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Makai outside the Blue Mosque in Mazar-eSharif last November. (Photo courtesy of Anna Badkhen)

What Afghan Women Want

In Afghanistan’s harsh rural regions, the West’s legacy is merely more scars.

BY Anna Badkhen

Western talk of women’s rights in terms of jobs and education is mostly lost on the women trapped in never-ending war.

On the alkaline plains of northern Afghanistan’s Balkh province, salt percolates to the soil’s surface, like dry tears. Upon this thirsty, monochrome tract about four hundred Pashtun families in the village of Kampirak grow almonds and wheat. Near the feldspar barrens in the north of the village stands the single-bedroom shack of mud and straw that belongs to Makai, a heavy-set woman in her 40s with a severe, careworn face. In this house one morning in late 2001, just after the predawn call to prayer, Makai, who, like most Afghans, has no surname, shook awake her oldest daughter, Shirin, who was 10 years old.

“Wake up,” Makai told her. “War is starting.”

Bursts of gunfire were approaching from the south, where a loess desert track enters the village. In the dark, Makai could hear strangers storm the other compounds: “Get out of the house! Do you have a weapon? Where is your man?” As the winter sky paled she saw women and girls run northward through the latticework of narrow streets that hug Kampirak’s crooked irrigation canals. A neighbor galloped through the settlement in a horse-drawn cart, his wife and daughters clinging to the slat boards, and yelled out: “Hide your daughters!”

Makai grabbed her infant daughter, Farzana. Her middle daughter, Parmina, was in the family granary behind the house, with Makai’s husband and two small sons. Makai rushed out into the parched yard. Her 5-year-old boy, Halim Ahmad, ran in through the back gate, shrieking.

“Mother,” he screamed, “They just killed Father!”

Seconds later, men clutching Kalashnikov rifles burst through the low front gate. Makai had painted it blue, to ward off evil spirits. The gunmen ran past Makai and up the tall mud-brick steps that lead to the house’s bedroom. The room was empty.

“They asked: ‘Where is your husband?’” Makai recalled. “I said: ‘He’s in the back. You have just killed him.’”

The gunmen were members of Hezb-e-Wahdat, the militia of the Hazara warlord Mohammad Mohaqiq. In the fall of 2001, when American warplanes pummeled northern Afghanistan to root out the Taliban, these untrained guerrillas were part of the Northern Alliance that served as Washington’s de facto boots on the ground—or plastic sandals, as more often was the case. I knew such men then. Over frontline cigarettes and sugary tea, in trenches that faced Taliban artillery and tanks, they told me their dreams: of returning home and holding their wives again, of tending their potato and wheat fields. 

That November, the Taliban regime fell in Kabul. Like the people of Kampirak, the Taliban were mostly Pashtun. Giddy with victory, some Hazara militiamen went on a spree of revenge for centuries of bad blood with the Pashtuns. Human Rights Watch recorded “widespread extortion and looting” of Pashtun communities in northern Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002, as well as abductions, murders and rape. The post-Taliban era, portrayed in the West as the age of empowerment of Afghan women, kicked off for the women of Kampirak with a pogrom by Washington-backed thugs.

Western politicians, generals and do-gooders cite women’s rights as a key benefit of keeping the Taliban out. But the women of Kampirak don’t hold many grudges against the Taliban, who ruled their village from 1997 until 2001. The single most important event of the last 15 years of their lives was the Hezb-e-Wahdat raid at the beginning of the U.S.-led occupation that orphaned, widowed and violated them. To them, that morning remains the main legacy of the war Westerners often claim to be fighting in their name.

I asked the women who had stayed behind that morning about what had happened to them and their daughters.

“In my father’s house they gathered all the women in one room,” said one.

“They dragged us out of our homes. Women and girls are ashamed to talk about what happened then,” said another. Makai said:

“They touched all the women and teenage girls.”

