American thinking about Afghanistan these days is largely focused on figures: troop numbers, casualty tolls, war chests, withdrawal dates. It can be difficult to see individual Afghans standing in the shadows. This is the story of one of them, a woman whose narrative is both uniquely her own, and emblematic.
She's a wonderful writer, and she should be telling her own story. But she cannot risk it.
I came to know her through the Afghan Women's Writing Project, which I founded last year. Working in three secure online classrooms, the project pairs Afghan women with American women novelists, poets, memoirists, screenwriters and journalists. Through writing assignments and a revision process, the women tell their stories, which then go on a blog using first names only for security reasons. Sometimes, even that much identification is too precarious. This is one of those cases.
The young woman I'm writing about is determined, passionate and full of dreams. Unlike most young women in Afghanistan, she had a rare early advantage: a father who encouraged her to achieve academically, even during the years when the Taliban barred her from attending school. Here's how she described her early life in an essay she wrote as part of the writing project:
"During the Taliban's black government . . . my father bought me school supplies, and told me: 'Be patient. One day you will finish your studies.' He was right. I waited five years, but after that, I could go to school. . . . When I was sixteen years old, one of my neighbors came to our house and proposed that his son marry me. My father was angry and told him: 'Do you know my daughter is sixteen? It is time for her to study. If the king comes and knocks at the door of my house and proposes that my daughter marry his son, I won't accept it. Please, leave my house and never come back again.' "
But then, as she was finishing high school, her father died. "When I lost him, I lost my shadow," she wrote. In keeping with Afghan cultural practices, her three Taliban-influenced brothers became responsible for her. For several years, in exchange for her turning over much of her salary, they allowed her to continue her education and be employed outside the house.
But now they've decided -- over her strong objections -- to marry her off to a first cousin, a man of about 40. This situation is not uncommon. According to the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, up to 80% of all women in the country face forced marriages. In February, she is to be engaged in return for a $20,000 dowry that will go to her brothers. "This money," she writes, "might possibly keep my family alive."
Yet for her, the marriage will mean the opposite of life: an end to her studies, her work outside the home, her connections to non-Afghans. Her uncle's family lives in a conservative, Taliban-held province. Women there "are required to wear burkas and are responsible for cooking, cleaning and caring for the animals," she wrote in her essay. "Most have eight or nine children. They can't go outside the house."
Even as her brothers make their plans, she is seeking a way to oppose them. But as an Afghan woman, her options are limited.
"I told my mom: 'Please give me a chance. I don't like this man. I can't marry him. If you want to sell me, then I am ready to buy myself. I have a plan for my life. Please give me a chance, please, please.' She didn't reply, but cried silently with me. . . . Running away is not an option, because girls who run away here are raped by men and spend years in jail, and I am not such a girl. I can't leave my mom because my brothers believe anything 'wrong' I do is the fault of my mother, and they will kill her. . . . I am like a piece of cloth. I cost little. Who will buy me?"
If she can't avoid the marriage, she says, "I won't stay in this world." The threat is not simply dramatic: In recent years, suicide has become increasingly common among Afghan women trapped in unions they opposed, a disturbing trend noted by the United Nations Development Fund for Women, Human Rights Watch and others.
There is risk involved in sharing this story here, even though I have withheld the woman's name and location. But she allowed me to do so because there is also danger in not sharing it. If we don't ask these women to speak, and then listen to their stories, we are gagging them as surely as the Taliban did. And when we stop sharing these stories with each other, our understanding of what we are doing in Afghanistan, and why, will necessarily become more narrow.
Masha Hamilton has written four novels, most recently "31 Hours," and is founder of the Afghan Women's Writing Project and the Camel Book Drive.