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The Masked Women of Kabul MAG
I listened to the small whisper of my feet timidly brushing against the dirt as I proceeded closer and closer to my freedom. My burqa covered my entire body, turning me into a ghost-woman that I didn't even recognize. I had one image in my mind: Amira's tiny hand pressed against my palm. I could almost feel her smooth, young skin, as if she were standing right beside me. In a few minutes, she would be, and we would walk together toward a better life. I shook this thought from my head. I couldn't afford to be unrealistic or fantasize yet. There were so many things that could go wrong. Rahim could find me (and if he did, he would kill me); someone could tell Rahim I was leaving; I could be stopped by the Taliban and sent back; I could be killed by the Taliban, and so on … It was practically impossible for a woman to travel alone in Afghanistan, much less a Hazara Shiite woman. Yet I still clung to the hope that somehow I would make it to my parents' house in Peshawar, Pakistan. If I didn't, I would have nothing left.
My thoughts eased back to Amira. Images flooded my mind: my fingers running through her silky black hair, holding her in my arms to comfort her after Rahim had one of his bad streaks, whispering stories in her ear and rubbing her back. But the image that would not disappear was Amira's face when I left her at the orphanage. At first she was kicking and screaming and had to be restrained, but then she stopped. As I turned and walked away, all that was left were the dried paths of tears on her cheeks. Her eyes were glazed over, but the rest of her face said to me: I'm your daughter. How can you leave me here? I wouldn't blame her if she hated me. In truth, I hated myself for what I had done.
The orphanage was supposed to be for war victims, and I was pretending to be a woman who had lost her husband to the war. When I met the gaze of the man who ran the orphanage, tears began to pour down my face. This had all become real. “It's okay, Zaara,” he said. “Many widows leave their children here when they can't afford to feed them. You are not doing a bad thing.” But I wasn't a widow, and I was doing a bad thing.
When money became increasingly spare at home, one day Rahim came downstairs and said, “Tomorrow Amira will go.”
“Go where?” I asked, my voice both submissive and terrified.
“She will live at the orphanage.” He said this as if it were the most normal thing for a seven-year-old girl.
It took me several long moments to realize that he was serious. Tears began to roll down my face. “Please, Rahim,” I begged in my timid voice. “Don't do this. Haven't I been a good wife? Haven't we made you happy?”
“Happy!” He stood, towering over me. “You think I'm happy that I got stuck with a useless Hazara for a wife?” He knocked me to the floor. “You think your filthy little daughter is worth anything to me? You couldn't even give me a son. You're worth nothing to me! You hear me? Nothing!”
What could I do? I could refuse, but the pain of his fists on my face kept me silent. Over the years, my rebellious nature had slowly disappeared. When my parents told me I was to marry Rahim, they practically dragged me to him. In the first years of our marriage, I talked back, and refused to be treated poorly. But over the years I became tired of dressing my bruises and picking myself up from the floor. Eventually, my voice disappeared.
When I was young, I had such ambitions. I dreamed of going to Kabul to become a doctor. But my family wasn't rich, and couldn't afford to send me to school. When I was 14, I married Rahim and my life ended. He was 25 years older than me, but my mother said that a Hazara girl like me should be grateful. In the end, I did make it to Kabul, but I was farther away from my dreams than I could have ever imagined. The burqa went on, and who I was became masked along with my face.
In the weeks after Amira left, I could not stand to look at myself in the mirror. For Rahim, nothing was different. He went to work, came home to dinner on the table, and went to bed. But for me, life was ruined. Sometimes, when I lay in bed at night, I made up stories. I would tell myself that Amira had gone off to school, like I never could. Or I would pretend that she had gone to live with my parents, away from this man and this war. I even imagined that she had run away. Anything was better than the truth. I simply couldn't face the fact that my husband told me to give up my daughter, and I had said nothing.
It took me a long time to get the courage to visit Amira. I feared that she wouldn't want to see me, and I couldn't bear that thought. But I did visit. When she saw me, for a long moment she just stood there, frozen. When I took a step toward her, she burst into a heaving sob, and flung herself into my arms. For a minute, she forgot what had happened, but that passed. She drew back slightly, and began to pound her little fists against me. “You promised you'd come back and visit me soon!” she bawled. “You promised!”
All I could say was, “I know.”
Little by little, I gained the courage to take my life back. It started small. When I came back that day from visiting Amira, I did not go to buy rice. Instead I took the money and I tucked it into my shoes. At that point, I had no plans of doing anything out of the ordinary. All I was doing was subtly disobeying Rahim. Even though I knew he would not notice, in my mind I was being rebellious.
Yet nothing I did made the slightest bit of difference. Eventually, the Taliban made it illegal for a woman to go out unless she was accompanied by her husband or a male relative. This was the news that wrapped its filthy claws around me and strangled my last bit of freedom. Naturally, Rahim was a very busy man and had no time to take his wife to see her daughter. Outside, the Taliban controlled each and every one of its people, and inside my house, it wasn't any different. The Taliban had taken away my rights, strangled me with a burqa, and turned me from Zaara to Hazara Shiite woman. Rahim had done the same.
