This is one of the most disturbing books I’ve read!
A book that left me feeling angry. Angry that there are societies that treat women this way, and angry that there are societies where males are brutalised from an early age so that they find these customs acceptable.
The Lovers is a book by Rod Norland, a journalist for the New York Times who shares a Pulitzer Prize for his news reporting.
It is the true story of his encounter with a young Afghan couple who had defied the conventions of their country, and the story of what happened to them. It has been described as “Afghanistan’s Romeo and Juliet”, but this is a simplification and trivialisation of their ordeal.
The young couple involved is Zakia and Ali. Zakia, the young woman, is about 18, a Sunni and Tajki of the Ahmades family. Mohammed Ali is about 21, a Shia and Hazari. They grew up together in the area of Baniyan, noted as being the area where the Great Buddhas were destroyed by the Taliban. As the young people matured they were kept apart but had already fallen in love. Zakia was taken into a refuge but they eloped, and Mohammed Zaman, Zakia’s father and her older brother, Gula Khan, were determined to kill her – an ‘honour killing’ for the shame she had brought on the family. The young couple was hunted through the northern mountainous region of Afghanistan.
Rod Nordland heard of the story, met them at a place where they had taken refuge and wrote the story for the New York Times. There was outrage in the West; funds were raised for the young couple. They became celebrities. The young couple moved to Kabul to hide, staying with an aunt. Petitions were started on social media to have the young couple granted asylum in the United States. While these gathered a lot of signatures and attention there were still normal procedures to go through.
Men in Zakia’s family also moved to Kabul, stalking them, so their lives were in constant danger.
Norland acknowledges he broke one of the principles of journalism in becoming involved in the lives of these young people, liaising with authorities, offering advice, transferring money. Norland writes of the difficulty of communicating with the young couple who are uneducated – they can count to ten, but are innumerate and illiterate, but not unintelligent. Zakia and Ali do not trust their Western contacts; they do not have the same sense of urgency as do their Western helpers.
At one stage, Ali returns to the Army, at another he is arrested. Anwar, Ali’s father is supportive and is with them in Kabul. The three of them attempt to escape through Tajikistan but are betrayed by the corrupt officials in that country and their own lack of urgency.
When Zakia becomes pregnant, the young couple returns to Buniyan with Anwar. The book was published in September 2015, and that is the latest on Zakia, Ali and their daughter, Ruquia. They are constantly on the alert for Zakia’s relatives.
The book is well illustrated with photographs taken by the press photographer of the various stages of their story. I’ve had to simplify and give only a brief outline.
Nordland also briefly tells the story of Fatima Kazimi, the Head of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, who rescued Zakia from her family. After Zakia and Ali became well known she claimed that her life was in danger. She and her family fled Afghanistan and found asylum in Africa. Norland questions the authenticity of her claims, but I can’t help thinking, why wouldn’t you get out if you possibly could?
Nordland pays tribute to Jara Sukhanyar his interpreter, guide and fellow journalist. The actions Norland took would not have been possible without him.
The book has extensive notes and a thorough index.
There is a long and fascinating epilogue which recounts other horrifying stories and explains the legal and social background of Afghani women’s situation.
In 2009 the President of Afghanistan established by decree the EVAN – the Elimination of Violence Against Women. This was to forbid child marriage, forbid the practice of widows being forced to marry their brother-in-law, outlaw wife-beating and rape.
Afghan women had been much better off under Communism with the compulsory education of girls to Grade 9 and the end of the sale of women for bride price. This was revoked by the Taliban who created a lot of publicity in the West by closing the girls’ schools, insisting on the wearing of the burqua and having women outside the home accompanied by a male relative at all times.
Under the current government who has been supported by the US measures to protect women have been a key part of the US platform. Hence the Decree. It is interesting to note that the current Afghani Constitution was written by US scholars and legal advisors.
However, less than 10% of cases are prosecuted; a judge may say he doesn’t agree with the decree and dismiss the case. The prosecution unit of EVAN is poorly supported. Women in public life are beaten at home. The head of the prosecution unit admits to being beaten, as does the first elected woman MP.
I thank Hachette for my review copy of this thought-provoking book and recommend it to anyone who is interested in the plight of women in Afghanistan, or current events in that place where we still have soldiers.
The Lovers by Rod Nordland is published by Hachette Australia and is available now from Dymocks.
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