In Afghanistan, a woman’s chastity is often the measure of her family’s worth. Few would ever marry a rape victim. The Human Rights Watch report documenting the raids suggested that some women who had been assaulted were later disowned and possibly killed by their relatives, in order to restore the families’ honor. Farid Mutaqi, an Afghan human rights worker, told me he knew of at least seven instances of gang rape by Mohaqiq’s men in Kampirak.

By mid-morning, the gunmen had left, taking with them truckloads of loot and at least 70 male prisoners. Makai rushed to her parents’ house. Her mother was there. Her father had been praying in his almond orchard when the raiders had stormed through his gate. They had dragged him into the street, put him against a cauterized wall, and executed him with two shots: to the right shoulder, and to the head.Since 2001, a few women I know in Afghan cities have begun to see tenuous rights, tentative freedoms, paper-thin promises. But Afghanistan is overwhelmingly rural, and most of my friends here are village women. Over the months and years, we have swapped jewelry and cooked rice together in too much oil. I have cradled their anemic, stunted babies. I have fallen asleep on their rooftops as the Big Dipper scooped out the mountains I could just skylight against the star-bejeweled sky. I have learned that beneath their wraithlike, polyester chadors there are other, intangible veils that seem irremovable: shrouds of abiding, unresolved woe.

The international effort to modernize Afghanistan has hardly reached their villages. Few have aspirations beyond keeping their families safe—and few feel they can do even that. The West’s talk of women’s rights in terms of jobs, education and not enforcing the veil is mostly lost on the women trapped in never-ending war.

*

Last year, on the third day of Ramadan, Makai and two of her friends invited me to fast with them in the shade of a mulberry tree.

The tree grew in the compound of Sarwar. Sarwar was one of the men Hezb-e-Wahdat had murdered during the 2001 raid. After the massacre, his family left the village, and the homestead quickly fell to ruin, the way Afghan cob structures do when no one patches them up with fresh adobe each spring. Pieced light filtered through the filigree of dusty, serrated leaves upon the clay stumps of broken tandoor ovens, in which Sarwar’s wife and daughters-in-law once had bronzed conchas of unleavened bread. The mulberry tree seemed the only survivor.

Beyond the walls of Sarwar’s house I could see the wind swish the colorful flags on one of the shrines that Kampirak’s women had built with wattle and daub to mark the spots where their husbands, fathers, and sons had been killed. (One such marker cants by the granary behind Makai’s house. “My husband’s blood is here,” she told me.) Dust eddied in the desiccated canals that had run dry months ago: for the second year in a row little snow had fallen on the sawtooth Hindu Kush, which guards Balkh’s southern frontier, and whatever snowmelt had made it to the plains had been rerouted into orchards and fields closest to the foothills. By May, no water reached Kampirak’s irrigation ditches. Wheat had withered in the fields. The July almond harvest had turned out tiny and bitter. There were no vegetables at the women’s iftar tables, and barely any meat: Kampirak’s animals had been starving in the dehydrated pastures, and by Ramadan, which last year fell on August, the hottest month in northern Afghanistan, the villagers had sold most of their skeletal livestock at quarter the regular price.

We sat cross-legged on straw mats. Sweat pooled in the deep furrows of my companions’ crumpled skin. They fanned themselves with the fringes of their headscarves, and lamented their lives of immutable hardship.

“Sweet daughter,” Zar Bibi, one of Makai’s friends, told me, “we need a clinic. There isn’t even medicine in the store here.”

“One deep-water well would solve our problem. One,” said the other, Shah Bibi. Each day that month, she tramped an hour and a half to the closest village with a well, to wash her clothes, bathe, and bring back enough water to break fast at the end of the day.

“We have a problem with electricity,” said Makai.

This was an understatement. Kampirak has no problem with electricity. It simply has no electricity, and never had. The power line that sashays through the village on iron posts is connected to nothing.

International donors have contributed more than $60 billion to Afghanistan since 2001. Some of this money was supposed to bring free healthcare, deep-water wells, schools, and electric power to villages like Kampirak. Because of mismanagement and kleptocracy, it barely has. The absence of the most basic necessities is one explanation for why Afghanistan has the highest infant mortality and the fifth-lowest life expectancy in the world.

