, two years after it opened. They warned residents that despite a new government in Kabul and an international aid effort focused on female education, the daughters of Spina were to stay home. For a while, they all did.

Then two brothers, among the few literate men in the village, began quietly teaching math, reading and writing to their female relatives in a living room on the edge of town. They wanted to keep the classes small, they said, to stay off the Taliban’s radar. That turned out to be impossible.

The United States and its allies have spent millions of dollars on female education in the past decade, and Afghan and Western officials have pointed to the issue as one of the most hopeful changes of the post-Taliban era. Female enrollment in public schools has risen from 5,000 under the Taliban to 2.5 million, according to the Afghan Education Ministry.
But Afghanistan is rife with places like Spina, where formal efforts to educate women and girls have crumbled. About 2 million Afghan girls do not attend school.

Those who do sometimes face threats. Last week, suspected militants poisoned more than 100 schoolgirls in northern Afghanistan, according to Amanullah Iman, a spokesman for the Education Ministry, who said an investigation into the incident was ongoing. The girls are recovering.

Because of threats, several schools in eastern Afghanistan have been closed in the past few months, reversing what had been a positive trend, said Vidhya Ganesh, the deputy country representative for UNICEF.

The insurgency had already forced the closure of dozens of girls schools beginning in the middle of past decade, when insurgents started to return to Afghanistan. Many of the schools were built and funded by the United States, and many never reopened. In some villages, the schools have gone underground, hidden in living rooms and guesthouses, as they were during the Taliban’s reign.

“It’s risky for the teachers and it’s risky for the students, but these underground schools show the thirst people have for education under the Taliban,” said Shukriya Barakzai, a parliamentarian who ran her own underground school when the Taliban held power in Kabul in the 1990s.

“It doesn’t feel much different from those years,” said one of the brothers in insurgent-infested Spina. “We live in a community very far from democracy and freedom.”

‘Something from nothing’

When the insurgency arrived in this patch of Paktika province in 2005, it did so with great force and little resistance. The absence of Afghan or American security forces meant fighters could wield weapons freely and threaten residents without consequence. The warning to girls went unchallenged.

But word soon spread about the underground girls school — part of a shadow education system developed in places such as Spina to elude the Taliban. The full extent of the system is not known, but American and Afghan officials say such underground networks are not uncommon in places with a large insurgent presence.


First, young students — between 5 and 12 years old — would trickle into the home of the two brothers, who for security reasons insisted that their names not be published. Then, teenagers started arriving, the brothers said, a particularly rare and controversial development in eastern Afghanistan, where females are expected to remain home upon reaching adolescence.

The brothers could hardly believe the turnout, which at once worried and excited them. They named the school after their great uncle, Namizad, a religious scholar.


“The girls just kept coming.” one brother said. “They were so eager, like they were starving.”

When a U.S. army platoon made a rare visit to Spina this month, soldiers saw the school as an example of resilience in the face of a failed development project, a sign of hope in a dismal place. In recent months, according to U.S. officials, the Taliban in Paktika have robbed teachers of their salaries to buy an 82mm mortar and shells.

“I want to thank you for your courage,” U.S. Army Lt. Col. Curtis Taylor told the brothers and their students after ducking through the family’s living room doorway.

The girls at the Namizad School sit on carpets, beginning each class with a recitation from the Koran. A chalkboard rests on the floor. Less than half the class has textbooks, which have made their way from Kabul. As in the rest of Spina, there is no electricity.

“These students are learning something from nothing,” one of the brothers said.

The brothers have pleaded for more resources. They have prayed to remain outside the Taliban’s reach. But the district’s education director claimed he had no money for the education of girls, the brothers said, in an account confirmed by local officials. And the Taliban have crept ever closer.

A few months ago, insurgents posted a letter on the brothers’ door. “We will not allow the education of girls,” it read, calling the practice “un-Islamic.” The letter warned of a violent punishment.

The brothers talked about what to do. Should they end the classes? Should they leave Spina?

The two willowy men in their early 30s have bright eyes and long brown beards and wear flowing white salwar-kameez, the traditional dress here. Their backgrounds are strikingly similar to those of the insurgents who threaten them. Like the Talibs of western Paktika, the brothers were educated in Pakistani madrassas, or religious schools. They, too, were raised to believe in a strict adherence to the Koran, Islam’s holiest book.

“I was so close to joining the Taliban,” one said. “The men haunting us, they are men we know well.”

‘I want to learn everything’

The brothers tried to make the case to the Taliban that they would teach only religious material to their students. They warned their students of the risk of attending classes, and they were surprised again when the girls kept coming. There’s now a morning class for young children and an afternoon class for teenagers. The brothers beam when talking about recent graduates, eight of whom are now trained midwives.

“I liked the other school better. We had desks and books,” said Baranah, 11, who was in first grade when the Taliban closed the U.S.-funded school. “But this place is still good. We still learn here. I want to learn everything.”

The insurgency has not followed through with its threat. The brothers wonder if it ever will — if the Taliban’s recent silence signifies its tacit approval or is merely a prelude to violence.

In some cases, the Afghan government and international organizations have been able to reach compromises with insurgents to keep schools open.

“We’re beginning to find ways to negotiate with anti-government elements,” said UNICEF’s Ganesh.

Some here worry that women’s rights are being sidelined as the United States prepares to leave and the Afghan government attempts to satisfy a hard-line constituency. In March, top religious leaders on the country’s Ulema Council ruled that men are “fundamental” and women “secondary,” barring women from interacting with their male counterparts in schools or the workplace.

