BEHIND THE BURQA: OUR LIFE IN AFGHANISTAN AND HOW WE ESCAPED TO FREEDOM. - Future Islam
Books Review

BEHIND THE BURQA: OUR LIFE IN AFGHANISTAN AND HOW WE ESCAPED TO FREEDOM.

By ‘Sulima’ and ‘Hala’ as told to Batya Swift Yasgur., John Wiley & Sons Inc, Hoboken, New Jersey., ISBN: 0-471-26389-3 Reviewed by: Mohammad Zahid

The book as it is mentioned in the title itself is the story of Afghan women and their struggles and hardships faced in that war ridden country. It takes into account the lives of women in general in Afghanistan with Sulima and Hala representing them. The book is a story told by these two women who sought asylum in the United States. The book is written by Batya Swift Yasgur.

The very title of the book is a pointer in the direction of a religious bias as the writer reveals her Jewish background, though she tries to equate the Nazi Holocaust with the exodus of some people from this war torn nation and develop empathy she fails to do so as the book reveals more as her point of target become not the persecutions of women in Afghanistan only but the Islamic practices and teachings as well as the Holy Koran which she uses as an argument that cruelty on women is prescribed in the Koran1. (Page 25). This random and out of context referencing only proves the biased approach of the writer towards the subject. In fact the subject deviates sharply as soon as it begins its argument which takes off from the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, from being women focused to becoming a religion targeted one.

Living in a war torn country and that too in one which has been strife torn for such a long time as Afghanistan is quite different from living in a peaceful country which hardly seems to be aware of any such atrocities on its citizens whatsoever the cause may be. War indeed perpetrates untold suffering to all, a bullet hardly knows any religion or any sect, once it fires from the barrel, hits any one who comes in the path irrespective of any grounds of distinction. A writer should have a broad outlook on the ways and cultural background of a place which is going to be a subject matter. Living in the comforts of a peaceful country one can only but imagine the hardships of a war torn place. And a story told by the women who moved out of this place surely must have suffered a lot before moving away to a peaceful place, which was possible by their will and a support available which made their trans-continental transit possible. People living in disturbed places always have tragic stories to tell, the episodes of horror, the escapades from the clutches of death and tales of survival and extra ordinary courage. These women too had tales to tell, about the grim conditions of their country the excesses from whichever side they happened, and the sketches of the day to day lives right from their households to the periphery of their daily activities. Most of the times these events are a description of horrible happenings which evoke empathy for the reader who gradually starts to feel the pain that these people have been through. The writer may have done a good job to do by penning down their tales and bringing them to the world because she had a voice which could have represented the women of Afghanistan in particular and the people of Afghanistan in general and attract the attention of the international community but her undertone of a religious bias takes out the nobler intent out of her work to a larger extent.

The book starts with the story of Sulima. A girl who was brought up during the socialist invasion and makes a journey that carries her from a cherisher of communist ideology which she later on shuns to adapt the American way of living and adopting a Christian religion later on. The story of Sulima as it is being told sheds light on those days of Afghan history when socialism had started to make in roads and gave the people of Afghanistan a so called new way of thinking. It was soon adopted as a favorite as it had no limitations about any sphere of life. Women’s rights were being championed vigorously and Islam was considered as anti women. Sulima becomes a women’s rights activist from a tender age. She recalls being quite young when parliamentary elections were being held in Afghanistan. Becoming a part of election campaigning at the age of ten by Sulima is questionable and the way it has been projected seems that the writer wants to indulge the reader emotionally, however while doing so the writer has overlooked sheer logic. The book questions respect for elders as Sulima uses the word ‘Ehteram’ in such a manner that it portrays a negative image. Ehteram i.e. respect for elders is ethnic to the oriental way of life at large and this is the one of the pillars on which strong family ties stand. Respect for elders springs naturally and it is observed in all natural forms of life, and questioning such a practice exposes the intent of the writer. Not only so but the projection of such a practice in such a grey shade is the desperation of an ideology to seep into puritanical societies and spread cultural degradation. Many times across the book Koran has been quoted just to suit the writer’s intentions and such quotes are just out of context references. Quite surprisingly communism is considered favorable in the beginning but its sheen has been made to fade out quite simply because it is ideologically opposed to the west, and communism has ironically been shown as the cause of germination of democratic Afghanistan. Das Capital is called a precious volume while as Koran is shown being shunned by these young women. (Page 33). However soon afterwards (Page 44), the Soviet involvement in Afghan internal policies led to the rise of the rebels that eventually forced the Russians to withdraw. This was marked the advent of Mujihaddin. It is here that if one goes by the book itself one fails to realize why a person as sensitive as Sulima, who kept news of the political developments in her country failed to visualize that Mujihaddin were sponsored by west itself, the place she considered her saviour.

The book describes the death of Sulima’s father in an emotional way (Page 50), it is here that Sulima starts to love her father again, but even here the writer uses a ploy to make religion, Islam in this case, seem to be bounded by places like bathrooms. After the death of Sulima’s father her brother Karim takes the reins of this family in his hands. And he starts to perpetrate atrocities against his very own family. Forcing his sisters to marry someone to whom they don’t want to get married. Cases like this are individual traits and cannot be generalized and if the book represents Afghan women in general an internal family matter should not be made a standard of Afghan way of living. The book moves ahead and describes the unfortunate events that range from forcible marriage to abduction and ultimately to a happy union with a man who loved her and whom Sulima also considers a better choice. Islam as a religion gives every woman or man a right to choose a life partner. Forcing someone to marry someone may be attributed to culture and not religion. And marriage is also seen in a biased light,” Someone had read some verses of the Qur’an, a man had signed a document and now I was a wife”, (Page76). it seems as though the writer forgets that marriage is a contract to live with each other in socially acceptable setup and is solemnized by the recitation of holy verses whichever religion the persons are from. What follow are the violent incidents that culminate in the ambushing of the house by the man who thought Sulima had jilted him. Chapter 11 starts with the ironical statements “The Marxist revolution took place in 1978. I was overjoyed. I felt that it was the best thing that could have happened to Afghanistan.