Invariably, the women who had gathered in Sarwar’s compound spoke about how, in the wake of the massacre, they were abandoned, betrayed. “The thing they did to us, do you think someone will do anything about it?” asked Makai. “It’s not only my husband. It’s 17 people who were killed here.” Shah Bibi had lost her husband, son, and three other male relatives that morning. Zar Bibi had lost two of her sons.

Makai’s question seemed rhetorical. Mohaqiq’s militiamen were never brought to justice. Mohaqiq now chairs the parliamentary judiciary committee. A 2010 law grants amnesty to anyone responsible for human rights abuses in the preceding decades. The statute is symptomatic of President Hamid Karzai’s dependence on warlords’ support to stay in power, and of the trade-off the world has tacitly made, accepting an Afghanistan run by warlords in the name of containing what it sees as the greater evil, the resurgent Taliban. Somehow this equation was supposed to result in gender equality.

It did not. And ultimately, the women of Kampirak ended up paying the price for this political deal, while the men who raped, murdered and orphaned them reap the benefits.

*

Women’s rights always have been part of the battle over Afghanistan’s modernization. In the 1920s, Queen Soraya, the wife of the King Amanullah Khan, appeared in Europe bare-armed, but her husband’s ambitious attempts at social reform—which promoted education for girls, and included the abolition of purdah, bride price, and polygamy—ultimately cost him the throne. The schools Amanullah Khan had established were subsequently closed. The women he had sent to study in Turkey were recalled to Afghanistan. Skip to the 1960s: King Zahir Shah dabbled in women’s rights, allowing women to vote and attend schools. Black-and-white photos from that era show slender female scientists in knee-length pencil skirts and without headscarves. (That was also when some men started the ongoing practice of flinging acid at unveiled women.)

The short-lived changes rarely spread beyond the cities. Those photographs from the ‘60s, which many Westerners in recent years have held up as proof that once upon a time women in Afghanistan were as relatively “liberated” as suburban housewives in the Midwest, are a gross misrepresentation. The changes to women’s lifestyle that seesaw periodically through Afghanistan’s cities barely resonate in the hardscrabble, biblical soil of the conservative hinterland, where nearly eight out of 10 people live. In most of Afghanistan, women never hemmed their skirts above the ankle, rarely attended school, and seldom participated in public life.

Perhaps the most far-reaching reforms of the 20th century took place in the ‘80s, during the Soviet invasion. Many city women attended universities and worked outside their homes then, and the Kremlin-backed government built some schools for village girls. One such school was in Kampirak. Makai studied there.

“I graduated from tenth grade,” she told me. “I know some English words, I just can’t put them together.”

Makai’s face and wrists are stained with liver spots and inked with tribal tattoos, faded beauty marks that look like the Tifinagh alphabet of the Tuareg, dots and circles of blue. When she frowns, which she does often, the tattoos on her forehead disappear inside a deep vertical crease. She rarely smiles. She talks about the Hezb-e-Wahdat raid a lot, but tallies up her losses unsentimentally, as though that horrible morning has become just another feature of the unsparing Bactrian landscape. More than once, she told me about the raid: “God saved us,” and “We were so lucky nothing happened to us.” “Nothing,” as I understood it, meant that she was not gang-raped that day. Now she closed her eyes, concentrating on a memory that had become almost foreign.

“This pen is,” she recited, in English. “This teacher pretty is. This notebook is.”

Many of the schools for girls shut down after CIA-backed Islamic fundamentalists calling themselves mujahideen—holy warriors—kicked out the Soviets and defeated the Communist regime in Kabul. The Taliban—many former mujahideen themselves—finished off the destruction. Sometime in the late 1990s, the Taliban burned down Makai’s school.

