This story is part of a cycle in which women play a major role
Dear Zari is a book by Zarghuna Kargar, an Afghan woman now living in London, who presented the BBC World Service programme “Afghan Woman’s Hour”. This was a profoundly influential project that gave support, education and encouragement to millions of women and men across Afghanistan. For several years “Afghan Women’s Hour” aired discussions, covering difficult – often taboo – subjects, and Zarghuna heard from hundreds of women eager to share their stories. It is these true stories which have inspired her to write this book – a powerful collection of testimonies that depict the oppression and suffering of Afghan women.
“Sharifa’s story” is one of the thirteen life stories included in the book.
In Afghanistan, women usually become mothers a year or so after marriage. It’s perfectly normal for Afghan women to have up to four or five children; in fact, even that would be considered a small family. For most Afghan women the purpose of marriage is simply to have a family, but her family is not considered complete until she produces a son. Any woman who manages to give birth to a succession of sons is cherished by her husband, praised by her mother-in-law and respected by her community. In this way, the mother feels proud of having achieved what she believes she was born to do. If on the other hand a woman is unable to produce a boy, she feels a failure and her life is made miserable.
As a result, Afghan women tend to go on having babies one after another until a son is born; some women will even give birth to more than ten children in order to achieve their goal. Any woman who gives birth to a boy soon after her marriage is considered to be very fortunate, so many women spend much of their pregnancy praying and worrying about whether or not they will have a son. At special occasions families will ask God to bless them with a son, and it is customary at wedding ceremonies for older Afghans to approach the young bride saying, ‘May you become the mother of sons.’ In my Pashtun community, there are even special songs that reinforce the desire for male children, such as ‘A Son Is Gold’ and ‘God Only Gives Sons to Those Who Are Loved’.
Sons are so important in our culture that some mothers will go so far as to neglect their daughters in favour of their sons. I’ve spoken to girls who’ve told me that at Eid their parents will buy new clothes for their brothers but not for them, and in some houses I have seen how mothers will serve their sons a large piece of meat while only giving their daughters a bowl of soup. I remember an Afghan relative who once visited us with her two daughters and son. She looked at me and my four sisters and exclaimed, ‘Oh my God, seeing so many girls together is very frightening. I wouldn’t know how to cope with so many of them.’
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve wished I’d been born a boy; I know my older sister feels the same. Before my brother was born, when female friends and neighbours asked my mother about her children, she would look sad and they would sympathise with her for not having a son. Some women in our family would deliberately make spiteful comments about her lack of male children. I remember when one relative — who enjoyed none of the social and professional advantages our family did — had just given birth to a baby boy. She said in a cruel way to my mother, ‘Oh, this is the will of God. Some women have all life’s luxuries while others don’t. But a wife who is able to give birth to a boy really completes a family, and that makes her a proper woman.’ At this my mother became very upset; I could see the pa in in her eyes, and thought that she felt she was to blame for not giving the family a son. We comforted her and wiped away her tears, although she tried to mask her distress.
‘Mum, whenever this woman comes to our house she makes you upset,’ I said. ‘Why is this? What does she say to hurt you?’
I remember my mother said, ‘My child, she’s lucky. She’s given birth to a boy, a son to the family. She’s not worried about the future.’
When I asked her how it was that boys could safeguard the future, she replied that they would always be able to take care of the family, their sisters and their mother. I told my mother that I could do that just as well as any boy, and that I would take care of her and my sisters, of the whole family. She smiled and stroked my cheek, saying, ‘I believe that you could do it but you can’t do it in the way that a boy could.’
