I was there for six months, and eight years later I still don’t know how to process my time there. It was six months of contradictions. It was traumatic, it was easy. I loved it, I couldn’t wait to be done. It was a land of beauty and devastation, joy and sorrow. It contained the worst of humanity, and the kindest. My heart longs to go back. I have nightmares of being forced to return.
I can still taste the naan bread, so fresh that it was still too hot to touch. And the sweet chai, which was better than anything Starbucks could ever hope to produce. I can still smell the open sewers and unwashed humanity. Can hear the calls to prayer from the mosque that was next to our house. But most of all, I can still see the women. Their faces, some lined with sorrow, some bright and hopeful. Some veiled entirely, their identity lost in an undulating sea of blue burqas. I remember their stories. Their hope, and their pain. The generosity and hospitality they showed in a land that hasn’t seen peace in generations.
These days, with toddlers and marriage and adulting, the closest I get to those women are through stories. Though the women are fictional, their stories are hauntingly close to real life. Here are a few books about women in Afghanistan that have moved me the most.
The Pearl That Broke Its Shell
A tale of two women born a century apart, each living under the ancient Afghan custom of bacha posh. It is a beautiful, heartbreaking example of the resiliency of Afghan women despite their powerlessness. Bacha Posh allows families with no father or sons to raise a young girl as a boy until she is of marriageable age. While living as a boy the girl can attend school, earn money, escort other women around, and have all the freedoms allowed to men. But as soon as she reaches puberty she must return to life as a woman and the cruel oppression and injustice that goes with it. This book will not give you warm fuzzies. There is no happily ever after. But it will expose you to the harsh, unjust world that many Afghan women inhabit, and the hope that manages to survive despite generations of inequality. Buy it here.
A Thousand Splendid Suns
From the bestselling author of The Kite Runner, this is another tragic story of the mistreatment of Afghan women, but with an inspiring theme of the hope that is possible when women look out for each other. Mariam and Laila are two women brought together in abuse and loss during the rise of the Taliban. When circumstances should turn them against each other, they choose to form a bond of sisterhood that transcends the war and hatred ravaging Kabul. Their love empowers them to protect each other, and when the chance for freedom presents itself, one of them will make the ultimate sacrifice to ensure the safety of the other. I read this in one sitting on a long flight, and I don’t think I breathed the entire time. Buy it here
This book is unique in that it is a fantasy novel, but one inspired by Afghanistan. The geography, the tribal groups, the adversaries, even specific names and buildings are pulled straight from Afghanistan itself. It even uses elements of Islam and verses from the Quran in its magic system. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it an allegory, but it definitely felt like a tribute to the women in Afghanistan. The heroine is Arian, a powerful and revered member of the Companions of Hira, an order of women versed in the magic of the Claim, a sacred scripture. They fight to overthrow the Talisman, an evil faction of men that rule in ignorance and oppression, enslaving women and destroying all books and writings.
Arian has spent ten years freeing women from the slave trade of the Talisman, hoping to find the sister she lost to the trade as a child. Her order sends her on a quest to find the titular Bloodprint, an ancient book which contains the power to destroy the Talisman. It’s a dangerous quest, and will force Arian to doubt herself, her companions, and the Claim itself.
The Bloodprint is the first of a four-part high fantasy series. It was fast-paced, with a complex and unique mythology. I loved that the liberation of women and the fight for education and equality was the main theme. There was a subtle romance, but it definitely took backseat to Arian’s mission. It does have a lot of names, titles, and locations to keep track of, so be sure to consult the glossary in the back if you get lost.* Buy it here.
I can’t honestly say that I hope you enjoy these stories. They are not meant to entertain, they are meant to break your heart. But I hope they’ll educate you to the realities of these women. They are at the full mercy of the men in their lives. Many of them have little opportunities and even fewer resources. If you want to learn more about how you can help improve the lives of the women in Afghanistan, there are numerous non-profits that are doing amazing things to educate, protect, and empower them.
*ARC provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.