Excerpt from Veiled Courage by Cheryl Benard, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Veiled Courage

Inside the Afghan Women's Resistance

by Cheryl Benard

Veiled Courage
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  • Published:
    Apr 2002, 304 pages

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In the first bed, a skinny fourteen-year-old girl lay rolled into her sheets in a state of almost catatonic unresponsiveness, eyes closed, not speaking even in reply to the doctor's gentle greeting. Her family had brought her to be treated for mental illness, the doctor explained with regret. They had recently married her to a man in his seventies, a wealthy and influential personage by their standards. In their version of things, something had started mysteriously to go wrong with her mind as soon as the marriage was agreed upon–a case of demon possession, her family supposed. When, after repeated beatings, she still failed to cooperate gracefully with her new husband's sexual demands, he had angrily returned her to her family and ordered them to fix this problem.

They had taken the girl to a mullah, who had tried to expel the demon through prayers and by writing Quranic passages on little pieces of paper that had to be dissolved in water and then drunk, but this had brought no improvement, so the mullah had abandoned his diagnosis of demon possession and decided that the girl was sick. The family had brought her to the clinic, to be treated for insanity. "We'll keep her here for as long as we can," the doctor said. "Then we'll prescribe tranquilizers. There's nothing else we can do. She has no choice. She has nowhere else to go. She just has to come to terms with this."

The second woman had a baby in the bed with her, a tiny thing with a shock of dark hair, hooked under her arm like a doll; the mother seemed listless, barely more responsive than the girl we had just visited. What was wrong with her? Or was it the baby that was ill?

There was nothing wrong with either one of them, the doctor said. A normal birth, a healthy baby. They should have gone home a week ago, but no one had come to pick them up. The doctor shrugged, patted the woman's arm and said something consoling to her, but she didn't answer. The baby was a girl, he explained, and this had made her husband and his family very angry. To show their disapproval, they were refusing to collect her. They would come eventually, they always did; this was just a disciplinary measure, to frighten her into thinking she had been abandoned, so that she would try harder to meet their expectations in the future.

The woman in the next bed looked really ill, haggard and very pale. She had a visitor. An elderly woman was perched right up on the bed beside her, sitting on her heels like a little sparrow, clutching the younger woman's hand tightly and stroking her cheek, looking sad and worried: her mother. This young woman had suffered a miscarriage, the doctor explained, her sixth or seventh one in a row. He had sat down with the husband and explained to him very carefully that there was no reason why he and his wife should not one day have a successful pregnancy and healthy children.

But first, his wife's body needed a chance to rest. There was no point in relentlessly trying for one pregnancy after another. It was not only pointless but also dangerous. His wife was already weak and anemic; if the next miscarriage brought any complications, she might die.

The husband had listened with little interest. "Then he said, ‘It is the woman's job, intended by God, to give children. If she dies, that is God's will, and I will marry another woman,'" the doctor related, his voice somewhere between indignation and despair. Sometimes he thought of dispensing birth control secretly, but women had so little privacy in these traditional families, and if anyone found out, it would be the end of him.

I continued the circuit. Looking back, I don't remember a single woman whose problem was primarily medical. The doctor knew that; for most of his patients, dispensing tranquilizers was the best he could do. As we progressed deeper into the ward, the women became more vocal, on each other's behalf if not on their own. The next patient had been brought in for "mental disturbances" caused by the fact that her eight-year-old son had been taken away by her husband to participate in the "holy war." This happened a lot, the doctor explained, and the mothers often took it very badly. Some became hysterical and could not be calmed down. They would cry for days and even become violent, throwing themselves against walls in their grief. Many of these boys died; what did they know about being a warrior? This woman's story caused a number of the other women to sit upright in their beds and start speaking in agitated voices. I had been led to believe that the Afghans were universally behind the "freedom fighters," ready to pay any price to punish the Soviets.

Excerpted from Veiled Courage by Cheryl Benard Copyright 2002 by Cheryl Benard. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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