In Spina, only boys are educated in the U.S.-funded, one-story yellow building constructed five years ago to educate girls. Most of the windows are broken, and the paint is chipping.

“That place seemed perfect,” one brother said. “But we knew it wouldn’t last long.”


Why Afghan Women Risk Death to Write Poetry

Seamus Murphy/VII for The New York Times

Saheera Sharif, the founder of Mirman Baheer (upper center); Ogai Amail, a poet and member of the group (bottom left); also pictured are other members of the poets’ group.


Published: April 27, 2012

In a private house in a quiet university neighborhood of Kabul, Ogai Amail waited for the phone to ring. Through a plate-glass window, she watched the sinking sun turn the courtyard the color of eggplant. The electricity wasn’t working and the room was unheated, a few floor cushions the only furnishings. Amail tucked her bare feet underneath her and pulled up the collar of her puffy black coat. Her dark hair was tied in a ponytail, and her eyelids were coated in metallic blue powder. In the green glare of the mobile phone’s screen, her face looked wan and worried. When the phone finally bleeped, Amail shrieked with joy and put on the speakerphone. A teenage girl’s voice tumbled into the room. “I’m freezing,” the girl said. Her voice was husky with cold. To make this call, she’d sneaked out of her father’s mud house without her coat.

Like many of the rural members of Mirman Baheer, a women’s literary society based in Kabul, the girl calls whenever she can, typically in secret. She reads her poems aloud to Amail, who transcribes them line by line. To conceal her poetry writing from her family, the girl relies on a pen name, Meena Muska. (Meena means “love” in the Pashto languagemuska means “smile.”)

