Zarghuna Kargar “Dear Zari: Hidden Stories from Women in Afghanistan,” Naomi Goldsmith (ed.), London: Vintage Books, 2012. Contents: ‘My Story’ (Author), 12 individual life stories recounted by Afghan Women, Epilogue & Glossary.
It is not often we are offered a glimpse into the private lives of Afghan women. The portrayal of Afghan women as vulnerable victims of cultural norms, traditions and at the mercy of a perceived patriarchal society is frequently deliberated by Western media and scholars alike. Furthermore it is evaluated through the lens of ‘Western’ values which predominantly merits itself on principles such as freedom of speech, equal rights and equality for women. Many Afghan women however, may not agree with this western perception or representation, and on the contrary may feel this estimation does not correspond to their own identity and self image.
This element does not however, take away from the harsh facts that many Afghan women have suffered brutally as a result of cultural and societal norms and at times, harsh Sharia laws. We regularly hear of horrific acid attacks on women, ‘honour’ killings, stoning to death and young girls given away as child brides, sometimes as part of ‘exchange’ deals, or as a price to ending a feud. In many regions of Afghanistan, strict Purdah traditions remain in place, therefore the concept of Afghan women revealing details of their private lives to an audience has been rather problematic and remains a taboo subject in general.
Overcoming these obstacles, the book “Dear Zari,” offers an authentic insight into the mysterious, hidden and shrouded world of Afghan women. This is mainly due to the fact that the author, Zarghuna Kargar, is herself an Afghan woman. Indeed it is the author’s own harrowing story and personal journey depicted in the introduction which leaves the reader in no doubt of her inherent and genuine understanding of the unjust and unfair treatment of Afghan women living in a continuous war torn country and notoriously oppressive society.
The author presents a brief but concise contextual overview of historical and political events dating back to the Soviet occupation of the late 1970‘s under the government of Dr. Najeebullah during the so called communist era. Included in the synopsis are events leading to the takeover by the Mujahedeen who seized control in 1992 and subsequent takeover by the Taliban regime in 1996. As civil war erupted the author and her family escaped to take refuge in Pakistan. After the events of 9/11 which led to the arrival of the US and coalition forces in a bid to oust the Taliban from power, the author’s family sought asylum in the UK where she soon began working for the BBC World Pashtu Service. The stories of Afghan women revealed in the book therefore present the reader with personal stories of tragedy and relentless suffering, which are set against a backdrop of an ever-changing tumultuous political landscape, ongoing wars and occupation. These crucial details lend the reader invaluable insight and understanding of the suffering and plight of the Afghan people, and in particular Afghan women. The author points out in the introduction that ‘regardless of which political faction was in power, women were always affected badly.’ (6)
With the collapse of Taliban power in 2004, the author began working on a new radio programme for the BBC called ‘Afghan Woman’s Hour,’ The concept of the weekly magazine programme was to entertain, inform and celebrate Afghan women through the power of radio. (8) Naturally the author’s knowledge of the main languages of Afghanistan (Pashto and Dari), were key to her being asked to produce and present the programme, not to mention her ability to draw on experiences from her own aforementioned tumultuous childhood and horrendous experiences in Afghanistan. This, no doubt gave her first hand empirical knowledge of the traumas recounted to her by Afghan women. The author returned to Afghanistan regularly to carry out interviews and also communicated with and trained other Afghan women from various provinces to carry out interviews. Thus began ‘Afghan Woman’s Hour,’ which was launched in 2005 and continued weekly until 2010 when sadly the British government discontinued the project.
While the gripping, distressing and often terrifying accounts of women’s lives in Afghanistan were aired weekly, the author tells us that the programme was immensely popular among women in Afghanistan who tuned in their thousands to hear real-life stories, which no doubt many could relate to through their own harrowing life experiences. One would imagine that the programme not only gave voice to these women, but it must have been a great source of relief and comfort, knowing they were not alone in their suffering.
While it would be an impossible task to provide an in-depth account of the thirteen individual life stories presented in the book, the prevalent narratives demonstrate an oppressive existence and overt subjugation of women particularly in rural areas of Afghanistan.
In Pashtun and Afghan society in general, giving birth to male heirs is of the utmost importance as they are perceived as safeguards of the future. As a result, many women will go on having babies one after another until a son is born. It is often considered the fault of the woman, and many women blame themselves, as revealed in the following example. Having failed to produce a son, a husband decided to take a second wife in the hope she could provide him with a male heir. For this purpose, he needed a separate room in the house for his new bride. As he didn’t have enough money to pay the ‘bride price,’ he instead exchanged his young daughter in return, who was consequently forced to marry a man in his forties.
Another story tells of a young girl who fell in love with a boy next door. As this was considered a grave sin, the result was a collaboration between the girl’s father and uncle who arranged her marriage to an unknown man in his forties, who also happened to be a drug addict. This disturbing story reveals details of the fourteen year old girl being bundled forcefully into a car driven far away from her home, where she spent her married life like a maid, cooking his food, eating leftovers and preparing his hashish. Sometimes he beat her if she was slow in making his tea or preparing his drugs.
Another story tells of a girl whose parents transformed her appearance from female to male by dressing her as a boy. She grew up being presented at male gatherings, kept her hair short, wore shalwar kamiz and was treated by the entire family as ‘male.’
The stories reveal that girls could be married as young as twelve and would often face violence in their in-laws home and many were treated as slave labour. What comes across strongly is that many girls and women have no rights to question the men in their families and they can do little without the permission of males in the household.
Political changes in Afghanistan have altered the lives of many women for the better. For instance, women can voice their views through female members of parliament and politicians. Also, there are many women nominating themselves for elections. Life for women in urban areas such as Kabul for example, would be a lot different compared to those living in rural areas. Nonetheless, we are still aware that many injustices, attacks and horrific abuses against women continue to be prevalent in south and central Asia.
Dear Zari: Hidden Stories from Women in Afghanistan is an invaluable and important book for scholars and general public alike, presenting a true depiction not only of the hardships, suffering and plight of Afghan women, but moreover, the stories reflect the nature of the indefeasible spirit, resilience, strength and courage of Afghan women. I would highly recommend this book.
Writer: Angelina Merisi
The writer hails from Ireland. She is part of the Pashtuns Times News Network. She is a PhD scholar at the University College Cork, Ireland. Her current research is focused on Islam and Pashtun male migrants in Ireland, masculinity and honour concepts. She can be reached at
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