The tendency for parents to place greater value on their sons than on their daughters is common to every ethnic group in Afghanistan. One day Tabasum, one of our reporters at Afghan Woman’s Hour, rang to say she had interviewed a mother who had given birth to twins, a boy and a girl, and that the way the mother treated them had made her angry. I asked her what had happened to make her feel like this. She said, ‘I’m used to seeing girls treated differently to boys, but I don’t think this mother would even care if her daughter died. Both her babies are six months old and the son is healthy and active, but the daughter thin and listless. I think she’s suffering from malnutrition. How can the twins be faring so differently? I’ve heard that the mother is breastfeeding the baby boy but has stopped breastfeed ing the girl.’ Tabasum said this was because the mother believed the girl would one day be the property of another family, through marriage to someone else’s son, whereas the boy would make a family in his own parents’ home. He would bring a bride home and together they would one day care for his mother, so he needed to grow up healthy and strong.
Tabasum and I worked on this story together, and were keen to know what the mother was feeding the daughter. When we asked her, she said, ‘I tried to give my daughter bottled milk but she didn’t like it, that is why she’s suffering from malnutrition. I’ve even had to take her to the hospital a couple of times.’ Tabasum was very worried about the baby girl, saying to me ‘Zarghuna Jan, when I looked at the baby girl she seemed to be pleading with me to help her. She wasn’t kicking her arms and legs like a normal healthy six-month-old baby would, and I just didn’t know what to do or say. How could I tell her mother that what she was doing to her daughter was wrong when she believes what she’s doing is right?’
As part of the programme we interviewed a doctor who explained how important it was for mothers to feed their babies properly, regardless of their sex. The doctor said, ‘Dear mothers, think about both your sons’ and your daughters’ future. Would you want your son to marry a weak and unhealthy girl? Of course not! Every daughter will one day end up living in someone else’s house, and would you want your future daughter-in-law to be so unhealthy and weak that she couldn’t give birth?’
If mothers don’t treat their daughters equally then how can we possibly expect men to treat us equally? A number of women spoke to us about how some family members had made them feel inferior simply because they were female, with one mother of four daughters telling us, ‘Every time I’ve given birth to a girl, my husband disappears from the house for days. I’ve even heard of fathers who haven’t so much as held their baby girls for a year, or spoken to their wife for months because they believe she was to blame for giving birth to a girl.’
As someone who grew up in a family of girls, I know just how much my mother suffered before she had my brother, but after listening to the stories of these mothers I felt both proud and lucky to be part of my family. Sharifa was not nearly so fortunate. She was a school friend when I was a teenager in Pakistan, and I’ve never been able to forget her story. It shows what happens to those girls who don’t have a brother, and to those mothers who don’t have sons.
Sharifa and I were classmates in 1998 at the university for Afghan refugees in Peshawar, and at the time we both lived in a crowded neighbourhood populated mainly by Afghan refugees fleeing the Taliban’s occupation of Afghanistan. She was the oldest of six daughters who had been born with only one-year gaps between them all. Sharifa was usually full of energy and fun and loved messing around and playing practical jokes, and was popular with both her classmates and teachers. She was short with big green eyes, and I remember how she wore a dark blue hijab that was far too big and swamped her. I would meet Sharifa every day at a bus stop on the busy Arbab Road.
Sharifa and I enjoyed the journey to university each day, and would chat to the driver and talk amongst ourselves about our futures. However, there were days when Sharifa wouldn’t speak to anyone, not even me – her best friend. At first, I thought she was being rude and felt offended. Then if I asked her whether something was wrong, she would reassure me there wasn’t before turning away, lost in her thoughts.
One morning I arrived at the bus stop to find Sharifa in one of her silent moods, and decided to try to get to the bottom of what was wrong with her. When I asked her she replied, ‘Before I get married I want to have a check-up with the doctor to find out if I’m able to have a son. If I’m not able to, then I won’t get married at all.’ Neither of us knew at the time how the sex of a baby is determined, so I advised Sharifa to get married first and then worry about whether she had baby boys or girls.