Meena lost her fiancé last year, when a land mine exploded. According to Pashtun tradition, she must marry one of his brothers, which she doesn’t want to do. She doesn’t dare protest directly, but reciting poetry to Amail allows her to speak out against her lot. When I asked how old she was, Meena responded in a proverb: “I am like a tulip in the desert. I die before I open, and the waves of desert breeze blow my petals away.” She wasn’t sure of her age but thought she was 17. “Because I am a girl, no one knows my birthday,” she said.
Meena lives in Gereshk, a town of 50,000 people in Helmand, the largest of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. Helmand has struggled with the double burden of being one of the world’s largest opium producers and an insurgent stronghold. Meena’s father pulled her out of school four years ago after gunmen kidnapped one of her classmates. Now she stays home, cooks, cleans and teaches herself to write poetry in secret. Poems are the only form of education to which she has access. She doesn’t meet outsiders face to face.
“I can’t say any poems in front of my brothers,” she said. Love poems would be seen by them as proof of an illicit relationship, for which Meena could be beaten or even killed. “I wish I had the opportunities that girls do in Kabul,” she went on. “I want to write about what’s wrong in my country.” Meena gulped. She was trying not to cry. On the other end of the line, Amail, who is prone to both compassion and drama, began to weep with her. Tears mixed with kohl dripped onto the page of the spiral notebook in which Amail was writing down Meena’s verses. Meena recited a Pashtun folk poem called a landai:
“My pains grow as my life dwindles,
I will die with a heart full of hope.”
“I am the new Rahila,” she said. “Record my voice, so that when I get killed at least you’ll have something of me.”
Amail grimaced, uncertain how to respond. “Don’t call yourself that,” she snapped. “Do you want to die, too?”
Rahila was the name used by a young poet, Zarmina, who committed suicide two years ago. Zarmina was reading her love poems over the phone when her sister-in-law caught her. “How many lovers do you have?” she teased. Zarmina’s family assumed there was a boy on the other end of the line. As a punishment, her brothers beat her and ripped up her notebooks, Amail said. Two weeks later, Zarmina set herself on fire.
Like Meena, Zarmina lived in Gereshk, a little less than 400 miles from Kabul. She, too, wasn’t allowed to leave her home. She first found the literary group by listening to the radio, her only link to the outside world. One day, on Radio Azadi — Radio Liberty — she heard a Mirman Baheer member reading poems. With no way to contact the group, she phoned another radio program, “Lost Love,” a popular show that mostly connects refugees to family members or friends they haven’t seen in decades. Zarmina asked for help in finding Mirman Baheer. One of the station’s employees was a member. “Oh, so you thought we were lost, too!” she told the aspiring poet, before sharing the phone number.
Zarmina soon became a regular caller. Whenever she could, she phoned into Mirman Baheer’s Saturday-afternoon meetings at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in Kabul. Zarmina would ask Amail if she could read her poems aloud to the group. But the Kabul meetings were crowded with eager poets, vying to be heard. Amail often had to tell Zarmina to wait her turn. “I’d say, ‘No, I’ll call you,’ but she’d call back within a few minutes.”
Sometimes Zarmina couldn’t stand to wait for a meeting to call Amail. When Amail said she was too busy to talk, Zarmina would respond with a landai:
“I am shouting but you don’t answer — 
One day you’ll look for me and I’ll be gone from this world.”
“How sweet it would have been if we’d only recorded her voice while she was reading poems,” Amail said. She picked bits of caramelized sugar and almonds from a glass dish. “Now, when any girl calls, I note down everything — the dates of the poems, the phone numbers, every single thing she says.” (The group still can’t afford a tape recorder.)
In her poems, Zarmina described “the dark cage of the village.” Her work was impressive, according to Amail, not only for its distinctive language but also for its courage to question God’s will. “That’s what our poems had in common,” Amail said. “We complained to God about the state of our lives.” Zarmina’s poems posed questions: “Why am I not in a world where people can feel what I’m feeling and hear my voice?” She asked, “If God cares about beauty, why aren’t we allowed to care?” She asked: “In Islam, God loved the Prophet Muhammad. I’m in a society where love is a crime. If we are Muslims, why are we enemies of love?”
As Amail and Zarmina grew closer, they would talk several times a day whenever Zarmina could sneak access to a phone; but there were periods when they managed to speak only once a month. During the two weeks between her brothers’ beating and her suicide, Zarmina gave Amail no indication of how desperate she was when she called. She did, however, recite another landai:
“On Doomsday, I will say aloud, 
I came from the world with my heart full of hope.”
“Stupid, don’t say that,” Amail recalls saying. “You’re too young to die.”
To the women of Mirman Baheer, Zarmina is only the most recent of Afghanistan’s poet-martyrs. “She was a sacrifice to Afghan women,” Amail told me. “There are hundreds like her.”
Mirman Baheer, Afghanistan’s largest women’s literary society, is a contemporary version of a Taliban-era literary network known as the Golden Needle. In Herat, women, pretending to sew, gathered to talk about literature. In Kabul, Mirman Baheer has no need for subterfuge. Its more than 100 members are drawn primarily from the Afghan elite: professors, parliamentarians, journalists and scholars. They travel on city buses to their Saturday meetings, their faces uncovered, wearing high-heeled boots and shearling coats. But in the outlying provinces — Khost, Paktia, Maidan Wardak, Kunduz, Kandahar, Herat and Farah — where the society’s members number 300, Mirman Baheer functions largely in secret.
Of Afghanistan’s 15 million women, roughly 8 out of 10 live outside urban areas, where U.S. efforts to promote women’s rights have met with little success. Only 5 out of 100 graduate from high school, and most are married by age 16, 3 out of 4 in forced marriages. Young poets like Meena who call into the hot line, Amail told me, “are in a very dangerous position. They’re behind high walls, under the strong control of men.” Herat University’s celebrated young poet, Nadia Anjuman, died in 2005, after a severe beating by her husband. She was 25.
Pashtun poetry has long been a form of rebellion for Afghan women, belying the notion that they are submissive or defeated. Landai means “short, poisonous snake” in Pashto, a language spoken on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The word also refers to two-line folk poems that can be just as lethal. Funny, sexy, raging, tragic, landai are safe because they are collective. No single person writes a landai; a woman repeats one, shares one. It is hers and not hers. Although men do recite them, almost all are cast in the voices of women. “Landai belong to women,” Safia Siddiqi, a renowned Pashtun poet and former Afghan parliamentarian, said. “In Afghanistan, poetry is the women’s movement from the inside.”
Traditionally, landai have dealt with love and grief. They often railed against the bondage of forced marriage with wry, anatomical humor. An aging, ineffectual husband is frequently described as a “little horror.” But they have also taken on war, exile and Afghan independence with ferocity. In the 1880 Battle of Maiwand, when Afghan forces were losing to the British, a Pashtun heroine named Malalai is said to have seized the Afghan flag and shouted this landai:
“Young love, if you do not fall in the Battle of Maiwand, 
By God, someone is saving you as a symbol of shame.”
Malalai died on the battlefield, but Afghan forces were ultimately victorious.
More recently, landai have taken on the Russian occupation, the hypocrisy of the Taliban and the American military presence. One landai that came into circulation during the Russian occupation is still uttered today:
“May your airplane crash and may the pilot die
that you are pouring bombs on my beloved Afghanistan.”
Like most folk literature, landai can be sorrowful or bawdy. Imagine the Wife of Bath riding through the Himalayan foothills and uttering landai so ribald that they curled the toes of her fellow travelers. She might tease her rival: “Say hello to my sweetheart/If you are a farter [tizan, one who farts a lot], then I can fart louder than you.” She might make a cutting political joke: “Your black eyelashes are Israel/and my heart is Palestine under your attack.” She might utter an elegiac couplet: “My beloved gave his head for our country/I will sew his shroud with my hair.”
“A poem is a sword,” Saheera Sharif, Mirman Baheer’s founder, said. Sharif is not a poet but a member of Parliament from the province of Khost. Literature, she says, is a more effective battle for women’s rights than shouting at political rallies. “This is a different kind of struggle.”
On a recent afternoon in Kabul, Amail looked over her reading glasses at two dozen poets and writers, 15 to 55 years old, convened around a U-shaped conference table at the Ministry for Women’s Affairs. Sharif held her 7-year-old daughter, Zala, in her lap. Zala clutched a white fur pony purse loaded with markers. She unzipped its belly, colored distractedly and played with an iPhone during a brief lecture on the nature of the soul given by Alam Gul Sahar, one of President Hamid Karzai’s speechwriters and the author of 15 books of poems. As Sahar droned on, the women yawned, their exhales forming puffs of gray breath in the room’s freezing air. As soon as Sahar finished, the workshop began. A young woman stood and raced through a reading of her short story in an anxious monotone: a girl whose mother died in childbirth ends up going to college and having to choose between two potential lovers. One suitor attempts suicide but is miraculously revived. The end. The critique started. One of the group’s more senior members pointed out two problems. First, Pashto stories don’t feature two lovers, because that would sully a woman’s honor. Second, the story’s diction was monotonous.
“Since your character is educated, she should speak in a more sophisticated way,” the woman told the downcast author. In judging a work’s merit, members consider the writer’s recitation. Sharif believes that the group’s mission is to teach young women not just to write but also to speak aloud and with confidence.
The meeting turned to poetry next. The women had brought contemporary landai with them. Traditionally, the poems were traded at henna night, the evening before a wedding when women gather around the bride to decorate her body. The landai are sometimes sung to the beat of a small hand drum. (Because singing is associated with loose morals, poetry can be seen as shameful for women, a notion that the Taliban’s conservatism helped foster.) Landai once focused on the godar — the place where village women went to fetch water and where men, who were not allowed to approach them, tried to steal looks at their beloveds from a distance. These educated women used landai to speak of larger issues, like Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s one-eyed spiritual leader who is rumored to be dead, not a guest of Pakistan: “Grass is growing on the blind man’s tomb/Stupid Talibs still believe that he’s alive.” Amail read one about America’s failing military efforts: “Here, they fight the Taliban/Behind the mountains, they train them.”
When I asked who brought this one, Zamzama, 17, raised her hand amid nervous giggles. She seemed both embarrassed and emboldened to be criticizing America to an American. Along with her 15-year-old cousin, Lima, Zamzama joined the group two years earlier. Lima had recently won the group’s literary prize. When she was 11, she began writing poems addressed to God.
“I started reading them to my father,” Lima said. She smiled and glanced around at the others who were suddenly listening. “My father doesn’t know much about poetry.” An engineer, he heard about Mirman Baheer from a colleague and now sends his daughters here weekly to learn to write. “He gave me this,” she said. She held up a blue plastic notebook embossed with the words “Healthnet — Enabling People to Help Themselves.” Lima stood to recite her latest poem: a rubaiyat, the Arabic name for a quatrain, addressed to the Taliban.
You won’t allow me to go to school. 
I won’t become a doctor. 
Remember this:
One day you will be sick.
Following Zarmina’s story meant traveling to Gereshk. I wanted to see how she’d lived, and I wondered what, besides her brothers’ anger, led her to take her life. It seemed impossible that I would find the family of one dead girl among 50,000 people or that, if I did, they would speak about her, but I went anyway, as there was also the slight chance of meeting Meena Muska, the teenager who called Mirman Baheer and invoked Zarmina’s name. I began my search in Helmand’s embattled capital, Laskhar Gah, of which Gereshk is a suburb. Government sources and a local network of traditional leaders called maliks (they belong to an Afghan organization, Wadan, the Welfare Association for the Development of Afghanistan) helped me gather a list of reported cases of women and girls who died violent deaths in Gereshk in the past two years. The list was brief but grim. Was I looking for the girl who was found drowned in the Helmand River in a sack? No. The girl who had her head shaved and then was chopped into pieces by her husband’s brothers? No. Well, then, there was only one left: a girl who in 2010 set herself on fire and died in the Kandahar hospital.
“Ten years ago, no one heard about these problems,” Fauzia Olemi, Helmand’s minister of Women’s Affairs, told me when we met. “Now we have a network of organizations that investigate them.”
It was a balmy afternoon in Lashkar Gah, and Olemi wanted to show me some of Helmand’s modest successes for women’s education, which included a three-day workshop on the health benefits of eating tomatoes, okra and other vegetables. Because Helmand is among the largest poppy producers in the world, there’s a special effort to encourage farmers to plant other crops.
In a squat, cement-block government building, about 50 women sat in front of a whiteboard, which read, “If you eat two kilograms of tomatoes a day, you will be cured of cancer.” This group was very different from the one in Kabul. Many of the women were in their 20s and 30s, their faces deeply lined from working in the fields. It was nearing midday, when the insurgents would begin to explode I.E.D.’s along the road, and the lesson was almost over. As the women gathered their things to leave, I asked if any of them liked poetry. As soon as the question was translated, a wisp of a woman leapt to her feet and began what looked like freestyle rapping in Pashto. She shook her bony shoulders to four-beat lines that ended in a rhyme of “ma” or “na.” Gulmakai was 22 but looked 45. She made up poems all the time, she explained, as she cooked and cleaned the house. She said,
“Making love to an old man is like
Making love to a limp cornstalk blackened by fungus.”