Now Kampirak has no school for girls, only for boys, and only through ninth grade. To receive a high school diploma, Afghans need to finish twelve. Makai’s two teenage sons, Aji Mohammad and Halim Ahmad, bike to high school in another village for an hour and a half six days a week, taking turns pedaling the family’s single, Chinese-made bike. The nearest school for girls is a little closer, maybe an hour by bicycle. But girls in Afghanistan don’t ride bicycles. It would take Shirin, Parmina, and Farzana two hours or more to walk to school. They don’t.

In the last decade, well-meaning Westerners, who often measure women’s rights in terms of education for girls, have rallied around a school-building effort that echoes Amanullah’s 90-year-old experiment. Progress has been uneven: Although the number of Afghan girls enrolled in school rose from 5,000 to 2.4 million, the schools are frequently attacked, a fifth of the girls who are enrolled never attend classes, and most of the rest drop out after fourth grade, either because there is no middle school nearby or because their parents tell them to. Few Afghan parents prioritize education for their daughters because few Afghan women participate in the country’s feudal economy.

My friends Hakima Arabshahi and Naziha Ghamgusar, who live in Mazar-e-Sharif, are among the few beneficiaries of the latest wave of modernization. Both recent graduates of the American University of Central Asia, in Kyrgyzstan, they wear jeans, elegant heels and smart scarves. Hakima recently started working at a Western NGO and bought a MacBook Air.

The women worry about NATO’s 2014 troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. Already the Taliban are gaining strength in Balkh. What would their education be worth if the Taliban take over, or—more likely—if Balkh erupts into a full-blown civil war? Already, their bachelor’s degrees and Western clothes are blemishes on their reputations: A lot of men, my friends explained, think of them as “free.” If there is one word that encapsulates what most Afghans—men and women—think of the West’s romantic vision of emancipation, it’s the expression “free woman,” khanum free, the adjective transliterated from the English. It’s a post-2001 neologism. It means a loose woman, a prostitute.

*

Most village women I know say they want their children safe and fed. Perhaps because of her exposure to education, Makai had grander aspirations. I asked her what kind of future she saw for her daughters.

I asked Makai what kind of future she saw for her daughters.

“I want my daughters to be nurses,” she said. She looked at my notebook. “Or writers.”

Her face softened as she daydreamed.

“If there were a clinic they could train there. If there were a school for girls they could learn something.”

Parmina, usually silent, spoke up.

“I want to be a doctor, a gynecologist,” she said. As though she suddenly were allowed, in the middle of this wretched land, to imagine some other reality. “I’m very interested in school.”

Parmina is 18. A psychiatrist in Mazar-e-Sharif, the capital of Balkh province, had diagnosed her with clinical depression. She suffers from chronic insomnia and panic attacks. Makai says it is because she saw her father murdered when she was 7 years old. Parmina’s medication, fluoxetine, a generic Prozac-like antidepressant, costs Makai about 750 afghani, more than $15, a month. When the girl is not taking medication, her screams keep the family awake at night.

The treatment is slowly bankrupting Makai. Her 16 droughty acres, which she has given to sharecroppers, yield barely enough wheat to bake nan for the family. After her husband was murdered, she took a nursing course at a clinic in a village two hours away. Now, once every two months, she makes rounds to inoculate Kampirak’s children against polio. The job pays about 1,300 afghanis—roughly $27. Sometimes Makai sells the eggs her chickens lay. Last summer, she sold her only cow to pay Parmina’s medical bills. 

Abruptly, Makai sat up. Fantasy time was over. Her slain husband and father were staring from faded snapshots beneath the thatch ceiling of her dust-choked bedroom. In the perpetual war zone outside, Afghanistan again was careening toward bloodshed. The Taliban were gaining strength, the warlords were siphoning international aid, the Americans were preparing to leave, the rivers were running dry. No one was building a school for Parmina.

“For sure there will be another war,” Makai said. “And killing.”

The girls, hushed, nodded at her prophecies. Makai looked at me.

“My daughters will never become doctors or writers like you.”