But still she was upset. She would talk about wanting to make her future husband happy, and clearly believed that would only happen if she gave birth to ten sons. The other girls and I would make fun of Sharifa for being so desperate to get a husband, and she would grow angry with us but didn’t fight back. She would simply go quiet and retreat into her thoughts, yet we continued to poke fun at her. Then one day we realised we’d gone too far, and that Sharifa was very distressed. When we tried to tell her that we were only messing around, she said, ‘Yes, I know you’re only joking but it still upsets me. You don’t understand – my mother has given birth to seven girls, and if my father dies we won’t have anyone to look after us. My mother is not able to have a boy; she’s not strong enough.’< /p>
I had met Sharifa’s parents and so I was shaken by what she had told me. ‘Sharifa,’ I said, ‘you have six sisters and that means you’re strong. You also have a lovely mother and father, so you really shouldn’t worry.’ But whenever I met Sharifa’s mother, she always seemed to have just one thing on her mind. First she would ask after my mother, but then she would always ask about my brother. Similarly, the first question she would ask of her daughters’ friends would be how many brothers and sisters they had.
One day I found Sharifa in tears, and I knew she was crying about her situation at home and had finally worked out why she was always asking about my brother and mother; she was trying to find someone else in a position vaguely similar to hers. But of course she thought I was far more fortunate than her because I did at least have one brother, and he represented security. I told Sharifa not to think in such a negative way, saying, ‘You have a big family and when you and your sisters get married it means you will have brothers, and your mother a son.’
But my words didn’t comfort her. ‘Zarghuna, you’ll never understand because you have a brother. I’m mostly upset for my parents. Because I’m the oldest daughter I’ve seen my mother weep every time she gives birth and discovers that it’s another girl. Each time it happens my dad won’t talk to her for months and life at home is wretched. Even my grandparents ignore my mother. It’s truly awful to see what happens to a woman when she’s incomplete.’
I tried to calm her down. ‘Listen, Sharifa, of course your mother is complete. Who says she isn’t? I’ve met her. She’s a beautiful and kind young woman—’
‘What would you know?’ she countered angrily. ‘She’s not complete because she hasn’t given birth to a boy. It’s as simple as that.’ Sharifa lowered her voice and confessed, ‘Sometimes I even get cross with her. If she could give birth to a son then at last we could have a happy life.’
‘Sharifa,’ I replied, ‘happiness doesn’t come like that. It comes with what you already have.’
I remember we were sitting in the corner of our college grounds, under the shade of a small tree. We would often sit there and chat. I wiped away the tears from Sharifa’s face with my scarf and tried to reason with her that it wasn’t anyone’s fault that she didn’t have a brother, or her mother a son. These things were in God’s hands, and there was no point in getting as upset about it as life has to go on. But Sharifa insisted that she personally was being blamed for the situation, ‘My grandmother says it’s my fault. I was the firstborn daughter and therefore all the other girls followed me. I brought bad luck on the family.’
I desperately wanted to do something to help Sharifa, but the bell went and we had to go to our next class. Sharifa dried her eyes and tidied up her hijab while I wiped the dust off my trousers. But after that conversation, I couldn’t stop thinking about Sharifa, and prayed that her mother would have a baby boy.
Weeks passed, and school broke up for the holidays. A month later the new school term started and I saw Sharifa again. We hugged each other and met in breaktime under our usual tree. I couldn’t wait to hear her news; I wanted to know what clothes she’d made, what earrings she had bought and where she had been during the holidays. ‘Zarghuna, I’m so happy. I think our life is finally going to change for the better. My mother is pregnant again and we’re all hoping that this time she’ll give birth to a boy.’ I promised to pray for the outcome they longed for, but then suddenly she became very emotional. She looked down at that dusty floor and then up at me, before saying quietly, ‘Zarghuna, I really hope God will be kind to my mother this time. I so hope she gives birth to a boy, because if she doesn’t som ething terrible is going to happen’.
I looked at her for a few moments before asking what she meant. She looked down and then up at me again, and said, ‘My father is planning to get married again, and the marriage will be in exchange for me.’
I was horrified. ‘No, that can’t be right. He can’t do that!’
But Sharifa said simply, ‘If he does decide to take a new wife in exchange for me, I think I will die.’ Her words filled me with dread. Even at our young age, I knew she was contemplating suicide. We’d both heard of girls who had set fire to themselves to avoid arranged marriages; it was the last resort for those who feel trapped.
