“People in Afghanistan don't see widows as human beings who have rights anymore”by Jessica Abrahams / July 18, 2014 / Leave a comment
Afghanistan has one of the highest proportions of widows in the world compared with the size of its population. Three decades of conflict—from the Soviet invasion to the war on terror—have left millions of women without husbands, alone in a country that does not treat widows kindly, and where few women are literate or have ever worked outside the home. The average age of an Afghan widow is 35, according to a UN estimate.
Nobody knows how many widows there really are in Afghanistan, but in 2006 the UN estimated there were at least two million, at a time when the entire female population numbered roughly 13m. Women who have lost their husbands see their already limited personal freedoms fall further, since widows are considered to be bad omens in Afghan culture. Options for remarriage are limited: it is sometimes possible for a widow to marry a relative of her late husband, but if she chooses to remarry outside the family she can lose custody of her children.
“People [in Afghanistan] don’t see [widows] as human beings who have rights anymore,” says journalist Zarghuna Kargar, whose own family fled Afghanistan in 1994, when she was 10 years old. Afghan custom dictates strict rules for widows. “In some cases they can’t even wear colourful clothes, or laugh out loud,” she says. “Losing a husband is not only about the pain of losing someone you love or someone very close to you; it is the pain of losing almost every freedom you have as a married woman.”
Kargar, now working for the BBC in London, has been documenting the lives of some of these war widows.
She meets Marzia, a widow at just 26 years old. Married when she was 19 in northern Afghanistan, she begged her husband to leave the army, but he believed he had a duty to protect their country. She spoke to him the day he died. “He called me at 8 o’clock in the morning,” she tells Kargar for the upcoming documentary. “He told me ‘I will be coming home in two days.’ He told me there was no danger; I was relieved.” Later that day, his car hit a landmine and her husband was killed.
Marzia is no longer allowed out of the house by herself. “People think when a woman is widowed she becomes morally loose and is out of control,” she says. “But they’re wrong. Widows are just women. We are human beings with hopes too.”
She has children and spends her days weaving carpets at home to support them, but poverty is a huge problem for widows. According to UN statistics, 85 per cent of Afghan women cannot read and write, even more so in rural areas, and it is difficult for them to find paid work. Theoretically, war widows are entitled to a military pension from the government but without the correct paperwork, and a man to fight their case for them, this rarely materialises. The women speak of being unable to properly clothe or look after their children, some resorting to begging on the streets. One widow, Mehrjan, tells Kargar she is “overcome by worrying about how we’ll get through the next day.” Another became so destitute after losing her husband that her baby starved to death.
Emotionally, too, there is little support. “Widows are almost forgotten people there [in Afghanistan], you almost get lost,” says Kargar. “Even among family I’ve seen that when women become widowed they just sit in a corner, or at weddings they are not even involved… because they are seen as bad omens. To ask them how they feel is a very rare question.” Mehrjan confirms this experience. “This is the first time anyone has spoken to me about my life,” she says. “No one has ever asked me about how I feel or about this pain in my heart.”
But despite the high loss of life—13,000 Afghan soldiers have died since 9/11—a severe lack of job opportunities means that young men continue to join the army, including Mehrjan’s son. “A lot of young men are now roaming around without any work,” says Kargar. “As a last resort, they join the army, because they at least get paid.”
Kargar’s family left Afghanistan just before the Taliban came to power. Her memories are of “war and devastation,” she says. But “Afghanistan was very different then. There was no issue of hijab [the veil] or fundamental rules against women… I remember that as a young girl in Afghanistan… we could see women on streets, working; wearing western clothes; universities and schools full of girl students.”
But life for women suddenly changed when the Taliban came to power. They were forced to cover up and stay at home, prevented from going to school or working. Women were often beaten or flogged for perceived violations of the rules.
The improvement of women’s rights in Afghanistan is considered—by the western forces who took part in the war—to be one of the key achievements of the 2001 invasion that removed the Taliban from power. It is true that they have had many of their freedoms restored. About 57 per cent of girls now go to school; women have a presence in politics and the judiciary; there are more health clinics available for them; and, although many women do still wear burqas, the crushing and compulsory standards of “modesty” imposed by the Taliban have been removed.
But is it quite as simple as that? “On one side we can say that it has improved,” says Kargar. “Afghanistan came from an era when no woman was allowed to go to school… At the moment there are millions of girls going to school. But I feel that the British media has forgotten to ask: what has life for an Afghan woman been over the last 10 years? A real Afghan woman, who lives in the suburbs, who lives in a village… We do have women politicians now, working outside the home, but it’s a very small number.” Since 2001, the percentage of women in paid work has risen only slightly, from 13 per cent before the war to about 16 per cent today.
“Women still struggle,” says Kargar. “We still have mothers dying because of maternal mortality [one of the highest rates in the world]; we still have young marriages happening almost everyday [more than half of marriages that take place in Afghanistan are classified as child marriages by the UN, involving girls under the age of 16]; we still have girls’ schools being attacked [by fundamentalists]; we still have many girls out of school… There is still a lot of work to be done and the international community needs to remember this.”
Moreover, with foreign troops withdrawing—most British soldiers will be gone by the end of this year and the US will withdraw all its troops in 2016—the fragile gains that have been made cannot be guaranteed. “It’s a worry for many, many women—from the educated to the uneducated—that when the international community leaves Afghanistan, what’s going [to happen] to women?” says Kargar. “There is a group of educated women who do try to work hard for other women but without international support they can’t do it. I have asked so many women during my visits to Afghanistan… They do worry a lot.”
“We are afraid, even with the peace talks with the Taliban, we are scared,” she continues. “What rights will the woman hold?.. Even these women we spoke to, the widows, they don’t want to see the foreign troops go… because they have seen progress… There is a big worry among women that it might all go away from us… Women are afraid of those kind of fundamentalists coming to power again.”
She stresses the value of projects, funded by charities and foreign aid, that offer women vocational training, teach them to work with livestock or provide microfinance schemes to help them start small entrepreneurial endeavours. It is projects like these that can help the widows, she says, by enabling them to support themselves, gain some independence outside of the home and perhaps begin to change attitudes. But Kargar and the women she speaks to are worried that once foreign forces move away from Afghanistan, so will the eyes of the world.
Zarghuna Kargar’s documentary, “Our World: The War Widows of Afghanistan,” will be shown on BBC World News TV on Saturday 26th July at 04.10, 17.10 and 22.10, and on Sunday 27th July at 10.10. Listen to a radio version here.
For information on how to donate to projects assisting war widows in Afghanistan, visit Care International or contact the Linda Norgrove Foundation.