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'You're only a woman. You have no right to speak. You have no right to raise your voice. You have no right to take off your burqa. The time when you travelled and walked without a burqa is gone'
When we westerners think about Afghanistan, I'm fairly certain many of us think mainly of events that have been in the news in recent years. My own awareness of Afghanistan (or indeed of the Taliban) probably only began after the September 11th attacks on the USA, orchestrated by Al Qaeda, with Taliban backing, an event that resulted in British and American troops being deployed over there. Since then, my knowledge has still pretty much been limited to news reports listing the latest casualties, or speaking of flare ups in remote mountain regions of the country.
Reading Latifa's story presents a very different Afghanistan, at least initially. Although not a country that has enjoyed any significant period of peace during Latifass limetime (she was born in 1980) it was actually a country where life, for women, was relatively good. They had the vote, were able to work , wear make up, ride bicycles, and even wear a skirt or trousers if they chose.
Latifa was a pretty ordinary teenage girl. She went to school, and had just completed a preliminary entrance exam for a university, where she hoped to study journalism. She liked chilling out with her mixed sex group of friends, listening to music, watching bollywood films, and talking about fashion and makeup.
Her parents had married for love, and her father was a relatively comfortably off businessman, whilst her mother also earned a respectsble wage as a doctor. Her sister worked as an air hostess, and the family had two beloved pets, a dog and a canary .
All that changed when one morning in 1996 , Latifas cousin Farad knocks on the door. The family have been kept awake all night by the sounds of fighting in Kabul. A look outside reveals that the mosque is now flying a white flag - the symbol of the Taliban, who have overtaken the city, and with it taken the reigns of government. Within minutes, the life of the family has changed - after all, they know from radio reports how the Taliban have behaved in other areas where they have seized power, restricting the freedom of the people, and brutally punishing anyone who goes against their interpretation of the law of Shariah .
Indeed, on this first morning of their occupation, two bodies are swinging in the breeze on the main square. Not just any bodies either, but the body of President Najibullah and his brother, dragged forcibly by the Taliban from the UN building. And people who might wish to look away from such a sight are being whipped with thick metal cables and forced to look.
The family decide to hole up indoors, stocking up first on batteries for their radio (electricity in Kabul being somewhat unreliable). What they hear on the radio makes it clear very quickly that life, especially for women, is changing drastically. Amongst the new decrees read out on the radio are the following :
Girls and women are not allowed to work outside the home.
All women who leave their homes must be accompanied by a mahram (a husband or male relative)
Women and Girls must wear the burqa.
Women and girls are forbidden to wear brightly coloured clothes beneath the burqa.
Nail Polish, lipstick, and makeup are forbidden.
No male doctor is permitted to touch the body of a woman under the pretext of a consultation.
There are many more - banning all manner of things - music, photos, paintings, home movies, but as this book largely centres on the life of women in Afghanistan, I have highlighted these particular ones. Two in particular to note are the one forbidding women from working outside the home, and the one forbidding male doctors to touch women .
In one swoop, Latifa's mother and sister are jobless . Especially for he mother as a doctor, it mush have been doubly distressing to know that male doctors were no longer allowed to treat women - essentially leaving Afghani women without any medical care available at all .Latifas mother, despite illness and depression, chose to treat some women in secret in her home - something that was made difficult as she was unable to purchase medical supplies. It was also incredibly distressing - especially when a group of women travelled many miles after being gang raped and suffering genital mutilation at the hands of the taliban.
Day to day life wasn't much fun either - Latifa witnessed a group of burqa clad women being harshly beaten in the street . Their crime ? Wearing white trainers. We also hear of women having their fingers cut off, simply for wearing nail varnish.
With no school to attend, and no future job prospects, Latifa sinks into misery and illness, until she decided with her friends to set up a secret school to teach children the things the Taliban does not want them to know . This is essentially everything, as the Taliban only taught their won beliefs. Latifa and her friends taught science, poetry, english, history and other subjects in their own homes, with children arriving at random times, and being sure to leave when nobody was about . Latifa and her family friends risked torture and even death in order to do this - but that didn't deter them from travelling in secret to Paris to talk to Elle Magazine about the issues for women in their country - an action that resulted in their home being seized and a fatwa being issued against them.
Perhaps the most shocking thing about this tale is the fact that, to an Afghan woman, none of this is probably that shocking at all, but probably just an accepted part of everyday life. The book was published in 2001, just after the September 11 attacks, and so is a little out of date. The Taliban no longer have the power in Kabul, but continue to be powerful in other parts of Afghanistan, so this could still be a simple story of day to day life for many many women.
This book is very gripping, and I found it easy to read yet very educating . I had no idea just how much freedom Afghan women had previously had, and just how much that freedom had been eroded in recent years. I would thoroughly recommend this book to anyone - it is a story that deserves to be heard , and to be listened to. It is not the most confortable read, and some scenes are downright upsetting , but I do think it is an important book.
The only reason I had for buying this book was curiosity - I did not have a particular interest in Afghanistan, other than keeping abreast of current affairs. So, I was quite surprised to find I couldn't put this book down. The book is a timely tale of a young woman's teenage years under Taliban rule. Up until the age of 16, she lived the life of a relatively normal teenager, even though Afghanistan seemed to be constantly at war, with different factions fighting for control of this land. Her mother had been a doctor, and her father a businessman and she had ambitions to become a journalist before all this was cruelly snatched away. There are numerous sad and tragic moments - trying to sneak over the border to Pakistan to get treatment for her dangerously ill mother, the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan (which date from the 5th century), the torture and slaughter of innocents, the humiliation of having to wear a burqa. Thankfully the bravery of this young girl shines through - we can only hope that life for her and people like her will get better.
Description of a young womans life under Taliban rule