Sharifa took a deep breath and continued, ‘He has even chosen a girl who is the same age as me. In exchange for her, my father will give me to the other family’s son.’
‘You can’t just accept this,’ I said crossly, and reassured myself with the thought that nothing definite had been decided because Sharifa’s mother’s pregnancy still had some months to go, and she might yet give birth to a boy.
‘God will be kind,’ I said. ‘He will give your mother a son.’ Sharifa agreed and tried to be cheerful.
Several months later Sharifa and her sisters were busy choosing names for the brother they so longed for and – as was the custom amongst the Afghan refugees in Pakistan – my mother and I went to visit the family (as it was usual for mothers to befriend the mothers of their daughter’s friends). We arrived to find Sharifa’s family all getting very excited in anticipation of what they hoped would be the arrival of a baby boy, and both my mother and I prayed that this time God would indeed give them a son.
We sat in Sharifa’s house in a small dark room with Afghan mattresses positioned by the walls and a traditional red Afghan carpet in the middle. The weather was unseasonably hot, so Sharifa served Roh Afza, a sweet juice that smells of perfume and is famous in Pakistan for its sugariness. As we sat drinking the juice, I could see how confident and hopeful Sharifa’s mother was in her heavily pregnant state, and was pleased to see the family so happy. It was one of the most enjoyable days we’d ever spent together.
A couple of weeks later I saw Sharifa at the bus stop where we used to wait for our school bus. As soon as she saw me she started crying, and passers-by stopped to stare at her outburst. Some even poked fun at her for crying on the street, making nasty comments – ‘Why are you crying? Do you need a man?’; ‘Are you crying for a husband? Why don’t you come with me?’, ‘What’s the matter, can’t you get a man? Do you want some cock?’
I hugged her tightly, not caring what these strangers were saying. I wished I’d been able to shout something back at them, but it wouldn’t have been safe. I looked closely at Sharifa, and said, ‘Try to calm down. What’s the matter? Has something happened to your mother?’
Sharifa was more upset than I’d ever seen her. She could barely speak without gulping for air. At last, she gasped, ‘Zarghuna, I’m ruined, my mother is destroyed, and everything is lost.’ Immediately I thought her mother must have had a miscarriage, or a serious problem while delivering the baby. Again I calmly asked her what had happened, but by this time Sharifa was crying hysterically and it was clear from her puffy, red eyes that she’d been crying for a long time. ‘Zarghuna, it’s another girl!’
I could see how exhausted she was, as if all the energy had drained from her body, and I decided to take her back to my home. When we arrived back at my house my mother was surprised to see us both, but I explained that Sharifa was upset and my mother accepted this without further question. I made some sweet tea and as we sat down on the carpet, I tried to calm Sharifa down. As I did so, I wondered what kind of society we were living in. How could it make any sense that an innocent baby girl could bring so much pain and suffering to Sharifa and her family?
I could only imagine that Sharifa’s mother was even more distressed than her daughter, and struggled to understand how a lovely baby girl could come into the world and not be wanted by anyone. She was being judged for her gender and it seemed bitterly unfair. Struggling to say the right thing to Sharifa, I ended up saying the first thing which sprang to mind, and it was far from helpful. ‘You should be happy, Sharifa. You have a little sister who will bring laughter and happiness—’
‘No,’ Sharifa shouted, ‘that baby has brought nothing but pain and sorrow, and my mother’s life is a living hell now. My dad is not speaking to her and no one has even congratulated her for bringing a healthy baby into world. My mother is not feeding her and I can’t even hold her.’
She lowered her voice and mumbled, ‘My family will be scarred forever by this, and now I have to marry some stranger that my father has chosen for me, because he is marrying a girl from that family in the hope of bringing a son to our family.’
I ventured some more useless advice: ‘Why don’t you show your father how upset you are and ask him not to make you go through with this?’
