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“[A]ll because I was an Afghan woman”: Reading the Life Story of Zarghuna Kargar in Dear Zari: Hidden Stories from Women in Afghanistan

By Dolikajyoti Sharma

During the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries, Afghanistan has experienced a particular history of violent struggles for power and control by forces both within and without the nation. In Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, Thomas Barfield argues that violence and conflict after 1980 (after the Soviet occupation of the nation) reached

unprecedented heights because each rival faction had an international patron willing to provide it with a seemingly endless supply of weapons and money. Afghanistan became a stage for a series of proxy wars in which Afghan blood would be shed in the name of ideologies that few Afghans shared. (Barfield 165)

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 led to ten years of conflict between the Soviets and the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) on one hand and the politico-religiously motivated mujahideen on the other, with the latter being funded by the United States of America and Saudi Arabia and having their base in Pakistan (as an ally of the US) (Barfield 171). With the withdrawal of the Soviet troops in 1989 (coupled with the collapse of the Soviet Union itself) and the dissolution of the Najibullah-led PDPA government as well as the PDPA itself in April 1992, Afghanistan witnessed a civil war that led to the Taliban taking control of almost the whole of the nation by the late 1990s (Kalinovsky and Giustozzi 356).

It is in the context of this phase in the political history of Afghanistan that Zarghuna Kargar revisits her life in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation, through the subsequent withdrawal of the Soviets, the rise to power of the mujahideen and the ensuing civil war, to life as a refugee first in Pakistan and, later, in England. In presenting her life story as a displaced person by way of a preamble to the succeeding stories of women in Afghanistan, Kargar seeks to drive home her point that whether within or outside the nation, Afghan women live not merely in terms of literal displacement but metaphorical as well. This paper, however, seeks to analyse Kargar’s own life-story and her introduction to the collection in terms of the condition of displacement as well as its representation in the light of the displaced person’s experiences. Published in 2011, Kargar’s book, Dear Zari: Hidden Stories from Women in Afghanistan, explores some of the life-stories of women that she and her team compiled between 2004 and 2010 for the Afghan Women’s Hour, a radio programme on BBC that Kargar produced. Many stories are of women coping with the loss of their home, property, and family during the Taliban rule and with religious, political, and cultural oppression. Kargar uses the Afghan Women’s Hour as the vehicle through which to embark on her own account of living in exile and as a refugee. However, despite catering at various points in the book to what Katrina Powell terms “the consumer culture of the west…the consumption of brown or black bodies suffering malnutrition, war atrocities, and abandonment by their governments and international community” (Powell 2), as far as the representation of displaced persons is concerned in general, Kargar presents her own story as a counter narrative to the typical refugee. At the same time, she asserts that despite their vastly disparate experiences as political refugees, her story shares the same sense of dislocation with the stories of the other Afghan women. Along with this is the assertion that the book is itself a certain kind of unveiling of the “hidden” nature of their lives denied a voice by their own society:

These life stories had such an impact on me that I started having dreams about my childhood in Afghanistan during wartime; I also felt closer to these women as the memories of my years in Kabul came flooding back….The women had all gone through a similarly wretched experience, yet back at the BBC office in London I could somehow identify with them all and, to a certain extent, I shared their feelings.  (Kargar 12)

Kargar’s narrative of her shift from an elite upbringing at Kabul to a precarious life as a refugee in Pakistan begins with an account of the positive impact of the Soviet occupation on women’s lives and their freedom in particular. She speaks of the belief in sexual equality of the Soviet-backed Afghan coalition government that allowed many women to travel to the Soviet Union for education, the newly-built factories that now employed women too, especially war widows, and the fact that at least in the cities, it seemed that “both the law and prevailing social attitudes saw women as equal to men, free to walk by themselves in the street, go to the cinema, enjoy mixed-sex education, appear on television singing and dancing and even wear mini-skirts” (Kargar 3).