Instead, Makai has a different plan: She is looking for a husband for Parmina in Mazar-e-Sharif. A lot of men in Kampirak have asked to marry the girl, but Makai has rejected them all: “I don’t want her to be washing and cooking and cleaning all day long.” But in the city, she told me, “if anyone asks, I will give her away without a bride price. She should live in a place where there aren’t any problems.” I didn’t want to tell Makai, but the six women who lived in the house in Mazar-e-Sharif where I was renting a room that year spent most of their day cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, and taking care of their children.

Although Shirin is 21—fairly old, by village standards, to remain unmarried—Makai never talks about trying to find a match for her. Why? She wouldn’t say. But I wonder whether, that morning 10 years ago, Shirin had left Kampirak in time. She and her mother have described to me the events of the raid several times, and in most of their accounts, Shirin flees on a horse-drawn cart carrying the girl’s great-aunt and her uncle’s fiancée to a village farther north before the gunmen reach Makai’s house.

But the last time I saw Makai she told me a slightly different version of the story. In it, Shirin is in the yard when the gunmen burst into the compound. She is standing by the blue front gate.

*

Mazar-e-Sharif means “tomb of the saint” in Farsi. The city is named after the shrine that some believe to hold the remains of both Imam Ali—the Prophet Mohammed’s son-in-law—and Zoroaster. The tombs supposedly lie under the kaleidoscopic turquoise dazzle of the double-domed, 15th-century Blue Mosque. Ten thousand white pigeons are said to roost atop its spiral minarets and in the vaulted arch of its mihrab; a local legend says that any gray pigeon that joins the flock becomes white in 40 days. Men and women journey here in search of sanctuary and comfort. Several times over the years, I was one of them.

The last time was in mid-November. It was just above freezing, and the mosque coruscated in the morning fog as though encased in ice. I was waiting for Makai, who had asked me to meet her in the garden outside the mosque, “in the place with the birds.”

Men swathed in camel-wool blankets strolled through the frozen mist in reverent quietude. An old man was selling seed from pewter plates, to feed the pigeons. I bought one: 10 minutes of bliss for 10 afghani, about 20 cents. The birds alighted on my head, shoulders, arms, hands; they walked over my feet. I stood in the middle of a war zone, draped in birds, laughing. A few dozen yards away, a girl tossed bits of stale bread in the air, and the pigeons pirouetted, collided with each other in bursts of impossible whiteness, dove down to catch the crumbs. The girl, I saw, was laughing, too.

An Afghan colleague once told me: “The West is all about technology. The East is all about the mystical.” He had been drinking bootleg vodka he had hidden in a plastic bag (consumption of alcohol in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan carries the punishment of imprisonment or lashing), and was not so much mystical as just plain drunk. But I thought of his words among the solace of Mazar’s pigeons. I thought: The birds were there to keep us women sane, buoyed, somehow, during wartime.

Then my cell phone rang. It was Halim Ahmad, calling to tell me that he, Makai, and Shirin were on their way.

Cell phones are one post-2001 innovation that has made it to Afghan cities and villages alike. Cell-phone towers are everywhere, and many village women have splurged on cheap Chinese knock-offs sold in city bazaars. In a country where life is unpredictable and almost invariably violent, a cheap cell phone connection offers one priceless commodity: the ability to check on your loved ones. Makai had bought a phone for each of her sons, and one for Shirin, her oldest daughter.

Of course, there is no way to charge the phones in Kampirak. Mostly, they remain turned off, their batteries dead. Once in a while, Makai pays around $3 to travel in a crowded minivan to Mazar-e-Sharif, where, for a small fee, a shopkeeper plugs the charger into a working socket. One of the reasons Makai was coming to the city that November morning was to charge Shirin’s phone.

The other was to pray at the Blue Mosque.

