Much of this blog post about my Afghan friend will be intentionally vague. I will refer to her as Fatima, although that is not her real name.
I’ve changed her name and the circumstances under which we met to protect her identity and safety and ensure the organization’s anonymity that helped facilitate our friendship.
Soon after 9/11, in the capacity of the publisher and chief operating officer of World Press Review Magazine, I was invited to a two-day conference with students and educators from war-torn areas of the world—primarily the Middle East, South Asia, and the Balkans.
I was looking forward to the conference because there would be a delegation from Afghanistan, and I wanted to meet them first hand, hoping for an exclusive interview with one or more of them.
I brought along a spiral notebook hoping to fill it with enough material about my interaction with the Afghan contingent to write a compelling, knock-your-socks-off article for Worldpress.org.
The notebook had the following words on the cover: NOT ALL WHO WANDER ARE LOST.
As I entered the reception room, I saw a handful of young women in pale blue full-body cloaks, otherwise known as burkas. Their faces were completely covered except for a small area around the eyes, camouflaged by heavy netting. As they huddled closely together, I walked over and introduced myself.
When I stuck my hand out in greeting, I realized that their cloaks had no armholes. I awkwardly apologized while they all silently bowed their heads up and down.
The conference organizer informed me that I would be sitting with Fatima, an Afghan teacher, and her students.
As we went around the table offering our names, Fatima quietly prompted her students to introduce themselves. To be honest, if she hadn’t spoken to her students, I wouldn’t have known the difference between student and teacher. With all that material covering Fatima’s face and body, I wouldn’t have known if she was sixteen or sixty.
I made a few quick observations: At first glance, I was unnerved by this hooded creature. The woman looked like a blue ghost, and the semi-transparent mesh fabric covering her eyes made it impossible to garner any sort of emotion from them.
Fatima was eyeless and faceless, and I wasn’t sure where to focus my own eyes. I can usually tell a lot about someone through their eyes. Do they make eye contact? Do their eyes reveal sadness or gladness? Are they happy to see me?
Because the semi-transparent mesh obscured her eyes, the fabric made it impossible for me to size her up. I felt self-conscious as I tried to focus on where her eyes should be, but I forced myself to do so anyway.
Her burka was nylon—you know, the kind of fabric that doesn’t breathe. And as I tried to make small talk, I couldn’t help but imagine how uncomfortably warm she must have felt.
Surprisingly to me, we hit it off right away. I suppose my knowledge of Afghanistan and the cruelty of the Taliban helped to promote easy conversation. Her English was excellent, and we were equally interested in each other’s stories.
The burka served as a roadblock between us, though. Here I was in my designer dress—hair and makeup accentuating my persona while she sat there visibly invisible. I unfairly imagined what she looked like: Dark eyes, swarthy skin, with teeth in need of an orthodontist.
She asked me about my family background, and I told her about recently finding my paternal family.
I explained to Fatima that until June of 2001, I knew nothing about my father or that side of my family. She listened in fascination as I told her about discovering that my father was a Syrian Christian. And that his mother, my paternal grandmother, was in all likelihood a Syrian Jew and that I had five half brothers and sisters I never knew existed.
I divulged something to her that I had never uttered out loud before: That I had finally found peace and relief, and although I never knew I needed it, I felt almost whole and more complete than ever before. I shared a photo of my daughter and half-sister, and she enthusiastically agreed that they looked eerily alike, although not surprising.
She delighted in the story and the discovery of my heritage and newly found siblings. The woman without a face listened in amazement and peppered me with question after question. I will remember forever what she said to me after I finished telling her my story: “You can’t see it, but I’m smiling.”
And then it was Fatima’s turn to tell me about herself. She was in her early 30’s, and coming to America was a life-long dream.
She, too, had found peace in 2001, when in October, the United States invaded Afghanistan. “Until then, the Taliban treated girls and women worse than animals,” Fatima whispered in her thick accent while furtively looking to the right and left, as though there were spies among us.
Her head hung low as Fatima explained that when the Taliban came to prominence in the fall of 1994, life as she knew it changed for her. “The Taliban imposed strict and oppressive rules and orders based on their misinterpretation of Islamic law. Women had effectively committed the crime of being born a girl.”
Fatima pointed out a student of hers that was old enough to be in the seventh grade, but she had just finished second grade because, under the Taliban, she had not attended school for almost seven years.
In 1994, the Taliban’s assault on women began immediately. They barred women from attending classes or working at Kabul University. The Taliban forced nearly all women to quit their jobs, which had a devastating impact on household incomes, especially widow-headed households, which, according to Fatima, was common in Afghanistan.
They drastically restricted women’s access to medical care, brutally enforced a burka dress code, and made the ability of women to move about Kabul impossible. The Taliban forced them to quit their jobs as teachers, doctors, nurses, journalists, government officials, and clerical workers.
She further explained that domestic violence had become rampant in Afghanistan—the physical evidence conveniently hidden under the burka.
“Under the Taliban regime, there was a complete ban on women working outside of the home, which made it impossible for me to teach,” Fatima explained. “And there were no schools for girls anyway, so my profession was useless,” she continued, barely audible between her whispering and all that material covering her mouth. When I told her it was hard to hear her, she apologized, saying that as a veiled woman, it was also hard for her to hear and that the burka was claustrophobic and unbearably warm.
Her depiction of the Taliban was haunting.
The Taliban banned movies, music, dancing, clapping during sports events, beard trimming, shaving, card and board games, cameras, children’s toys including stuffed animals and dolls, television, and paper bags. They outlawed hanging pictures in homes, pet parakeets, satellite dishes, chess, cigarettes, alcohol, magazines, newspapers, most books, anything made from human hair, nail polish, statues, pictures, paintings, or photos of any living thing. Children were forbidden to fly kites or sing songs.