I knew even as I spoke that this would be impossible. In our culture fathers take no notice of what their daughters say, and once their decision is made about a daughter’s marriage, it is final.
I knew not only that Sharifa had no choice but to accept her father’s decision, but also that Sharifa’s mother would have to live with her husband’s new wife, a girl half her age. The usual practice was for a man to pay for a wife by giving her family money, but Sharifa’s father didn’t have enough money to buy a new bride so he had to exchange one of his daughters instead. For Sharifa’s father this arrangement would kill two birds with one stone; he would marry off one of his daughters and get a young bride who would give him a son.
After we’d spoken for a while Sharifa calmed down, we drank more tea and then I walked her home. When I got back it was clear my mother knew what had happened, so I asked what she thought Sharifa should now do. My mother said, ‘It’s a horrid situation, but if she doesn’t agree to the marriage exchange then her family will have even worse problems,’ and with that, she carried on tidying up the kitchen.
I knew only too well from my mother’s experience the consequences of not having a son in an Afghan family; mothers without sons and sisters without brothers have suffered for many generations. While the father and the head of the family is alive and well he is a powerful figure and his wife and daughters are secure, but when he dies the women become the property of the men of the extended family.
Strictly it is illegal for a girl to be given away to settle a family dispute or for her to be forced into marriage, but that doesn’t stop it happening. It is a common occurrence because domestic matters tend to be solved within the family, and as girls are not allowed to go to the courts or seek legal advice, they end up being totally dependent on their families. Regardless of illegality, most women simply obey their family and consider that whatever happens in their lives is God’s will. These young brides tend to be uneducated and therefore unaware of their legal rights, and while most men are aware of the law, they simply ignore it. They think the law should have no say in family matters.
I remember my mother once telling me the story of Zulikha, a girl from her village. After the death of her father, Zulikha and her sisters were distributed amongst their male cousins and forced to marry them, while the mother was compelled to marry her dead husband’s brother. According to Afghan law, based on Islamic law, forced marriages are not allowed. Both parties need to consent to any marriage. However, many people do not fully understand the teachings of the Quran, so cultural traditions tend to take precedence over the letter of the law, and in Zulikha’s case Afghan tradition was followed. She had no brothers so her family were distributed like possessions amongst the male relatives of her dead husband’s extended family. The thinking behind this is that if the woman were to marry another man – a stranger – then the widow’s land would be lost to someone outside the family. The law states that husbands and wives have an equal share of land and property but in reality all assets are regarded as the man’s. So if a married man dies, then his brothers will come and take what they regard as theirs: the widow, her daughters and all the property.
As it turned out, Zulikha had quite a good life with her husband because he was educated and had enough money to look after her but she never forgot the fact that she was given to him like an ornament or toy of no value. She could never forgive what her uncle’s family had done to her sisters and her mother.
I was aware that Sharifa also had cousins and knew what had happened to Zulikha, but at that time she seemed to be fine. A few months later, though, she stopped coming to school and I started to worry about her. No one seemed to know how things were with Sharifa and her family, so I decided to find out for myself and one afternoon I walked over to her house. It was a good half-hour’s walk from my home, and I was hot and bothered by the time I arrived. I knocked on the old wooden door and waited; but then I noticed it was ajar and tried to peek through it when Sharifa’s younger sister opened the door and invited me in. As I went into the garden I noticed there were piles of mud bricks and planks of wood everywhere; there seemed to be some sort of building work going on. Sharifa came out to greet me. I h adn’t seen her for several weeks – she had lost weight and become pale, and as I hugged and kissed her on the cheek as I normally would, I noticed that her lips were dry. I was sure something awful had happened.
‘Salam, Sharifa. What’s wrong? Where have you been? Why haven’t you been coming to class?’ I bombarded her with questions but she didn’t reply to any of them; then she began to cry. She asked me to come into her bedroom and began to tell me about the building work, but I interrupted her.
