These women had a different view. To them, martyrdom was not heroic and the sacrifice of children was not gladly given. They wanted their young sons alive and accused the rebel leaders of being tyrants, unscrupulous and corrupt. I had been led to believe that Afghan women had no views or, if they did, that they followed those of their men exactly. This was my first indication that such was not the case.
I met women who were not ill at all, not the least little bit; having been widowed or rejected by an angry husband, they just had nowhere else to go, and the doctor was allowing them this bed as their only refuge. I met women who needed physical therapy because they had been confined to dark tents for so long that their bones and muscles and skin had been damaged. Convicts get an hour in the prison yard, to exercise see the light of day; I met women who had not been allowed out of their tents for years, except under cover of darkness. I met women who had been forcibly married, women who had been arbitrarily divorced, women whose sons had been turned into child soldiers and their daughters into child brides through the whim of their husbands, women who were crippled because after a severe beating medical treatment had been withheld. Some had been made apathetic by despair, but not one of them welcomed her abuse as being in line with her religion or her culture, and several of them were very angry. You could go to a conference on women in Islam in Washington, D.C., or Berlin or Los Angeles and hear Muslim women militantly defend all sorts of inequities on the grounds that the Prophet or their national tradition or the Quran wanted it so, but you didn't hear anything like that in this ward. This was more like Gulag Archipelago, like visiting the political prisoners of a merciless military dictatorship. It was one thing to realize abstractly that these women's lives were sad, telling myself that they weren't really like me and didn't expect anything different and therefore didn't really mind. It was another to come face-to-face with an entire roomful of their helpless, hopeless misery. And if these thirty women minded, perhaps they all did.
These women were not resigned, they hadn't grown indifferent to the deaths of their children, they didn't accept loveless arranged marriages as a given, they didn't feel secure in the arms of an extended family, they weren't content in deep traditionalism. It was obvious that I had fallen prey to a comfortable deception. "These are the lucky ones," the doctor remarked. "Their families are modern enough to allow them medical treatment.
Have you heard the Afghan saying? A woman should only leave her house twice: once at her wedding, to go to the household of her husband, and once when she dies, to be taken to the graveyard."
This new and awful knowledge left me with nowhere to go, with no discernible assignment. The international organizations were not going to rock the boat just for the sake of Afghan women. They had no champion, and they themselves were in no position to fight. Was the doctor's approach the best one could hope for? Did we need to mobilize the pharmaceutical companies and organize a giant shipment of Xanax to be dropped over Afghanistan like food packets, to anesthetize Afghan women to their lot?
"There's this school . . . ," a young Afghan woman whispered to me timidly, having heard from the doctor that these matters were of interest to me. Another scooter taxi, this time into a lower-middle-class residential area. A glance to the right and to the left, then a quick dash inside. No, it wasn't illegal here in Pakistan, but still, a girls' schoolthat was a very controversial thing, and it was better not to attract notice. I found myself inside a normal home. In the shaded courtyard, surrounded by plants and vines, twenty girls sat in rows, their eyes bright and lively and darkened with kohl, their books open before them. A motherly, businesslike teacher turned to greet me.
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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