When Makai and her children arrived we took off our shoes at the east gate that leads to the mosque’s inner yard and walked, in stocking feet, across the tiles of white and black marble. The cold from the tiles bored into our soles. Only Muslims are permitted inside the mosque, and I waited by the door while Makai prayed. Which invocations did she whisper inside? Which millennial iniquities did she ask to right? The tiles ricocheted with the sharp applause of the pigeons’ flutter. For hundreds of years, throughout scores of invasions and wars, generations of pilgrims have received the same disinterested ovation.

*

The easiest way to get to Kampirak is from the south, on a nameless track that runs northward from the paved stretch of the Great Silk Road that here is called Highway A76. The unmarked turnoff to the village lies a dozen or so miles west of Mazar-e-Sharif. This was the road Mohaqiq’s men took in 2001.

Like many roads in northern Afghanistan, this ecru stretch that courses past villages of crumbling cob looks timeless. You think: Alexander the Great’s army may have ridden on this road, and Genghis Khan’s. The city of Balkh, which the Macedonian sacked in 328 BCE, and which the Mongol butchered in 1220, lies less than 10 miles to the southwest. Two years ago, when I first met Makai, and Balkh province was considered one of the safest in the nation, the road was traversed almost exclusively by donkey-drawn carts and camel caravans laden with almonds and hay.

But recently, Taliban scouts in cars and on motorcycles have begun to patrol the road. Since last spring, the Taliban have claimed dominion over several settlements around Kampirak, collecting a 10-percent tithe for their holy war coffers, threatening to kill anyone who works for the government, and imposing a lifestyle guided by the strictest interpretation of sharia. Last summer, the Taliban have begun to switch off cell phone antennae at dusk in Kampirak, narrowing the village’s tiny window at modernity. Even with charged batteries, no one can call for help until dawn. That’s how the Taliban own the night.

It’s unclear who owns the day. Afghan and NATO forces almost never come here. A Kampirak elder, Gulbuddin, a self-described “former Talib” who speaks in raspy, forceful bursts, told me I had to consult him each time before I could visit. Only he, Gulbuddin, knew what the security situation was like in and around his village! Only he, Gulbuddin, could guarantee my safety! I never figured out exactly how, or to whom, he guaranteed it. But I was made to understand that without Gulbuddin’s explicit approval I probably would not arrive in Kampirak safely, or leave intact.

This was Afghanistan. To visit the women, I required the benevolence of a man.

With Gulbuddin’s permission I went to Kampirak several times. But last November, when I requested to return once more, he told me I couldn’t go. We were sitting in a taxicab parked in western Mazar-e-Sharif. Outside, schoolgirls in black uniforms leaned into stiff wind that blew icy drizzle past an enormous field of refuse. Gulbuddin, in a grey silk turban and a chapan coat lined with sheep fur, was yelling at me from the front seat. He told me the road was not safe. He told me he would report me to the police. He told me that Makai was away, that no one was waiting for me in Kampirak.

“That’s not true,” I protested. “Makai’s son told me yesterday they were expecting us.”

“Never trust her children!” Gulbuddin thundered. “Their father was killed. Never trust a child who was raised without a father! He was raised by a woman! His words are crooked!”

I suspect that Gulbuddin’s Taliban loyalties were not entirely a thing of the past. In the ethnic jigsaw puzzle of northern Afghanistan, the Taliban have found a foothold in some Pashtun villages because the insurgents essentially play the role of an ethnic militia. The ancestral lands of Pashtuns historically lie south of the Hindu Kush; their presence this far north is the result of a genocidal unification campaign by the Afghan King Abdur Rakhman more than a century ago. In the 1890s, to counter rebellions by Hazaras, Uzbeks, and Ghilzai Pashtuns, the king forcibly resettled 10,000 Ghilzai families to the high desert that unscrolls from the mountains toward the Oxus, along Afghanistan’s northern border. A familiar tyrant trick: The Russian czars had used it to subdue the Caucasus, Saddam Hussein to crush the Kurds. The maneuver diluted the tribal structures of the disloyal Pashtuns, and weakened the bastion of the other minorities. It also created in the northern countryside a suppurating scar tissue of cyclical fratricides. Neighbor-on-neighbor violence has become part of the immemorial terrain: indelible, unredeemable, conditioning people’s memories and yearnings. Shirjan Durani, a police officer in Mazar-e-Sharif, once told me: “The problem is in this soil and it keeps cropping up.”

