The Lovers: Afghanistan’s Romeo and Juliet
By Rod Nordland
HarperCollins Publishers, 311 pp., 2016
A beaten, Afghan woman, who is not permitted to speak or express feelings.
Despite the good intentions of aid from the United States, Afghanistan continues to be one of the worst places in the world to be a woman. In the Afghan society where romance is forbidden and falling in love is against the law, two teens, Ali and Zakia, decided to follow their hearts regardless of the risks involved. They believed one day spent together was better than a lifetime apart. Their story reveals Afghanistan’s shockingly repressive culture and portrays the unforgettable violations of human rights in today’s world.
Ali and Zakia met as children, working together, tending sheep and helping farm the potato crops. Zakia quickly became attracted to Ali and to the music he played on his flute. Although Ali could not read, he loved listening to music and composing poetry. Ali’s passion for poetry inspired him to play the flute. After a couple of years of schooling, Ali quit school to assist his family with farming. When Zakia reached puberty at age 13, she was required to stay home out of public view, consequently changing Ali and Zakia’s lives forever.
Afghan culture believes that when a girl hits puberty she cannot be in the same room with another man, unless the man is one of her brothers or her father. At age 13, Afghan girls are forced to stay inside their home, and are only permitted to leave if their father or brothers accompany them. The belief begins at puberty and continues throughout a woman’s lifetime. If a girl/woman is found without a male by her side, she is considered a runaway and is taken immediately to jail. If a girl is granted permission to leave the home they are required to wear either a burqa or a scarf. The male who accompanies them determines how they will dress. A burqa is a hot, uncomfortable, religiously sanctified garment for women made of a rubbery synthetic material, deliberately shapeless, with a mesh grill over a small part of the face to allow for some air and vision.[i] In Afghanistan, fathers rule every aspect of their daughter’s lives even when they are adults. Fathers decide whether they can go to school, if they can get a job, when they can leave the house, and when they can see a doctor. Once women are married their husbands assume the father’s power over them. No one questions male authority over women in Afghanistan. Women are considered the property of males, so they have no rights and are discouraged to speak except when spoken to. These rules are morally demeaning and should be changed.
Afghan homes are called compounds. The home consists of four rooms with dirt floors, and one of the rooms is a bathroom. Outside the home is a courtyard, surrounded by high walls, made of mud bricks. Compound walls are important in Afghanistan because it is how men keep women safe and out of public view. Since women are rarely allowed to leave their compound, it is said, “All women ever know is the house where they are born, the house where they die, and the grave in which they lie.”[ii]
After age 13, Zakia was allowed to be in the fields only if accompanied by her brothers. Field times were very limited. When Ali was working in the neighboring field, they would occasionally glance at each other for less than three seconds. Longer glances would arouse suspicion from family members and the consequences would be a harsh beating and or cursing. “For one month I was searching for her after I fell in love with her, and I knew she loved me, but I didn’t know if she would agree to get married to me,” Ali said.[iii] Once Ali found Zakia and had the chance to propose, she immediately rejected him. Ali was devastated. Zakia stated they could not marry because of cultural, ethnic and religious grounds. Zakia’s family was Tajik, and Ali’s family was Hazara. Members of different cultural groups are not allowed to marry in Afghanistan. Only fathers can decide whom their daughter’s will marry. It is estimated 57% of Afghan brides are under the age of 16.[iv] The right of a woman to fall in love and choose their spouse should be a basic human right. It is inconceivable to think that a woman/girl does not meet her husband until her wedding night.
Two years later Zakia (age 15) and Ali (age 18) crossed paths on a road, and Zakia boldly whispered that she had decided to accept his marriage proposal. Ali was thrilled and he arranged for a relative to give Zakia a phone so they could secretly communicate. Phone communication was complicated as Zakia did not know numbers and found it difficult to operate the device. The quality of education is so poor in Afghanistan that even after seven years of schooling most students are illiterate and can barely sign their name. 87.4% of women are illiterate compared to 56.9% of men.[v] In a matter of time, Zakia’s brother found the phone and cursed and beat her. Ali’s father also cursed and beat him. The couple’s relationship was not approved by either family.