The women roared with surprised laughter, which I, hearing the poem in translation, took a minute to understand (the first, sanitized version offered to me was something like “Being married is like corn”). “I know this is true,” she announced. “My father married me to an old man when I was 15.” She tried to say something else, but the workshop leader, a man, silenced her. Time was up. The participants needed to go home, or their families would worry.
A few days later, I arranged to travel to Gereshk and meet with Zarmina’s parents with the help of a local women’s advocate. Under the Taliban, the advocate worked as a physician assistant in Gereshk Hospital, where her services were in high demand. Paradoxically, since their fall, her life had grown more dangerous: being a women’s advocate linked her to Karzai’s government and to seemingly Western notions of women’s rights. Like almost every local women’s leader I met, she’d survived several botched assassination attempts. “I have six or seven colored burqas so the Taliban doesn’t know who I am,” the advocate told me on the phone. She laughed. “The burqas keep me safe.” Yet she agreed with Olemi that, for most women, violence was more likely to come from home. “Now that Afghan women are aware of their rights, they fight for them in their family,” she said. “If they get their rights, that’s good. If they don’t, they kill themselves or get beaten up.”
The night before we left Lashkar Gah, I dialed Meena Muska’s number, hoping she would be able to meet me the following day.
“Absolutely not,” she told my translator.
She couldn’t leave the house without raising suspicion. She also had reservations based on her family’s code of honor. “Because of the war, it’s dishonorable for a Pashtun to meet an American,” she said. “Please don’t take it personally,” she added. “I didn’t mean to insult you.” Suddenly, in the silence, she changed her mind. “Meet me at the hospital,” she said. “I’ll be waiting.” Her only stipulation was that I and my translator come alone.
The next morning, our miniconvoy — two white sedans flanked by two green police pickup trucks — left town for the 50-mile drive north along Helmand’s main highway to Gereshk. We’d been driving less than five minutes when an oversize rickshaw catapulted out of an intersection and rammed into our Toyota Corolla. Within seconds, a swarm of onlookers surrounded the car, looking at the smashed headlight. It wasn’t a great place to be trapped in a crowd — two weeks earlier, a suicide bomber blew up a truck only yards away. There were sure to be Taliban informants among the onlookers; if anyone hadn’t known we were coming along the road that day, they did now.
We drove on past young boys raking patches of blown-up road, the mangled rebar gnarled like hair; past America’s surveillance blimps hanging cartoonishly low above the salt plain; past a line of camels cruising under industrial power lines. The electric lines were a legacy of a U.S.-sponsored midcentury hydropower project, the Kajaki dam, which, for a while, earned this stretch the nickname “little America.”
An hour and a half later, we arrived at the mud-walled compound of Fatima Zurai, a member of Gereshk’s local women’s council, through whom I hoped to meet Zarmina’s parents. An elderly couple, they were seated in the corner of the room. Zurai ran a women’s business collective that sold heart-shaped, beaded rainbow purses for 10 U.S. dollars to foreign soldiers. Over tea and caramels, Zurai spoke of the losses she and her family suffered, caught between American forces and the insurgents. Zurai sent her daughter to fetch a bundle of cloth, which she unwrapped, holding up a white, blood-soaked shalwar kameez.
“My husband was wearing this shirt when the Taliban murdered him two years ago,” she said. Her husband, Mir Ahmad, was on the Taliban hit list because he worked with the local government as a malik.
Then she shook out a small pair of brown muslin trousers from the cloth pile. Muddy and torn, they smelled like rot, and Zurai’s small daughter held her chador against her nose to block the stench. The trousers, Zurai said, belonged to her 12-year-old son, Ihsanullah. He was walking home from school in the spring of 2011 when a military vehicle driven by a U.S. Marine struck and killed him. The U.S. Marine commander, Zurai said, brought the driver to her house to make amends.
“God gave me this son 12 years ago, before the Americans came,” she recalled telling the commander. Zurai said that, yes, she forgave the driver. This was less a personal decision than a cultural one. Forgiveness was part of the honor code known as Pashtunwali. (The U.S. military said it did not have enough information to verify the incident; payments for accidental civilian deaths, which Zurai said her family received, are common.)
From her seat on a floor cushion, Zarmina’s mother, Simin Gula, a maroon burqa pulled back from her face to reveal a mouth devoid of teeth, leaned into my translator and pointed to me. “Do they have the custom of marriage where she comes from?” she asked. “Is she married?”
“Yes,” the translator lied.
Zarmina’s father, Kheyal Mohammad, remained silent. Zarmina burned to death two years earlier, her mother said. “It was an accident. She was trying to get warm after a bath, but the firewood was wet, so she poured gasoline on it and caught herself on fire.” Zarmina’s father nodded assent. No, their daughter absolutely did not like writing, reading or poetry. “She was a good girl, an uneducated girl,” Zarmina’s mother said. “Our girls don’t want to go to school.”
“The mother is lying,” Zurai whispered.
The parents agreed to take us to see where Zarmina was buried, a five-minute drive away. A maze of rocky hummocks marked the graves. We passed three women kneeling over three smaller, fresh plots. Zarmina’s parents stopped before a grave covered in loose black gravel with no headstone.
Walking briskly back to the cars, we passed the three kneeling women again. Behind me, one murmured Zarmina’s name. “She set herself on fire because her family wouldn’t let her marry the man she loved,” she said, then returned to grieving over the plot that held her son, who was killed in a recent suicide attack.
The early-afternoon sun had swung above us. The local council members urged us to hurry. But before we left Gereshk, we had one final stop to make — to meet Meena. Leaving the entourage behind at the district governor’s office, we drove through the bazaar’s crowded warren of streets and pulled up under the dusty, red-lettered sign of Gereshk District Hospital. A handful of people milled in the parking lot. Meena Muska hadn’t come after all, I thought, my heart sinking. Then the phone rang.
“Why did you bring the police?” a high voice demanded. She was suspicious of our armed government guard. Through the windshield, I saw a woman in cerulean blue glide past. Her burqa was an awkward shape; she was on the telephone. Without glancing our way, she breezed around the edge of the whitewashed clinic. I tumbled out of the car, unaccustomed to the tangle of fabric engulfing me, and shuffled after her. Behind the corner of the building stood a young woman with a diamond stud in her nose. She wore thick black socks and open-toed rhinestone slippers. The rest of her face remained behind a piece of woolen fabric. There was no need for introductions. We embraced. Next to her stood a shorter, rounder woman, with a heavily wrinkled face. She was the girl’s meira: her second mother and her father’s second wife.