I don’t wish to imply that the Soviet presence was all good………. Theoretically that should have been a great and positive change. But the Communists went about things in a foolish fashion” (Page 93). The book again veers around and catches the pregnant stage of Sulima who ultimately delivers Mohabat, her daughter and there are some happy moments to share with the reader but these too are soon eclipsed into an agony of domestic violence. Soon her adversary rises to power and she is jailed for her ways of teaching people. Since there had been some personal enmity between the two, their confrontation is unnecessarily being carried under the name of Communism. Sulima is jailed by her adversary and being somewhat influential manages to give his intentions a slip, goes over to Germany where she works in an institute and later on to United States where her relatives live. This transitory phase is marked by spurts of domestic violence and reconciliations which are not permanent either. Fights over petty issues and violence dot this period all over. Here the book seems to have forgotten its original theme and gets reduced to a story common to a certain percentage of families all over the world. The theme changes to subjugation of women irrespective of place. Meanwhile excesses exceed Sulima’s limits of patience and she gets a divorce and starts her own floral enterprise and gets married to a Christian. Since this is a story of an individual whom the writer has chosen to be a representative of the women community of Afghanistan, the cause of conversion and projecting conversion to Christianity as a solution her trauma ridden life exposes the intent of the writer vividly that her book is not about the women of Afghanistan only. Religion is a personal matter and should not be generalized as has been done by the writer, Sulima as an individual as an individual may have a personal opinion about religion her views cannot hold true for everyone around.

Hala, part two of the book is another woman from Afghanistan is incidently the sister of Sulima. She is a blessed girl as is evident from her vision of Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him). She starts her life as the penultimate child of her family and her father expires when she is just two years old. Her orphaned childhood evokes a sense of sympathy and understanding in the reader. However the writer soon shifts the focus of her attention to criticizing the ways of living in an ethnically reserved and traditional Afghanistan. ‘We became modern and technologically advanced’ Page 164 is how she describes the shift in her way of living as the female members of the family stop covering their hair, wearing sleeveless dresses and payers becoming optional instead of mandatory, and soon afterwards the whole family having stopped praying. This is quite strange how not praying is related to becoming modern. Marriage is once again represented as ‘something to do with signing a document and reading from the Quran’ (Page 168).

Hala describes the rise of Mujahiddin and the underlying cause being ‘the communists had shown great insensitivity to the needs of people. They tried to impose all sorts of social reforms’ (Page 171). The Soviet Government’s engagement is a ‘great deal of religious persecution’ led people to rise against the Soviet regime and American leaders were only too glad to help anyone fighting the Soviet Union. President Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor telling the Mujahiddin fighters to go and get the Russians because they (Mujahiddin) were working for God’s cause and God would be on their side is quite ironical and shows the double standards of the American external policy. Hala describes the spate of violence that goes on unabated as the Afghan Mujahiddin go on a killing spree killing anyone loyal to the communists. The book goes on to describe the difficult times that the Afghanis had to face while the fighting was going on. However soon the communists are ousted and the Mujahiddin take over the control in their hands. Thus follows a fresh spree of violence wherein Mujahiddin start killing the former loyals to the communists. Hala’s life is marked by her quest for education and a jest for living and an aim of becoming doctor. However the advent of Taliban eclipses her bright dreams and she is unable to continue her education in the prohibitory environment of Taliban. However Hala starts teaching young children and that gives her a sense of joy. Her school soon becomes a source of attention for Taliban who thwarted her efforts and she gets assaulted for her efforts. This triggers her exodus from her beloved country and she finds a temporary refuge in Pakistan wherefrom she is flown in a disguise of somebody’s wife to the United States where she seeks asylum. The process of obtaining asylum has been described meticulously. The rigorous process through which the people seeking refuge in the United States has been vividly described. Different agencies and their role in the complex process of dealing with asylum seekers forms the conspicuous part of Hala’s story. The period of detention and finalization of formalities for obtaining asylum by Hala is quite moving. The ‘credible fear’ interview by the Immigration and Naturalization is being described as one of the steps in obtaining an asylum in the United States.

The second part of the book is more important in respect of describing of the final steps of seeking refuge in United States. The two parts of the book describe two eras in Afghan history as the people of this war torn nation struggle against the warring factions be they the communists the Mujihaddin or the Taliban or the camouflaged intrusion of the western interests. Who ever maybe at the helm of dispersing terror of the forces just mentioned, it is the unfortunate people of Afghanistan who suffer especially, the children and the women. The writer may have done a god job by pointing out the conditions but the way she has done so eclipse her nobler efforts as her intentions portray presenting Islam in a bad shape, while as the truth being that Islam never preaches violence or persecution of women or children. The book may play a role in the development of women or children but the damage it does by showing Islam in a grey shade robs the book of the noble mission that it professes to pledge.

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