At this point, Zakia did not like the way she was being treated at home and decided to run off to the Bamiyan Women’s Shelter. The Bamiyan Women’s Shelter is supported by the United Nations and is an organization for women who have been threatened or married off as a child and raped. Women’s shelters in Afghanistan were created on behalf of oppressed women in underdeveloped countries, after American and European scholars developed the legislation Elimination Violence Against Women (EVAW) in 2009. EVAW declared that women should have equal rights to men, that girls become legal adults with full civil rights at age 18, that no girl could marry before the age of 16, and that a girl needed to consent to her marriage. The Women’s shelters serve as a safe haven but still often feel like a prison to women because the Afghan government requires the shelter to keep all “the runaway women” safe inside until their cases are settled in court. Most women’s court cases are never settled because there are no penalties for violating the laws enacted by the EVAW legislation. A father can “marry off” his daughter at any age or beat his wife for any reason. Rape is not a crime. Rape is treated as a family matter because men should not allow women to be seen in public or near other men. In fact, in Afghanistan the women rape victims go to jail for the rapist crimes. So, women serve the jail time for the men who committed the rape. Fewer than 10% of men accused of committing crimes against women are ever punished.[vi]
Another problem exists in the judicial system of Afghanistan. Judges in Afghanistan aren’t required to have college degrees. They make decisions based on personnel religious beliefs and ethnic culture. Consequently, it doesn’t matter what the constitution in Afghanistan says because the judges are uneducated and don’t know the current legislation. Of the 6,000 EVAW cases reported in 2013, according to the data collected by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, fewer than 10% of the cases resulted in prosecutions, and less than half of those prosecutions were found guilty or convicted.[vii] Therefore, many women who escape to the Women’s Shelters live there indefinitely or choose to return to their families. Choosing to return to your family is a fatal mistake in Afghanistan as it justifies an “honor killing.” The EVAW has good intentions for helping women in Afghanistan, however it doesn’t necessarily give them hope for the future. The EVAW law may have made life worse for many women. Crimes defined as violence against women nearly doubled between 2009 and 2013 in nearly every category including honor killings, rapes, spousal abuse, and child marriages.[viii] These crimes against women should have consequences. Women should have the right to speak for themselves, report abuse, and receive a fair trial.
At the shelter, Zakia lived with other girls from her village and had planned to leave when her case was settled. Weeks went by and Zakia hadn’t seen Ali for a while. The judges who were in charge of her case were Tajik, so consequently were paid off by Zakia’s family to rule in their favor. Zakia came to the realization she wouldn’t win her case. Discouraged, Zakia decided to elope during the night with Ali and escaped to the mountains. Once Zakia ran away from the shelter, her family officially disowned her, and the family lost their honor in the community. When Zakia’s father learned of her escape, he along with her four brothers left their families and possessions in search of Ali and Zakia. Afghan society would never forgive Zakia now. Honor in Afghanistan isn’t defined the same as honor in America. In America, honor is characterized by decency and honesty. Honor to Afghan men is simply a synonym for women. Now that Zakia ran away, her family has no credibility in the community and the only way to earn credibility back is to kill Ali and Zakia. The entire village, including 35 homes had been alerted and joined the search to capture and kill the young lovers. Usually no one hears about these “honor killings” except for the communities where they take place. The male elders approve of the “honor killings” and conspire to keep them secret from authorities. Only 5-10% of these killings are ever publically known about.[ix]
Even though Zakia’s parents didn’t approve of her relationship, Ali’s father had accepted the couples’ love and was willing to help them escape and get married. Zakia and Ali had modest goals. They knew most couples who eloped were usually caught and either beaten or stoned to death. They never expected to get very far but were determined to have time together even if it meant death for both of them. Ali’s father, Anwar, allowed them to marry and paid the mullah an excessive amount (30,000 Afghanis) to tie the Neka. 30,000 Afghanis is equivalent to $550.[x] The mullah (guy who performed the ceremony) required an excessive amount because Zakia’s father wasn’t present, which again went against religious custom. A Neka is the signed document stating the terms of marriage and requires two male witnesses. No one present at the ceremony knew how to write, so the signing was done using ink pads and thumb prints.
Once the Neka was tied, Zakia and Ali fled to the mountains. Both Afghan police and family members hunted them. They managed to stay one step ahead of their pursuers in the rugged mountains of Central Afghanistan traveling by foot. The couple spent their honeymoon hiding in caves. Eventually, the Afghan media became interested in the modern day love story between Ali and Zakia. A New York Times reporter named Rod Nordland, living in Kabul, Afghanistan, decided to try and locate the couple because of his interest in women’s rights and the secretive honor killings. Nordland was able to schedule a meeting with the lovers after earning Anwar’s trust. By this point in time Ali and Zakia desperately needed money for basic survival needs. Zakia was very hesitant to speak with Nordland because in her lifetime she had very little contact with men, speaking only to her father, her brothers, Ali, and her father-in-law, Anwar. Nordland eventually published an article in the New York Times criticizing the Afghan government, and the violence that existed against women in the country. “Zakia was a hero to every young Afghan woman who dreams of marrying someone they love opposed to one chosen for her by her family; however to the conservative elders of the country Zakia’s actions threatened the established social order,” Nordland stated.[xi]
The New York Times article caught the attention of many Americans, and even foreigners. Donations started pouring in for the lovers. The story also brought more danger to Ali and Zakia. They were unable to walk around in public without being noticed, even in a large city of five million people like Kabul. Consequently, Nordland decided he was obligated to assist them in their quest to stay hidden from the Afghan police and from Zakia’s family, who were still chasing them. He was able to wire the donations he received via Western Union to Afghanistan, and find contacts that could help Zakia and Ali access the money. Occasionally, Nordland transported them from city to city when police presence threatened. Nordland also faced danger for protecting the couple and endured scrutiny from the New York Times staff because he crossed the line of a reporter. He no longer was “just reporting” the story, he was now personally vested in the couples’ safety.