“I told my father I was sick and had to go to the doctor,” she explained. But she told her mother and her meira the truth; both women support her writing, at least for now. She led us into a winter garden, where we four — Meena Muska, her meira, my translator and I — knelt facing one another on the faded grass. Our blue, crimson, jade and dove burqas were the only colors in the gray garden. From her plastic purse, Meena pulled out her notebook. The forearms of her dress were black mesh, her fingernails carefully painted. For a girl who couldn’t leave the house, her latest Indian-inspired fashions were surprising. But this was a special occasion, and Meena had dressed in her finest. At my request, she took a notebook and began to transcribe some of her new poems line by line in sloppy, schoolgirl script. She copied a ghazal, a sophisticated form of Persian poetry, then scribbled the following landai:
O, separation! I pray that you die young. 
Since you are the one who 
lights lovers’ houses on fire.
This was her protest against being torn from her dead fiancé, she said. She asked that translations of her more formal poems go unpublished in this article. “My poems don’t deserve this much attention,” she said. “I am just learning to write.” Meena had little hope for her future. She would be marrying one of her fiancé’s two surviving brothers whenever her father and brothers decided it was time. She wrinkled her nose and let the cloth drop from her face, then pulled two mobile phones from her purse. Her brothers, who ran successful irrigation-pipe factories, bought her the phones; they also monitor her call log to make sure she isn’t speaking to boys. I wanted to give her something, but I feared that a book of my own poems might endanger her. If her brothers found it, how would she explain where this American’s poems had come from? Having nothing else, I tugged a scarf from my neck. She reached into her purse and handed me a rhinestone butterfly comb. Then she tugged the burqa’s soft grille back over her face, took her chaperon by the hand and disappeared into the crowd.
In the parking lot, one of the hospital’s doctors, Dr. Asmatullah Heymat, was waiting to speak to me. “I know of this girl you are looking for,” he said. “Her name was Zarmina, and she set herself on fire because her parents would not let her marry the man she loved.” That was all he knew.
“Zarmina’s mother couldn’t tell you the truth in front of her husband,” the girl’s aunt told me by phone once we returned to Lashkar Gah that evening. Zarmina loved to dance and sing. “She loved fashion,” her aunt said. “She loved a good burqa, nice shoes.” She also played the hand drum at weddings and loved to recite landai. “She’d say landai in front of her mother, but never in front of her father,” the aunt said. As for being able to write, “She knew some Koran, but only had a childhood madrassa education.” The aunt could recall little else about her poetry: “I’ve had so many of my own problems, I’ve forgotten the landai she used to say.”
From childhood, Zarmina was engaged to marry her first cousin, whom she’d grown to love. Yet when the time came, the boy couldn’t afford the bride price of about $12,500. Zarmina’s father refused the match, knowing that he would have to support the couple. The boy visited Zarmina’s home several times hoping to win her father’s approval, her aunt said.
Zarmina took solace in writing love poems and reading to the women of Mirman Baheer by phone. Then came the spring day in 2010 when Zarmina got caught reading these poems and her brothers beat her. A couple of weeks later, according to her aunt, when the girl was cleaning the house, she locked a door behind her and set herself alight, a common means of suicide among women in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The custom can be linked to the outlawed Indian practice suttee, when a wife climbs on a funeral pyre. The practice and even the Hindi word — suttee — exist in Pashto, too. In this sense, it is possible that Zarmina saw her choice to die for love as romantic and honorable.
Her sister-in-law tried to break into the room to reach Zarmina, then called her husband, who was working as a contractor for the Canadian military, stationed at the time in Gereshk. Zarmina’s father was at his factory. Her mother was at her aunt’s house fetching water. A young girl came racing into the compound, crying that Zarmina had tried to kill herself. By the time her aunt and mother reached her, Zarmina was nearly unrecognizable.
“Give me water, give me water,” she said.
With one of her brothers as a chaperon, Zarmina traveled by helicopter to a hospital in Kandahar more than 100 miles away. But there was little the doctors could do. Zarmina had severe burns over most of her body. A week later, she died.
After Zarmina’s death, her fiancé tried to commit suicide by stabbing himself multiple times. His friends managed to stop him, Zarmina’s aunt said. (Local leaders confirmed this.) Later, he married and moved to Kandahar.
Zarmina’s family had also dispersed. One brother escaped to Herat after receiving threats for working with foreign soldiers. The day after I met them, Zarmina’s parents were scheduled to join him there. There is little evidence of Zarmina’s life left in Gereshk. After she died, her father gathered up her belongings, including some books and some scrawled-on pieces of paper. “I don’t know if he hid them or burned them,” her aunt said.
But the whole village remembered Zarmina’s story. Her two neighbors, 15- and 17-year-old girls, confirmed details, as did the local women’s leader who recorded the case two years ago. “She was such a good poet,” the 15-year-old neighbor said. “We were the ones who encouraged her to start calling the radio. We were the ones who told her to write down her poems.”
When I returned to Kabul, I went to see Ogai Amail in Microrayon, a row of concrete Russian-era apartment blocks in northeast Kabul. For $200 a month, Amail shares a single room with an older poet and member of Mirman Baheer who took Amail in after a family argument. She had nowhere else to go. Still unmarried at 40, Amail has no husband or children to ensure her position in society. Although she cherishes her independence, she said, hers is a difficult freedom. She has made the women and girls of Mirman Baheer into her family. She calls the younger poets her “little sisters.” Amail was nearly ecstatic to hear that I’d met Meena Muska face to face and that I’d found Zarmina’s parents.
Amail recalled how she learned that Zarmina set herself on fire: shortly after the incident, Zarmina managed to call from her hospital bed in Kandahar. She told Amail that she had burns over 75 percent of her body. “She sounded so normal, I didn’t think she was dying,” Amail said. Zarmina wanted Amail to call her brother and impersonate a doctor offering treatment in Kabul, Amail told me. She thought if she could make it to the city, she could start a new life. Amail did what Zarmina asked, but she knew Zarmina would not make it to Kabul. The next phone call she received from Kandahar came from Zarmina’s sister, who told Amail: “All you can do is pray for her now. She is dead.”
When I told Amail the story of Zarmina and her fiancé, she wasn’t surprised.
“Her poetry was all about broken love,” Amail said. “She asked me, ‘Do you love anyone?’ I said: ‘Why not? Am I not a human being? Do I not have eyes?’ Zarmina only said: ‘I have so many problems, I don’t want to worry you. I’ll tell you when we meet.’ ”
Amail assumed that someday the resourceful young poet would reach the relative freedom of Kabul. “She used to say you are the luckiest people since you can meet with your friends openly,” Amail said. “You can learn from your mistakes and write better poems.”
Flipping through her notebook, she found a poem she wrote after Zarmina’s suicide, called “The Poet Who Died Young”:
“Her memory will be a flower tucked into literature’s turban.
In her loneliness, every sister cries for her.”
This article and the accompanying photographs were financed in part by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Eliza Griswold is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship.
Editor: Sheila Glaser

