The Washington Post, March 28, 2002; Page C01

Book World

Afghanistan's Hidden Struggle

'Zoya's Story' by Zoya with John Follain and Rita Cristofari and 'My Forbidden Face' by Latifa with Shekeba Hachemi

By Jonathan Yardley,
whose e-mail address is

An Afghan Woman's Battle for Freedom
By Zoya with John Follain and Rita Cristofari
Morrow. 239 pp. $24.95

Growing Up Under the Taliban: A Young Woman's Story
By Latifa with Shekeba Hachemi
Translated from the French by Linda Coverdale
Talk Miramax. 210 pp. $21.95

Inside the Afghan Women's Resistance
By Cheryl Benard with Edit Schlaffer
Broadway Books. 293 pp. $23.95

Within what seemed only hours of the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, once it had become apparent that they were acts of terrorism carried out by al Qaeda, and that the Taliban in Afghanistan was in effect a co-conspirator, an extraordinary documentary called "Behind the Veil" was shown to television viewers around the world. A joint undertaking of CNN and the BBC, filmed and narrated by a young British journalist named Saira Shah, it revealed in sickening, heartbreaking detail the Taliban's brutality and indifference to human rights.

The film also revealed what until then few people had known: that the women of Afghanistan were engaged in a determined, resourceful and surpassingly courageous underground resistance against the Taliban. That Saira Shah herself had gone into Afghanistan undercover was an act of no small courage -- she was born in England to Afghan parents and had never visited her ancestral homeland -- but as she no doubt would be the first to say, it is the courage of the women actually carrying on the resistance that commands our greatest respect.

These three books tell the stories of many of them. "Zoya's Story" and "My Forbidden Face" are first-person narratives by young Afghan women -- both Zoya and Latifa are in their early twenties -- while "Veiled Courage" (to be released next month) is a broader examination of the work being undertaken by the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) that includes many interviews with women who tell, in brief, their life stories. Perhaps in some measure because it was the first of the three that I read, "Zoya's Story" made the deepest impression upon me, but all three are invaluable to our understanding of Afghanistan and the incredible challenges it faces in overcoming the devastation inflicted upon it by the Taliban.

The stories of the women of Afghanistan are at once individually dramatic and collectively numbing. The details are different, but the broad plot outlines are the same. They begin with the long war against Russia and the rise of the fundamentalist mujaheddin, darken with the Russian retreat and the bloody rise of the Taliban, then turn almost unimaginably bleak as the Taliban mandates its rigid absurdities and begins its ghastly crimes, enumerated in part by Zoya as "the stonings to death, the public hangings, the amputations of men accused of theft, at which teenagers were given the job of displaying the severed limbs to the spectators, the torturing of victims who had fuel poured on them before being set alight, the mass graves the Taliban forces left in their wake."

There can hardly be a family in Afghanistan that went unscathed by the Taliban's hand. Latifa proudly notes that "Papa is a Pashtun, and Mama is a Tajik, and they've stayed together, just as our country has in the face of wars and fratricidal ethnic strife," but to survive they hid for half a decade and finally had to escape to France. Zoya wasn't so lucky. Her mother, an early RAWA activist, and her father, who was also involved in fighting fundamentalism, simply disappeared about a decade ago, when she was a young teenager, "killed on the orders of the fundamentalist Mujahideen warlords, like thousands of other people." Her life was forever changed:

"I felt that I had lost everything. I could still picture before me the smiles on my parents' faces, and the way they would look at me with tenderness and love. I wished I could have spent longer, much longer, looking into their eyes the last time I saw them. . . . One night soon after their disappearance, I swore that I would avenge them, not only my parents but all those people who had been killed without anyone knowing where, how, or why they had died. I would not avenge them with a Kalashnikov but by fighting for the same cause Mother had fought for."

Zoya's Story, click here to order it
Zoya's Story:
An Afghan Woman's
Battle for Freedom
by Zoya with John Follain
and Rita Cristofari

Zoya managed to escape with her beloved grandmother to Pakistan, but she became active in RAWA and remains so to this day: "It was the most important part of my life, more than anything or anyone else -- more important, even, than Grandmother." It is a level of passion and commitment that RAWA inspires in many others, not merely those who work within it but also those who observe and support it from without. "When you think about it," writes Cheryl Benard in "Veiled Courage," "the sheer existence of RAWA is a political implausibility. How could the most backward country in the world have produced one of the most daring women's movements in the world?" But in contrasting RAWA and al Qaeda, she provides a plausible answer:

"RAWA, in a sense, had grown on the same soil. As the same garden can produce lethal digitalis and benign achillaea, RAWA was a kind of mirror movement to al-Qaeda. From the global ideology mix, they had picked democracy and equality; al-Qaeda had drawn anti-Westernism and authoritarianism. From their joint cultural background of gender segregation, RAWA had retained the inclination of women to comfort each other and used that to form operating units composed of small groups of women, but the organization was very inclusive of men. Al-Qaeda took the same background to extreme lengths, forming a pathologically anti-woman, ultramale cadre."

That RAWA enjoys considerable support among Afghanistan's male population is little understood on the outside, where it is commonly assumed -- as Benard herself assumed until she began to visit Afghanistan -- that the Taliban's attitude toward women is shared by most Afghan men. Instead she found that many of them support RAWA in a variety of ways that include "vague sympathy for the goal of equality, the occasional friendly attendance at a RAWA event, help in distributing their magazine and publications, selling the products of their workshops in their stores, even direct participation in RAWA's underground work."

This impression is confirmed in both Zoya's and Latifa's narratives. But all three books are also pessimistic about the return of the Northern Alliance and the warlords. "We all knew that although they now spoke of democracy, elections and even women's rights," Zoya writes, "the Northern Alliance leaders who had taken power had blood on their hands," and she strikes what this country should take -- and take seriously -- as a note of warning:

"Whatever their promises, I do not believe that the Northern Alliance will bring peace and democracy to my country. The only goal of each faction is to have power for itself, and none of them are ready to share it. A civil war is the most likely outcome. Only a United Nations force could end the wars in my country, by disarming all the warlords and overseeing free elections. And only a democratic and secular government could guarantee human rights, including women's rights."


Review on "Zoya's Story" in The USA Today

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