The public attention to Zakia and Ali’s story eventually pressured Afghanistan’s president into resolving their criminal case. The president “threw out” the government charges against them because he didn’t want the publicity, so the Afghan police no longer searched for them. Now they only had to hide from Zakia’s family and her Tajik community who still was hunting them.
Once the police stopped chasing them, Ali and Zakia moved in with Ali’s family, and Zakia had a baby girl. Ali’s brothers took turns guarding the family compound, to protect Ali and Zakia. Currently, Zakia’s family and the Tajik community are still attempting to kill them. Anwar is encouraging the couple to flee to a foreign country for safety because his entire family is threatened, including himself. Zakia and Ali are frightened about the possibility of fleeing to another country because they are both illiterate. Existence in a foreign country without communication skills could also be fatal. If the Afghan government would acknowledge the laws and enforce them, everyone would be safe.
The treatment of women in Afghanistan is unconceivable to us in the United States. Afghan women are so poorly valued in their society, many don’t even receive a name. If they are lucky enough to have a name, no one calls them by it. Men in Afghanistan are the only “people” who count. If a father is asked how many daughters he has, he will reply with the number of sons he has because daughters aren’t important. Afghanistan has one of the world’s highest birth rates among under age girls. 86.8% of them have babies and only 460 per 100,000 live at birth.[xii] Afghans believe women can control the gender of their babies, and men who don’t have sons are defective, so they beat their wives when they have girls. In America, we wouldn’t tolerate this gender inequality.
The right to have a name is only one struggle in the life of Afghan women. Once born, day-to-day living as a woman is a challenge. Women need to be granted permission by a man to do nearly everything. She has to obey her father/husband/brother and if he wants to abuse her, that is ok. Afghans use religion and culture as justification for the treatment of women. Today, even if the laws state one thing, judges will rule against the law and consider their beliefs right and true. There should be penalties for such inhumane actions. However, in Afghanistan penalties don’t exist for men, only for women. The killing of women in Afghanistan society isn’t unusual and most deaths are never heard of. The average life expectancy of a woman in Afghanistan is 44. The conditions are unbearable for a woman and since most aren’t educated they cannot escape the system. It is difficult to imagine these conditions exist in today’s world.
Although many countries are trying to help, women’s rights in Afghanistan have seen little improvement. Since 2002 the United States has spent over a trillion dollars in Afghanistan for women’s programs and gender inequality; however, Afghan government corruption has squandered the purposeful use of funds. It has often been pointed out that money doesn’t fix issues. Even in one of the wealthiest countries, like America, we continue to allocate funds, to fix problems, and still all of the money spent can’t fund the solution. The answer often lies in educating the public, changing cultural beliefs, getting back to ethics, or taking responsibility for one’s own actions. “All change in Afghanistan, if it is to be permanent, cannot be imposed by western outsiders on this tribal Islamic society. It has to emerge through education within the context of the culture. Educated men are much more likely to support more choices for women. Educated husbands appreciate and are less threatened by their educated wives.”[xiii]
It is difficult to live in a country where you die if love comes alive. Violence against women in Afghanistan is officially, culturally, and legally tolerated, even though Afghan law technically outlaws many of the horrendous crimes. 87% of women in Afghanistan experience abusive violence.[xiv] “The Lovers,” Ali and Zakia, still hope to flee the country, against enormous odds. When reading this book, one must keep wondering will today be “The Lovers” last day to breathe in hope, and exactly how long can they survive?
[i] Nordland, R. p.25. (2016). The Lovers: Afghanistan’s Romeo and Juliet. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
[ii] Nordland, p. 285.
[iii] Nordland, p. 28.
[iv] Nordland, p. 303.
[v] Nordland, p. 283.
[vi] Nordland, p. 259.
[vii] Nordland, p. 268.
[viii] Nordland, p. 268.
[ix] Nordland, p. 236.
[x] Nordland, p. 148.
[xi] Nordland, p. 2.
[xii] Nordland, p. 284
[xiii] trustineducation.org. (2016). Life as an Afghan woman. Trust in Education.
[xiv] Shahab, S. (2013). Women’s Rights in Afghanistan: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back? The Guardian.