Karzai’s backing of strict Islamic code (that allows men to beat their wives)

  It is a giant step back for women’s rights in Afghanistan

  • Activists worried women’s rights being used as bargaining chip in negotiations with the Taliban
  • New code promotes segregation of the sexes


Reversal: Afghan president Hamid Karzai has backed a strict code of conduct for women in the countryReversal: Afghan president Hamid Karzai has backed a strict code of conduct for women in the country

Activists have accused the Afghan president of reversing improvements in women’s rights after he endorsed a strict ‘code of conduct’ issued by clerics.

Hamid Karzai yesterday backed a document issued by the Ullema Council which promotes segregation of the sexes and allows husbands to beat wives in certain circumstances.

The move is seen as part of his attempts to reach out to the Taliban in the lead up to the planned withdrawal of Nato troops from the Afghanistan in 2014.

But activists are furious that gains made in women’s rights since the 2001 invasion and ensuing occupation are being used as a bargaining chip with Islamic extremists.

Prior to the 2001 U.S. invasion, girls were banned from going to school and women forced to wear burkas to conceal them from head to toe.

Women were also banned from venturing from their homes being escorted by a male relative.

Similarly, the new ‘code of conduct’ says women should not travel without a male companion and they should not mingle with men in places like schools, markets or offices.

Wife-beating is only prohibited if there is no ‘Shariah-compliant reason’, it said.



Mr Karzai insisted the document was in keeping with Islam and did not restrict women.

‘It is the Shariah law of all Muslims and all Afghans,’ he added.

Unveiled: Young Afghan women in traditional clothing participate in a teachers graduation ceremony in March last yearUnveiled: Young Afghan women in traditional clothing participate in a teachers graduation ceremony in March last year

Women’s activists say the Afghan president’s endorsement of the code seems to imply that laws aimed at protecting women’s rights may be sacrificed for peace negotiations.

Heather Barr, an Afghanistan researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch, said: ‘It sends a really frightening message that women can expect to get sold out in this process.’

Rights: A woman with an ink-stained finger holds her ID card as she waits to vote in presidential elections at a Kabul polling station in 2009Rights: A woman with an ink-stained finger holds her ID card as she waits to vote in presidential elections at a Kabul polling station in 2009

Shukria Barikzai, a parliamentarian from the capital Kabul, who has been active in women’s issues, said she was worried that Mr Karzai and the clerics’ council appeared to be ignoring their country’s own laws.

‘When it comes to civil rights in Afghanistan, Karzai should respect the constitution,’ Ms Barikzai said. The Afghan constitution provides equal rights for men and women.

The exception for certain types of beatings also appears to contradict Afghan law that prohibits spousal abuse.

The guidelines also promote rules on divorce that give women few rights, a U-turn from pledges by Mr Karzai to reform Afghan family law to make divorces more equitable, Ms Barr said.

‘This represents a significant change in his message on women’s rights,’ she said.

Afghan women’s rights activist Fatana Ishaq Gailani, founder of the Afghanistan Women’s Council, said she feels like women’s rights are being used as part of a political game.

‘We want the correct Islam, not the Islam of politics,’ Ms Gailani said.

She said she supported negotiations with the Taliban, but that Afghanistan’s women should not be sacrificed for that end.

Restrictions: Afghan women pictured in 2001 wearing the burka. Activists worry advances in women's rights could be bargained away by the governmentRestrictions: Afghan women pictured in 2001 wearing the burka. Activists worry advances in women’s rights could be bargained away by the government

Hadi Marifat of the Afghanistan Human Rights and Democracy Organisation, which surveyed 5,000 Afghan women for a recent report on the state of women’s rights in Afghanistan, said the statements show Mr Karzai is shifting toward the strictest interpretations of Shariah law.

‘In the post-Taliban Afghanistan, the guiding principle of president Karzai regarding women’s rights has been attracting funding from the international community on one hand, balanced against the need to get the support of the Ullema Council and other traditionalists on the other,’ Ms Marifat said.

‘The concerning thing is that now this balance is shifting toward the conservative element, and that was obvious in his statement.’


Afghan schoolgirls poisoned in anti-education attack

A young Pashtun girl looks out from the window of a classroom during recess at a government funded coeducational school in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar September 20, 2005. REUTERS/Adrees Latif/Files

April 17,2012 (Reuters) – About 150 Afghan schoolgirls were poisoned on Tuesday after drinking contaminated water at a high school in the country’s north, officials said, blaming it on conservative radicals opposed to female education.