The Soviet occupation had indeed enabled a “transformative influx” of women into the educational sector, primarily in the faculties of natural sciences, philology, economy, social sciences, and pharmacology (Kalinovsky and Giustozzi 363). Women had enjoyed a visible public presence in Afghanistan especially in the areas of health, education and the civil services even in the years of the monarchy, but it was with the establishment of the Marxist government that they came to acquire some political visibility and power, with the establishment of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan in 1977 (Clements 272). However, this appearance of empowerment was only illusionary since these changes were limited to the cities and to Kabul in particular, and with the escalation of the conflict between the Soviet-backed Afghan government and the mujahideen factions, women came to bear the brunt of it, suffering severe deprivation, and often becoming “victims of acts of violence from forces on both sides of the fight” (Clements 272). The war and violence left “many women widowed and with dependent families, and they tended to form the bulk of the refugee and internally displaced persons population” (Clements 272). In her own account, Kargar acknowledges the fact that she could avoid the fate of the ordinary Afghan woman merely because of her privileged and modern (rather than a traditional) upbringing that gave her equal access to education, to public life (even though she was a woman) and to self-expression. She qualifies this freedom by highlighting the dichotomy between Western values and beliefs and the strong belief in traditional Afghan cultural values that characterized the ruling class in Afghanistan (Kargar 3). An important example is her own father, who refuses to consider his four daughters as liabilities and gives them access to a good education instead, but paradoxically, forces his daughter (Zarguna) into an arranged marriage.

It is her life as a refugee and as an exile that prompts Zarguna to revisit her childhood in Kabul as an idyllic phase of her life, investing it with the usual nostalgia such a memory invokes. In fact, this memory itself becomes more a reconstruction by the now adult and distant migrant self of a time that is made to serve as the basis for a sense of rootedness that would offset and help deal with the trauma of displacement. In imaginatively going back to the “carefree days” of her childhood in Kabul, Kargar seems to outline her personal sense of home in the context of her realization that despite living in a friendly environment in London, “[l]ife as an Afghan woman in London isn’t always easy and it can still sometimes be surprisingly painful” (Kargar15). The trauma of forced displacement is something that pervades her entire life, especially since her marriage also dislocates her from her perception of what her normal life should be (Kargar 15). Escape from the violent conditions of her homeland does not guarantee her “happiness”, for she, being an Afghan woman, is already displaced in terms of politics, religion, and tradition that view the woman as a secondary, passive presence (Kargar 15).

Kargar’s account of her family’s ordeals as perceived traitors and outsiders at home and outside begins with the violent manner in which her young self is forced to confront the reality of the war as she witnesses her classmate die in front of her from a rocket attack by the mujahideen (Kargar 17). This literally sends her into shock and depression from which she never recovers fully. After her father flees to Pakistan, ahead of their family’s eventual migration there, the rest of the family – all women – experience a life akin to that of the Afghan women, who found shelter in the refugee camps of Pakistan and Iran. The mujahideen directives to women to wear black clothes and headscarves, learning Arabic and the Quran, their forbiddance of women going out alone or attending school, the segregation of men and women in public spaces, all shed light on the emergence of rigid notions regarding women, her body, her sexuality as well as her embodiment of culture. Even as they lose their political rights as citizens of Afghanistan, they lose their very identity as individuals, as the “bearded men standing with guns” regard them as mere instruments through which control can be established, one example being the occurrence of frequent cases of rape. The internal displacement the family experiences when it is forced to leave behind their home at Microrayan to another district in Kabul, Shahr-e-naw, renders them yet poorer and abject. In her study of the plight of Afghan women refugees, Ayesha Khan states: “Afghan refugee women experienced war trauma, sexual violence, deepening poverty, and increased household responsibilities as a result of the conflict” along with “the erosion of their legal and social status in their homeland with direct consequences for their status in camp communities” (Khan 96). The plight of the Kargar women leaving their homes “with only the clothes [they] were wearing” can be seen echoing how Afghan women were, from the 1980s to the end of the Taliban regime, overwhelmingly represented in the international media as “victims of trauma, passive recipients of foreign aid, their faces haunting international media coverage” (Khan 96). Kargar paints a similar picture in her account:

Our living conditions were cramped and squalid. All the women and children had to sleep together in one room, and as there was no hot water we couldn’t shower and we didn’t have clean clothes either. The food supplies were running low, and we had no idea what had happened to our homes, although we did hear from a neighbour that our apartments had been looted by the Mujahedeen. (Kargar 23)

The escape from Afghanistan is rendered yet more squalid with the mention of infestation of head lice in the girls’ hair (for which their mother is mortified), and the scarcity of formula milk and clean water for their infant sister renders the drastic degradation of their lives very vivid (Kargar 25). Kargar, in fact, draws on these material aspects of the everyday (the sharp antiseptic smell of the medicated shampoo to remove lice, or the dust that pervades everywhere and blinds them on their journey to Peshawar through the mountains) in order to underline the concrete and material ways that displacement – whether internal or external –affects the quality and dignity of life, rendering the displaced persons or DPs not merely stateless but also devoid of their very right to exist as individuals.