In 1997, Hazara and Uzbek militiamen joined forces to slaughter 3,000 Pashtun Taliban soldiers. The following year, the Taliban mutilated, shot, and slit the throats of some 6,000 Hazaras. Who will tally the smaller, village-scale genocides—the 22 Pashtuns from one village, supposedly killed by Hazaras in 1995, before the Taliban took power? Or the five Hazaras from another village, murdered, ostensibly, by Pashtuns around the same time? The strips of colorful cloth that whiffle upon knobbly wooden poles over their graves are reminders of the scores that never seem to be settled.

*

I don’t know whether I have ever met the very men who despoiled Kampirak. But last fall, in a village a dozen miles away, I had lunch with a Hazara farmer who bragged about having killed Pashtuns in that area. We sat around a linoleum tablecloth stretched over his carpeted floor, and ate yogurt, rice, and a fried sheep fat dish called jaz. Hassan Khan, a jovial former midlevel anti-Taliban commander in his forties, remembered fondly the sacking of Balkh’s Pashtun villages that had followed the retreat of the Taliban. He said there had been “many Taliban” in those villages at the time, and that they once again were “full of Taliban.”

His own village, he assured me, was absolutely safe, no Taliban whatsoever. But when we were finishing up the jaz, he suddenly leaned over the tablecloth:

“Anna!” he said. “Do you want to go with me and fight the Taliban some night?”

“When?”

“Whenever you want.”

“But I thought you said there were no Taliban in your village.”

“If we don’t find Taliban, we’ll just fight Pashtuns.”

“All Pashtuns are Taliban,” interjected his brother, Rustam Khan. “Their women are Taliban. Their dogs are Taliban. Their donkeys are also Taliban.”

*

Who will help the women of Kampirak? Where does one even begin?

“The government is there. I am here. How can the government protect me?” Makai said when we were fasting together during Ramadan. “The government has done absolutely nothing to help out,” agreed Zar Bibi, adjusting her black chiffon headscarf to let the scorching air dry the sweat in the deepest wrinkles of her neck. Under the scarf her hennaed hair flashed firehouse red. By comparison, she said, the Taliban “was good for security. We were safe.”

Does it mean that the women would prefer a Taliban government? No. They shook their heads, clicked their tongues. A Taliban government may offer them a modicum of protection from future pogroms. But it would not build a clinic, or a deep-water well, in Kampirak.

“The Taliban didn’t do anything to us,” Makai explained. “But they didn’t help any poor people.”

“Has any government?” I asked.

Makai thought about it. She clicked her tongue again:

“No.”

What it really means is this: The road to women’s wellbeing begins with food security, infrastructure that works and a government that protects them against sectarian violence. But none of this is in sight. The country is spinning toward more bloodshed; food remains scarce, infrastructure abysmal; the Afghan society, by and large, does not welcome education for women. The way the women of Kampirak see it, no matter which band of armed men patrol their deeply fissured land, they will go on surviving the way they have for centuries, abused and abandoned by a succession of indifferent governments.

Before I left the village that day, Makai and her friends invited a host of younger women to approach our mulberry tree. One woman asked me to write down her name in my notebook: Rahima. She was very thin and very dark-skinned. She didn’t want to tell me anything else. She just wanted her name to be recorded, to be on some list, to be remembered.

 

Anna Badkhen is the author, most recently, of Afghanistan by Donkey. She is at work on The World Is a Carpet, a book about Afghanistan and timelessness. Reporting this story was made possible by a grant by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Anna Badkhen is the author, most recently, of Afghanistan by Donkey. She is at work on a book about Afghanistan and timelessness. Reporting this story was made possible by a grant by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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