Since the 2001 toppling of the Taliban, which banned education for women and girls, females have returned to schools, especially in Kabul.

But periodic attacks still occur against girls, teachers and their school buildings, usually in the more conservative south and east of the country, from where the Taliban insurgency draws most support.

“We are 100 percent sure that the water they drunk inside their classes was poisoned. This is either the work of those who are against girls’ education or irresponsible armed individuals,” said Jan Mohammad Nabizada, a spokesman for education department in northern Takhar province.

Some of the 150 girls, who suffered from headaches and vomiting, were in critical condition, while others were able to go home after treatment in hospital, the officials said.

They said they knew the water had been poisoned because a larger tank used to fill the affected water jugs was not contaminated.

“This is not a natural illness. It’s an intentional act to poison schoolgirls,” said Haffizullah Safi, head of Takhar’s public health department.

None of the officials blamed any particular group for the attack, fearing retribution from anyone named.

The Afghan government said last year that the Taliban, which has been trying to adopt a more moderate face to advance exploratory peace talks, had dropped its opposition to female education.

But the insurgency has never stated that explicitly and in the past acid has been thrown in the faces of women and girls by hardline Islamists while walking to school.

Education for women was outlawed by the Taliban government from 1996-2001 as un-Islamic.

(Reporting by Mohammad Hamid; Writing by Jack Kimball, Editing by Rob Taylor and Sanjeev Miglani)

The Swede Who Convinced Taliban To Allow Girls Schools

Anders Fange

Anders Fange first went to Afghanistan as a young radio journalist in the early 1980s after Afghans began fighting against the Soviet occupation.
He later moved to humanitarian relief work and helped keep 40,000 girls in education during the worst excesses of the Taliban years.

These days Anders Fange, 65, lectures on Afghanistan in his native Sweden. His main challenge is to convince skeptical audiences to shed preconceptions when they think about Afghanistan. He hones this point by drawing on nearly three decades of experience in that mountainous country.

Fange’s public speaking engagements and private conversations are deeply engaging owing to his detailed knowledge of Afghanistan. Anecdotes from his long years there are more than a match for the dry academic comparisons that frequently dominate such events in the West.

Fange first went to Afghanistan as a young radio journalist in the early 1980s after Afghans began fighting against the Soviet occupation. He later moved to humanitarian relief work and even worked for the United Nations political mission in the country.
Afghanistan always continues to surprise you.

“Afghanistan always continues to surprise you. You always get new explanations for things,” Fange says. “It’s a complicated country in many ways — that makes it difficult and it makes it exciting.”

In 1984, Fange spent three months walking with the mujahedin through valleys, passes, and forests. They often stayed in village mosques. He witnessed their attacks against Soviet convoys and government garrisons.

“From those years, I took with me the thing that I have been saying since then: that the future of Afghanistan is not decided in Kabul,” he says. “It is decided out in the valleys. It is decided in the rural areas.”

He was fascinated by the Afghan culture — in particular, the practice of hospitality. “It’s most impolite to leave a guest alone. From my upbringing in Sweden, I was used to [having] my own room. But there, you could never be alone,” he says of the days he spent in remote Afghan villages.

In the early 1990s, Fange joined the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan (SCA) and began living in Peshawar in western Pakistan.

In his role as an aid worker, he experienced Afghan suffering first-hand. But he was impressed by Afghan resilience.

“Their capacity for work, their capacity for being able to carrying through in very difficult circumstances — I doubt that there is any other people on earth who had this kind of capacity,” he says.

The Swedish Committee for Afghanistan became one of the largest aid groups at the height of Afghan civil war, when the Taliban militia swept through much of the country. Fange dealt with many Taliban officials.

“Most of the Taliban, even the ministers we dealt with in Kabul, had a pretty pragmatic view,” he says. “Somehow it was understood that they needed this humanitarian assistance of which we were one of the providers.”

One of the most sensitive issues he negotiated with the Taliban was rural schools where some 40,000 Afghan girls were educated. After long talks with Amir Khan Muttaqi, the regime’s minister of education, the Taliban agreed to sign a protocol allowing the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan to work in the country.

“When we finalized these negotiations, he told me, ‘We know you have these girls’ schools. We know it, but don’t tell us,’ he said,'” Fange says as he recalls the conversation. “In other words, it was a very Afghan view that if it’s not official, then a lot more is tolerated and allowed than what’s in official life.”

The schools, however, were not immune to Taliban interference. In the summer of 2001, Fange says, some local mullahs in remote rural districts attempted to close down a school. His answer to such a menace was to threaten the closure of all Swedish Committee for Afghanistan education, health care, and agriculture projects in the area.
‘Keep a low profile’

“Without exception, they came back the day after or even the same day and said, ‘OK, you can stick to the girls schools, but keep a low profile,'” he recalls of the often tricky negotiations with rural clerics. “During Taliban [rule] we never were actually forced really to close girls schools.”

After 9/11, Fange became a leading member or the UN political mission in Afghanistan. But he was soon disappointed at what he regarded as political blunders made by Afghan leaders and the international community in rebuilding the country, including disenfranchising certain segments of the population while reenergizing and empowering some of the most notorious warlords.

“The West is obsessed with its own political system as a perfect political system,” he says, adding that Western states have struggled for centuries to improve their democracies.
“Then we throw it on Afghanistan and say, ‘You have 10 years to fix this,'” he says. “Of course it doesn’t work.”

Source: RFE/RL | Gandhara  


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