I understood immediately what she meant. Sharifa’s father needed to have a room separate from the rest of the house for his new bride. Inside the house everything was as quiet as if there had been a death and the household was in mourning. No one laughed or smiled. Sharifa told me that her family had decided to exchange her for his new bride, a girl who was just seventeen, the same age as Sharifa and me. In return, Sharifa would be marrying a man in his forties whose wife had died. She would have to look after this man’s children and in so doing give up any dreams she might have had of a handsome young man of her own. Sharifa’s happiness was being sacrificed to secure her family’s future.
As I walked home I prayed fervently that there would be some kind of miracle, or that Sharifa and her family would reject this plan. Sharifa was forfeiting her future with no guarantee of the desired outcome. Who could be certain that the new wife would even give birth to a son? Sharifa’s extended family kept saying that people who marry again eventually have a son, but who knew whether that was true?
Two months passed and I heard nothing from Sharifa. She wasn’t allowed to leave the house and I was busy with school and household chores. I would occasionally wonder what had happened to her but had gradually come to accept that it was her destiny to marry an old man and safeguard her family’s future. One afternoon after school, though, when I got off the bus, I saw one of Sharifa’s younger sisters in the street. She was out buying medicine from the chemist’s. I stopped her and anxiously asked how Sharifa was. She said that Sharifa had had to get married before her father brought the new bride home because Sharifa’s husband needed help with his five children, and that Sharifa was now their stepmother even though some of the children were almost the same age as her.
‘But where is she now?’ I asked. ‘Is she here in Peshawar?’ Her sister’s eyes filled with tears. ‘Yes, she’s in Peshawar but she’s living outside the city, in a remote village. Her husband’s house is a long way away and she’s not allowed to come and visit us very often.’
Sharifa’s sister started crying. ‘We don’t really see our sister any more. She’s too busy looking after her husband and his five children.’
I was trying to imagine how young the children must have been, seeing as Sharifa she was not much more than a child, and asked, ‘What about your dad? Did he bring home the new bride?’
The sister shook her head, and I asked why not.
‘My dad is seriously ill. He fell ill the week before he planned to bring home his new wife and was taken into hospital. I’m going now to take him these tablets that the doctor has prescribed.’
Sharifa’s eventful life started to occupy my mind once again. I explained to my mother what had happened and she immediately suggested we should go and visit Sharifa’s mother to see how she was. The next day my mother and I went to the family’s house. As I pushed open the old wooden door, I could see the garden was full of people and assumed they were celebrating Sharifa’s father’s wedding. Maybe he had gone ahead with it after all. But then I noticed that people were looking serious and that there was not the joyful atmosphere of a wedding. A group of men moved aside to let me and my mother into the house, and it was then that I heard the sound of crying.
We went into a room and found Sharifa’s mother weeping. She was sitting on the floor; her scarf lay crumpled by her side. Her daughters sat around her and they too were weeping, but Sharifa wasn’t among them. I approached Sharifa’s mother and bent down to kiss her. She hugged me and held me tight and I sensed she was thinking that as Sharifa’s friend I was somehow connected to her daughter.
‘My child, Sharifa’s sacrifice didn’t bring us any happiness.’
This wasn’t a wedding. It was a funeral. Sharifa’s father had died earlier that day, and he had died before bringing his new wife home or securing a son for the family. Sharifa’s mother began wailing and slapping her face.
‘Oh God, what will happen to us? I have lost two pieces of my heart: my daughter Sharifa and my husband. What will become of me and my daughters?’ She was rocking back and forth, calling out Sharifa’s name.
‘Sharifa, my child, come and see. Your sacrifice didn’t bring a son. Why did you have to leave me? Why? Now instead of you, Sharifa, your father’s new bride has to come and suffer with us.’
I never saw Sharifa again. I stopped going to her house and I found it hard to accept that Sharifa had given up her education and was the wife of an older man and mother to someone else’s children. But her story, and my memories of our friendship, remain with me to this day.
I’m happy to be living now in a society where men and women are equally valued, and parents are happy to have either a baby daughter or a baby son.
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