During 1993-94, the period when the Kargars fled, first to another district in Kabul and subsequently to Pakistan, around one million Afghans became internally displaced, and the city of Kabul collapsed (Khan 92). The “second wave of refugees” that consequently arrived in Pakistan comprised, like the Kargars and their fellow travellers, “urbanized Kabul residents of diverse ethnic backgrounds, who had remained during the Soviet occupation and now were accused by mujahideen of being communist collaborators” (Khan 92-93). Khan argues that the rhetoric of war in Afghanistan relied heavily on the symbolism of women wherein the PDPA sought to alter tradition by empowering women through education, while the mujahideen, and later, the Taliban, sought to revert to tradition by imposing restrictions on women’s liberty and inflicting a terrible violence on their bodies if they tried to defy these restrictions (Khan 95). Women, as a result, underwent a trauma that is specific to them under situations of violence and terror, since violence against them and their bodies are rationalized and normalized by the perpetrators in the name of religion, culture, society, and tradition. The reason why the initial condition and experience of the family after they settle down in Pakistan remain the same as at Shahr-e-naw, is precisely because the refugee camps in Pakistan were operated by various parties concerned with the mujahideen in the background. Pakistan’s assistance to the Afghan refugees it sheltered, thus, was religious and political in nature, determined by their affiliation to any of the seven Islamic political parties approved by the government, since its international support, primarily by the US and Saudi Arabia, approved of only “religiously-oriented parties and leaders, not recognizing secular parties or, for that matter, national resistance groups located inside Afghanistan (Safri 589). Accordingly, it was through these Islamic parties that aid to the refugees was dispensed (Safri 589). This being so, the Kargar girls are forced to adopt the salwar kameez and hijabs as their everyday wear, leading to Zarguna feeling repressed for the first time:

In Kabul the restrictions on women and girls’ clothes hadn’t affected us that much; I’d had to wear a headscarf outside and for school a long black hijab, but I had also been allowed to wear jeans, corduroy trousers and blouses or sweaters. I’d been comfortable in trousers all my life, yet now I was expected to wear a shalwar kamiz, and even though I didn’t actually mind wearing one, I didn’t like the fact that I had to wear it. (Kargar 28)

Kargar also experiences gender segregation in Pakistan, especially strong in Peshawar, which is “one of the most traditional areas of the country, so its tribal code of conduct remains very strong….Peshawar is conservative, male dominated and practises a strictly fundamental form of Islam” (Kargar 29). The Kargar sisters are also subjected to humiliation and sexual harassment as the Pakistani men look at them as sexual objects to be consumed (“pieces of meat”), especially since they wear the distinctive mark of the black hijab that Afghan women refugees are made to wear to distinguish them from the Pakistani women, and since their economic and social status as refugee women is abysmally low. Against these images that largely affirm and conform to the standard representation of the Afghan woman refugee, however, Kargar creates another image of herself through the trope of the education of the refugee and the counter-presence of the BBC World Service that enables the Kargar sisters to continue their education in English as a parallel to the Islamic education their Saudi-Arabia-funded refugee school provided. It is through her exposure to the BBC and her enrolment in a five-day journalism course for young Afghan refugees organized by it that Kargar enters into the world of journalism. It is after this contact with the Western world that the family finally succeeds in migrating yet again, this time, from the equally oppressive environment in Pakistan to the more liberalized world of England, where Kargar finds her vocation as a journalist and becomes a producer of the landmark radio programme, the Afghan Women’s Hour. This penultimate image of the refugee Zarghuna, or Zari, as she is familiarly addressed, posits a shift away from the stereotyped images of Afghan women in a state of utter passivity and hopelessness. This is, again, a more contemporary and more empowered image of the Afghan woman refugee, one that is acquiring greater credence internationally as well, as a Refugee International report demonstrates (2002). However, what is notable in this image is not its empowerment but the ambivalence that underscores it in the particular life story of Zarghuna Kargar. Kargar reaches London knowing that she was not ultimately free from the traditional strangleholds on women’s lives:

When I saw Javed [her fiancé] for the first time, I realised the engagement was real…I was disappointed that he wasn’t the tall, handsome man I had imagined, and angry with my parents for arranging the marriage….Ultimately, though, it didn’t matter how I felt, because in my culture once it has been decided that a girl should marry a particular man, it would cause immense problems if that agreement was not honoured. (Kargar 34)

I was too young to make any drastic decisions of my own; new to Great Britain and the whole Western way of life, I was frightened and didn’t know what to do. (Kargar 34)

Here I was, perched on a highly decorated sofa for everyone to see, embarking on a marriage that I did not want but had accepted; all because I was an Afghan woman. (Kargar 35)

These passages highlight the manner in which Kargar invests the notion of the displacement of women with a multiplicity of associations apart from the political. This sets the tone for the rest of the life-stories that look at Afghan women’s lives as being oppressed by political violence, religious fundamentalism, and traditional patriarchal values. The return made possible by the Afghan Women’s Hour to her homeland she has had to abandon and retain only as a memory is thus cast by Kargar as a possible return to recuperate the voices lost, like her younger self’s, under this three-fold oppression. Kargar’s narrative of her own displacement therefore is articulated between the desire to present images that are, in a way, faithful to the perception of the Afghan woman refugee in the West, and the anxiety to present an alternative displacement narrative that incorporates, in the words of Powell, “everyday activities like going to school… learning, caring for family members, growing up, practicing religion, examining their sense of who they are, among other everyday and ordinary things that people do” (Powell 172). This narrative is an alternate one precisely because it does not conform to the expectations associated with a typical displacement narrative that rests on the grand moments of history but uses the everyday, material realities to highlight the “very routine, cyclical, layered displacements that not only have occurred historically, but have also occurred (and continue to occur) within the same places, across the same cultures, and to the same people” (Powell 172). The result of such an exercise is that while displacement crucially determines one’s identity as an individual, it cannot subsume identity in its entirety (Powell: 172-173). Powell further argues that while “[e]xemplary displacement stories are often those that include a savior”, the “rhetoric of alternative narratives of displacement instead privileges looking within, an interiority, an examination of one’s identity in relation to their displacement” (Powell 173). In this sense, the emphasis in Kargar’s account of her life on her arranged marriage and its implications, as well as the constant attention and detail paid to the education of her and her sisters, provides a counter to the larger, more public nature of the political displacement (internal as well as to other countries) of Afghans that enables her to unveil the “hidden stories” of the Afghan women (and herself) in order to highlight their resilience in an Afghan society traditionally hostile to the freedom of women, whether in Afghanistan or abroad. This provides a way for Kargar to look at instances of resistance or counters to the displacement that these women face politically, legally, socially, and culturally, and give voice to these instances to a global audience through the Afghan Women’s Hour. 

Works Cited
Barfield, Thomas. Afghanistan: a cultural and political history. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 2010. Print.

Clements, Frank A. Conflict in Afghanistan: A Historical Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2003. Print.

Kalinovsky, Artemy M., and Antonio Giustozzi. “The Professional Middle Class in Afghanistan: From Pivot of Development to Political Marginality.” Humanity: An International Journal of Human Rights, Humanitarianism, and Development Volume 8, Number 2, Summer 2017. pp. 355-378.Project Muse. Accessed on 25 March 2018. Web.

Kargar, Zarghuna. Dear Zari: Hidden Stories from Women in Afghanistan. London: Vintage, Random House. 2012. [2011]. Print.

Khan, Ayesha. “Afghan Refugee Women’s Experience of Conflict andDisintegration.”Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism, Volume 3, Number 1, 2002. pp. 89-121. Project Muse. Accessed on 25 March 2018. Web.

Powell, Katrina M. Identity and Power in Narratives of Displacement. New York: Routledge, 2015. Print.

Refugee International. “Refugee voices: Opportunities in exile – educating Afghan girls in Pakistan”. 5 March 2002 Accessed on: 30 March 2018. Web.

Safri, Maliha. “The Transformation of the Afghan Refugee: 1979-2009.” The Middle East Journal, Volume 65, Number 4, Autumn 2011. pp. 587-601. Project Muse. Accessed on 25 March 2018. Web.

Dr. Dolikajyoti Sharma is presently working as assistant professor at the Department of English, Guwahati University, Assam. She has presented papers in various national and international conferences and has published papers. Her areas of interest are diverse and include women’s literature, modern poetry and fiction, green studies and contemporary South Asian literature.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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