From Head to Toe

Her face was forbidden, hidden behind a cloth. The burqa covering Shepnam’s head persistently grated on her skin. Each time she blinked, her eyelashes would rub against the burqa in a sinister way, never failing to remind Shepnam of her subordinate societal position. The layer of material over her mouth was simply suffocating. Under the blue cloth, her life consisted of darkness.

Shepnam’s recollections of childhood freedom, painted with color, starkly contrast with her darker days as a young woman. In autumn of 1996, a member of the Taliban painfully taught her what the consequences would be if she misbehaved. The man who beat her was her older brother. He dogmatically believed in Islamic fundamentalism and became a soldier in the Taliban force at the beginning of the Taliban’s control. 

Shepnam only felt the pain of a beating once. She could still remember the blows of her brother’s boots because she “misbehaved.” To this day, Shepnam doesn’t understand how the act of wearing make-up could so drastically dishonor her family.

Shepnam’s mother told her stories from the past when women had greater freedom. As she taught lessons to Shepnam, she told of a time when she freely studied in a school rather than hidden in secret. Efforts to reform women’s rights in Afghanistan had gained momentum during the 1960s and 1970s. Her mother told Shepnam about President Daoud declaring 1975 as The Year of the Afghan Women, saying, “Afghan women have the same rights as Afghan men to exercise personal freedom.” Shepnam can remember running, playing and singing as a little girl. Even her brother used to believe in freedoms for women—he was the one who taught her to fly a kite.

But those memories came before history, before the war.

A look into Afghan history reveals that ethnic groups have been warring in this country for ages. The history of turmoil in Afghanistan began with the Soviet invasion in 1978, followed by the tribal wars, then came the rise of fundamental Islamic rule under the Taliban. Afghanistan’s religious situation never esteemed women’s rights as a priority. But nothing from the past compares to the treatment women received under the Taliban.

With the white flag of the Taliban over Afghanistan, even the simple pleasures of her life had become high crimes. Shepnam could not stand to listen to the Talib radio daily announce the newest invented rule for women to follow. The Taliban could beat a woman on a whim and claim they were justified for it. Because women were not allowed the freedom of walking in the streets without a male family member, women essentially lived under house arrest. Then again, even when they could go out, they were likely to be beaten by a member of the Taliban.

Through her time living under the horror of the Taliban, Shepnam preserved her dignity in spite of the fact that she was forbidden to learn, create or work.

Instead, Shepnam developed an active imagination. She found a way to stay alive in a world of punishment. Her mother secretly helped to educate her. They would hide in a closet with a candle and a forbidden book and whisper lessons.

Shepnam will forever remember the day when the Taliban fell. With the Taliban gone, all the extreme fundamentalist religious regulations went away and she took off her burqa. For the first time since she was a small child, Shepnam saw color.

Even with all the events stimulating progress for women’s rights since the downfall of the Taliban, life for Shepnam remains confined in many ways. When her older brother tried to trade her in marriage with a much older man in 2005, Shepnam ran from her home in the village to live with her mother’s brother in the Karte Char district of Kabul.

Since her move, the life she lives today resembles those dreams she’d imagined only in secret under the Taliban. Shepnam cherishes every waking moment of her daily life. She can learn. She can work. She can live. She doesn’t have to hide behind walls. Every day, she tries to walk with her head held high, knowing she deserves a beautiful life.

Shepnam now studies accounting at Kabul University and has an internship with an international aid organization associated with the United Nations. Because of her work for this organization, Shepnam received a special invitation to participate in a Professional Skills Development Program for Women. In this program, she has the opportunity to study English and learn computer skills. She is also learning cultural insights she’d never conceived of before—she is amazed, for example, when she finds out women have permission to make eye contact with male coworkers. She admits it can be intimidating to interact with men she has been conditioned to submit to her entire life. Her program director encourages her to speak during business meetings. Her very existence changes in little ways every day.

Many days Shepnam can close her eyes and see her very own business, a small accounting firm. She dreams of traveling the world. Some day, she wants to marry for love. She hopes to raise her children in a nation where women’s lives will be valued and they have a chance to explore a world of opportunity.

In her mind, Shepnam lives bold; in her daily life, she has many pre-conditioned lowly behaviors to overcome. The small freedoms a Western woman can take for granted remain literally unbeknownst to an Afghan woman: to go outside when she wants, to visit a friend, to work for a living. From day to day Shepnam’s courage grows, and she is on her way to becoming completely free.

With pain from her past such a recent memory, Shepnam’s hope for tomorrow hangs in a delicate balance. After centuries of suppression of women, gaining ground for women’s rights is an uphill fight. Making progress takes an open mind from both genders toward learning a new way of treating one another. Men must learn to understand how to give women respect. Women must also learn they have the right to receive respect.

The situation continues to improve. As a new generation of young women rise up, they begin to allow the knowledge of their freedom to sink into their very souls. They are beautiful. They are human. They are equal.

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