“They even forbid applause, although the ban was a moot point since, as a woman, there was absolutely nothing left to applaud. We used to describe ourselves as the living dead.”
The only public transportation permitted for women were special buses, which were rarely available, and all of their windows, except the driver’s, was covered with thick, filthy blankets.
The Taliban indiscriminately beat Afghans with heavy clubs and long sticks daily. They publicly stoned adulterers to death and amputated the hands of thieves. They banned films with women, and images of females in newspapers, books, shops, or the home. Every visual depiction of a woman was forbidden.
When paying any merchant, a woman’s hand could never be exposed when handing over money or receiving their purchase. Makeup and nail polish were illegal, as well as white socks and white shoes. The Taliban frequently cut off fingers with nail polish.
While the burka existed before the Taliban, its wearing was not a requirement. It was only when the Taliban came into power that the burka became mandatory. Even girls as young as eight or nine years old had to wear a burka. They enforced the wearing of the burka with threats, fines, and severe punishments. And even the accidental showing of a foot or ankle resulted in brutal on-the-spot beatings or, in some unfortunate situations, amputation.
Fatima explained that a burka is expensive and can cost the equivalent of five month’s Afghan salary. And any woman unable to afford a burka faced house arrest. In some neighborhoods, women would share a single garment, many of them waiting days and weeks for their turn to go out, despite their lack of food and medical needs. Fatima described women and girls as wingless birds.
She quoted me an often-used Taliban phrase: “There are only two places for Afghan women. In her husband’s house and the graveyard.”
When I asked her why she was still wearing a burka, she answered that even after the fall of the Taliban regime, many women felt that there was still no safe alternative. “The majority of women who don’t wear a burka face the possibility of being single for the rest of their lives,” said Fatima. She emphasized that it was still a struggle for a woman to gain employment, so they had no choice but to continue relying on men for money. “Men don’t want to marry women who do not abide by hijab.”
She looked around to see if anyone was listening before she continued. “We had to paint our windows black so that no one could see inside, and I could not see outside. So, you see, for seven years, my world was dark.” She paused then, and I imagined that perhaps she was holding back tears. I tried especially hard to see her eyes but to no avail. And yet, I didn’t need to see her face to feel her pain as she continued.
“Yes, my world was dark for seven years because there was a complete ban on women’s activities outside the home. Unless a close male relative could accompany me, the Taliban forced me to spend most of my life in my house. So, when the Americans arrived, I was silently hoping that the worst was over for us. And that my seven years of misery were over.”
We spent hours talking about the horrific life of an Afghan woman. From eight years old, girls were not allowed direct contact with males other than a close blood relative, husband, or in-law. Women and girls were not allowed to be treated by male doctors unless accompanied by a male chaperone, which caused many illnesses to go untreated. Women faced public flogging and execution if they violated Taliban laws.
The Taliban perpetrated egregious and unending violence against women, including rape, abduction, and forced marriages.
Women were not allowed to speak, laugh, or make any sound in public because it was deemed improper for a stranger to hear their voices. Women were also barred from being involved in politics or speaking publicly and could not appear in the streets without wearing a burka. And they could not wear high-heeled shoes because if a man would hear a woman’s footsteps, it might excite him.
Fatima further explained that the light blue burka was commonly worn in Kabul and was native to Afghanistan. The cutwork by her eyes pricked her skin, leaving bloody marks and very little room to breathe and rendered her unable to eat. The small mesh panel allowed such limited vision that even safely crossing the street was difficult. And wearing the burka regularly often led to headaches, poor eyesight, hearing loss, asthma, and other severe disorders.
But worse than all of it was that Fatima longed to feel the sun on her skin.
I shocked her when I suggested that she take off the burka. I tried to assure her that no one in Afghanistan would ever know. After all, we were safe and sound in New York. She silently shook her head no.
We said goodnight, and I gently hugged her. She couldn’t hug me back because the burka constricted her arms. As I awkwardly patted her back, she leaned her head on my shoulder, and we stayed that way for a good while.
I awoke very early the next day, having had a fitful and sleepless night. I walked to the dining room, where I sat in quiet solitude at one of the many long tables. I ordered a coffee and mentally played back all I had learned and heard from my Afghan friend.
As I feverishly wrote in my notebook, a beautiful light-haired brunette woman sat across from me.
Let’s just say she had me at “good morning” because it was my burka-less friend!
Through my tears, I gazed into her piercing hazel eyes and attempted to speak, but I had to pause for fear of crying. She had the whitest of skin, probably because it had barely seen the light of day. I was finding it difficult to breathe. But she was calm.
Her smile was radiant. She had an endearing space between her two front teeth. It was a tiny gap but adorable and unforgettable.
And then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw her burka-less students. They were visibly unsure of themselves and wary as their eyes darted around the room. The girls clustered together and hunched over each other. Fatima looked over at the girls and gave them a head bow which they all respectfully returned.
When Fatima looked back at me, she said, “The girls are quiet because they’re used to being voiceless. Most of them have been kept inside and unable to go to school. Some of us women ran underground schools in our homes for girls and women under the guise of sewing and knitting classes. Many of my student’s parents were arrested and lost their jobs. They have seen teachers shot and executed for secretly schooling girls like them. My students have witnessed atrocities that children should never know or see. And I fear that even with the American presence in my country, their voices will never be heard.”
During one of our conference breaks, we walked outside, and Fatima tilted her pale face up toward the sky and basked in the sun, her hazel eyes closed.
As she turned away, with her back to me, the sun revealed the shiny red highlights in her hair. Her head no longer hung low; she was walking tall and strong. Her mighty shadow towered larger than life alongside her.