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Behind the veil and under the skin

I’ve just watched an unbelievably absorbing and powerful documentary entitled Afghanistan Unveiled, which reveals how life has changed for women in the five years since their so-called ‘liberation’ from Taliban rule.

Surely there are few places on earth where the circumstances of women are as dire as in Afghanistan today. There are so many war brides, and no social security system in place, so with the breadwinner gone women are forced to beg on the streets, enduring scorn and humiliation from the men who pass by. The reason for their poverty is never considered – they’re seen as a virtual object, an object of shame. The reporter donned a burka and went out begging with a woman she’d met on the street, and we – the viewers – saw the world through the mesh on the veil, including the derision by the males who gathered all around. Frightening.

Herat, the most prosperous town in Afghanistan, has an alarmingly high rate of suicide by Afghan women who set themselves on fire to escape horrific domestic situations. Of course not all are successful – meaning they’re horribly disfigured for life. One girl the documentary featured was twelve and was sold into marriage at the age of seven. She ended up burning herself from the waist down.

Afghanistan has the second highest infant mortality rate in the world. The reason? A woman needs the written permission of her husband and her mother-in-law to go to the hospital. Even to give birth. Very often they arrive at the hospital strapped to a ladder that someone is carrying, hemorraging severely from a ruptured uterus. They don’t even have the power over their own bodies to decide when or if they need to go to the hospital. Obviously many women die in childbirth – and there’s an unspoken rule that those who do are never spoken of in the town again. It’s as if they never existed. And because they’re not spoken of, it’s as if the problem doesn’t exist, and it keeps perpetuating.

When Afghanistan was liberated from Taliban rule and democracy was to be introduced, the West poured millions of dollars into rebuilding the country. That money seems to have vanished. There was an incredibly inspiring scene from a girl’s school, which showed young girls running around outdoors, playing, laughing … exactly how it should be [of course girls’ schools were banned under the Taliban]. Only – the documentary didn’t show much learning going on because there aren’t enough classrooms in which to teach the girls. There are half-built buildings all over the place, and no money to complete them – despite the fact that the aid money was earmarked for projects like that. So the girls have to be taught in shifts.

One of the most heartwarming scenes was from a village in the remotest part of the country, the mountainous north, which was previously a Taliban stronghold. [Site of those infamous mountains where Bin Laden was – is – supposed to be hiding out.] The reporter was surprised to find a school in a tiny village, which taught not only boys AND girls, but also deaf-dumb students, using sign language. The lesson we, the viewers, got to see was about Afghanistan, about the abundance of the land, the quality of the fruit and vegetables, and how the children should respect their country. Afterwards, the girls all grouped around the reporter, clearly in awe. They then invited her to accompany them to their home – and the whole entourage set off, with two little girls holding the hands of the journalist [they were probably around 7-9 years old]. As they walked, the journalist remarked, in English, that she wasn’t sure if she’d be let in to their homes, as the community was insular and not very open to strangers. However – much to her surprise, she found that there were no parents. These children were orphaned and lived by themselves. Their home was immaculate, and they were so open and joyous. They had dreams for the future – they wanted to get an education, and then work in the village, make a contribution. It was beautiful. Such a lust for life, even when they had so very little.

This documentary made a deep impression [can you tell?] – perhaps best measured by the fact that, immediately after it was over, a TV ad for a new Hagkaup department store came on, where to the soundtrack of some sappy chirpy song we were accosted by the lavishness of the available commodities. All those shiny-happy people wallowing in their over-indulgence made me feel really ill. I am all for prosperity and abundance, but sometimes the greed and avarice in this society really freaks me out. Particularly when I’ve just watched how the other half lives.

Calm yesterday, stormy today. A familiar pattern, no? Severe gusts of wind right now and buckets of rain coming down. Looks like we’re in for a green [or red, as we say here] Christmas. Currently 10°C [50F] – sunrise was at 11.18 and sunset at 15.29.