Inside me, rage bubbled up, and finally I couldn't suppress it any longer. I must have rehearsed what I would say a hundred times. In my head I sounded strong, and powerful, but my voice came out shaky and meek. “Rahim, you will take me to see Amira today.”
He didn't look up, tracing his hairy fingers over the cracks in the table. For several long moments, my demand went ignored. Then under his breath he mumbled, “You just saw her.” In truth, I had last seen her two weeks before. I was almost ready to turn around and give up, but then I remembered the look on Amira's face. She needed me to do this.
“Rahim, I need to go visit her. I need you to take me.” Somehow, my legs had stopped shaking. My voice sounded a trace stronger.
He still didn't look up. He knew he had complete power over me, and there was nothing I could do. There was nothing that could make him take me seriously.
Maybe I wanted to be hurt, or maybe I just couldn't be pushed down anymore, but after that moment, I knew things could never go back to the way they had been. Before me, I saw outstretched arms hurl the table forward. I saw him coming toward me, malice in his black eyes. Then I saw darkness, nothing but darkness.
Each time I was hurt like this, it always amazed me how much the human body could take. It was a week before I could walk normally again, but somehow I recovered. I still ached in every possible area, and I had a purple bruise that lingered like a shadow over half my face. I had not spoken or made eye contact with Rahim since that day, and I didn't intend to. Maybe he felt bad for me, and perhaps deep inside he had a heart; when he put on his coat to go to work, he turned to me and said, “Are you coming?”
Even with all the loathing that lived inside me, I still managed to summon the words to speak to my husband. “Coming where?”
“To see your daughter.”
Rahim waited outside while I got to spend two hours with Amira. I sat against the concrete wall in the corner with Amira's body was draped over me, her head cradled in my lap. I still wore my burqa, even though we were inside. After the burqa covered and stole all my passion for life, I figured it could at least hide the bruises from my daughter. Amira's rich hair was spread out around her like a lion's mane, and her eyes shone like the dark water of a deep well, glowing in the moonlight. I wanted to remain in this moment forever, locked in time. I longed to stay with Amira; she was a part of me.
She was only seven, a child in this world, and a child needs a mother. Before, I had been as weak and helpless as this girl lying before me, but now I sat up straighter, my back matching the strength of the concrete wall behind me. Over the past few days the vertebrae in my spine had slowly rolled upward until I was no longer hunched over in submission, until I was tall enough to protect my daughter.
“Mommy,” she said, “can I come home?”
“Yes,” I said, and I had never been surer of anything in my life.
Since that day, a week ago, I hadn't seen Amira. Now, in just a few minutes, I would take Amira from the orphanage, and we would follow the bare city streets to a vacant lot outside of the city. Through the murmured secrets of the city, I had found a man who could smuggle us all the way across the border. Once in Pakistan, we could take the bus to my parents' house in Peshawar. I wouldn't let myself consider the flaws in my plan. If I started to let these kinds of thoughts break into my mind, I wouldn't leave. Then I would end up stuck in this worthless life forever.
My thoughts echoed in the silence of the alleyway. It was already a miracle that I had made it this far. I was sure that Rahim would have found the money I was slowly accumulating, or noticed when we had less and less food. This morning, I kept waiting for him to walk in and beat me until I could no longer breathe. I imagined Rahim swinging the door open, cruelty surging from his eyes. I pictured him pulling out the money, tearing it to shreds and roaring, “You thought you could get away with this, you filthy whore!” Then I envisioned my death.
But that never happened. He left for work as usual, and I left for a life outside of his grasp.
As I turned the corner, my hand drifted to the money in my chest pocket. It was still there; my dreams were still intact. Yet at that moment, they were shattered for the final time. I saw them before they saw me, but there was no time to turn back. Instantly I was surrounded by the Taliban, and pushed to the ground. Eight other women around me lay in the same position.
“Are you part of this cult too?” a bearded man yelled, inches from my face. “You're one of these Hazara sluts who wish to take down our great nation!”
“No sir, please!” I heard myself say. “I don't know what you're talking about.” Then the man's thick yellow mucus slid through the mesh in my burqa. He had spit in my face.
“Afghanistan will not be humiliated by you! You Hazaras deserve to be thrown in a pile and burned! Then Afghanistan would be rid of you!” It took me a moment to realize I was being beaten. I was so used to the pain. Maybe I wasn't so far from the death I had imagined for myself that morning; I would be beaten to death by the despicable men who drown us in their hatred and use these burqas to hold us under until we are lifeless, insignificant creatures.
Shots were fired around me, and the death cries of the other women resonated in my ears. I did not try to fight back, or save myself. I just let the man's foot pound against me. Maybe, after a woman is beaten so many times, there is nothing else she can do but be beaten. I could never have made my own life. I was a weak Hazara who gave up my daughter.
My daughter! Would she know why she never saw me again? Would she learn that I had tried to come and get her? Would she hate me for dying and leaving her? This would me my last failure to her: dying and never giving her a better life.
When the bullet struck my beating heart, I didn't cry out in agony. I simply rolled to my side, ready to accept my fate, my death. In the dim light of my last moments, I could just make out the image of the money from my pocket lying idly on the street. It was stained red, soaked with the worthless blood of my lost hopes.