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Sisters in War: A Story of Women, Life, and Death in Iraq

Sisters in War: A Story of Women, Life, and Death in Iraq

4.0 6
by Christina Asquith

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Caught up in a terrifying war, facing choices of life and death, two Iraqi sisters take us into the hidden world of women’s lives under U.S. occupation. Through their powerful story of love and betrayal, interwoven with the stories of a Palestinian American women’s rights activist and a U.S. soldier, journalist Christina Asquith explores one of the


Caught up in a terrifying war, facing choices of life and death, two Iraqi sisters take us into the hidden world of women’s lives under U.S. occupation. Through their powerful story of love and betrayal, interwoven with the stories of a Palestinian American women’s rights activist and a U.S. soldier, journalist Christina Asquith explores one of the great untold sagas of the Iraq war: the attempt to bring women’s rights to Iraq, and the consequences for all those involved.

On the heels of the invasion, twenty-two-year-old Zia accepts a job inside the U.S. headquarters in Baghdad, trusting that democracy will shield her burgeoning romance with an American contractor from the disapproval of her fellow Iraqis. But as resistance to the U.S. occupation intensifies, Zia and her sister, Nunu, a university student, are targeted by Islamic insurgents and find themselves trapped between their hopes for a new country and the violent reality of a misguided war.

Asquith sets their struggle against the broader U.S. efforts to bring women’s rights to Iraq, weaving the sisters’ story with those of Manal, a Palestinian American women’s rights activist, and Heather, a U.S. army reservist, who work together to found Iraq’s first women’s center. After one of their female colleagues is gunned down on a highway, Manal and Heather must decide whether they can keep fighting for Iraqi women if it means risking their own lives.

In Sisters in War, Christina Asquith introduces the reader to four women who dare to stand up for their rights in the most desperate circumstances. With compassion and grace, she vividly reveals the plight of women living and serving in Iraq and offers us a vision of how women’s rights and Islam might be reconciled.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A rare, beautifully written insight into the haunting ways in which women have been affected by the conflict.”
 The Financial Times
Sisters in War is a brilliant, powerful and convincing story of three women from the same Iraqi family. . .It is not only a story of  women fighting for  their liberated lifestyles. It is a story of Islamic traditions, religion, politics and power versus American lifestyle, American power and American belief.”
-The Feminist Review

“Few books capture the complexity and diversity of Muslim women and the varying views on their place in Islam as Sisters in War: A Story of Love, Family, and Survival in the New Iraq by journalist Christina Asquith. A true page-turner."
– Altmuslimah

 “Journalist Asquith went into hiding with a Baghdadi family she had befriended, and investigated what life meant for Iraqi women. She also immersed herself in the lives of a few Americans who remained there, devoted to creating at least small solutions to the massive problems of local women, both new and historical. Sisters in War is the formidable fruit of her reporting."
– Slate 
Asquith has won admiration from many feminists and Iraqi activists for exposing this struggle. Her resounding message is that a country committed to ensuring the needs, success and prosperity of women is a country worth fighting for.”
– Roll Call, 09.2009

“Christina Asquith has written a brilliant book, extraordinary in concept and execution, the most intimate and moving portrait I have read of the early American disaster in Iraq. It is a shifting and powerful portrait of disillusionment seen through the hopeful eyes of American and Iraqi women colliding with the hard realities of religion, politics, power, and morality in a traditional society. Sometimes, to see a thing fresh, we need to look at it from a different vantage. Asquith’s young women, from the courageous and committed American feminists to their Iraqi counterparts, who must cope with cultural constraints their new Western friends can hardly imagine, are all victims of the criminal arrogance and naïveté of the U.S. occupation. This is a work of reporting and writing that will last.”—Mark Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down

“Christina Asquith’s description of the wild incompetence–and dedication– of early American efforts in Iraq reads like a great novel but with the added weight of history. And her focus on women, both American and Iraqi, makes this book uniquely valuable among the many on this long war. Asquith is a fine writer and, clearly, a very brave reporter. She has filled in several crucial pieces of the Iraq puzzle, and done it beautifully.”—Sebastian Junger, author of The Perfect Storm

Publishers Weekly
This elegant narrative chronicles the lives of four women who experienced elation, hope and disappointment following the American invasion of Iraq and the fall of Saddam in 2003. Two Iraqi sisters glimpse a new life following years of oppression: Zia is fluent in English and obtains a job inside the Green Zone working for the Americans; Nunu, the younger and more timid sister, struggles to complete college in the increasingly dangerous urban environment. Asquith (The Emergency Teacher) deftly details the arduousness of establishing women's centers and getting women elected to office through her profile of Heather, once a wonky bureaucrat turned U.S. Army reservist, who must confront sexism within both the U.S. military and the unfamiliar Muslim culture. Lastly is Manal, a women's rights and antiwar activist born in America of Palestinian parents, who struggles to put aside her politics in the interests of helping Iraqi women succeed with the establishment of women's centers. Deftly chronicled by Asquith, who spent two years in Baghdad reporting from the front lines, this informative narrative offers readers a seldom heard female perspective into the everyday lives, struggles, disappointments and triumphs of four women during this chaotic and dangerous time. (Oct.)
Kirkus Reviews
Portrait of women from varying backgrounds who share an abiding concern for and active involvement in the plight of Iraqi women enduring the challenges of war. The war in Iraq has yielded numerous accounts of its ravages, many written by and about women, whether native Iraqis living in turmoil, emigrants watching from afar, American soldiers stationed at the epicenter or activists from both countries working to rebuild a stable post-Saddam society. Journalist Asquith interweaves the experiences of more than a dozen women on various sides of the conflict. Recounting the anguish, outrage, courage, fears and triumphs of these women, the author shines fresh light on this culturally and politically complex country. While such firsthand reports as Riverbend's Baghdad Burning (2005) provide essential context, Asquith's assemblage of personal journeys effectively fuses into a universal message about human dignity, tenacity and generosity of spirit. Iraq's labyrinthine system of sociopolitical codes are most vividly illuminated through four woman: Zia, who lives with her parents in Baghdad; Manal, born in the United States to progressive Palestinian parents; Heather Coyne, a lieutenant in the U.S. Army's Civil Affairs Brigade; and Fern Holland, an American attorney working for the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority in a rural Shia community. Asquith effectively deconstructs the Iraqi ethos, which is presented not as a collective ideology but as an intricate amalgam of nuanced philosophies, traditions and social cues, from the grave implications of a loose veil to the significance of bitter coffee to drastically varying interpretations of the Koran. Throughout, the chasm between Westernmyopia and Iraqi truths is manifest, as when Manal, trying to empower Iraqi women in tangible ways, bemoans the U.S. government's simplistic solutions, lamenting "they just loved bricks-and-mortar buildings that they could point to as accomplishments."A vital, edifying cultural investigation. Author tour to New York, Washington, D.C., Vermont

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.30(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

when the sisters heard the roar of U.S. military planes overhead, they clambered up the wooden steps onto the roof of their uncle’s mud-brick farmhouse. “Maybe they can see us!” cried Nunu happily. She shouted to the sky, for once not caring who heard: “Go! Good luck! But don’t kill any innocent people.”

Zia laughed with her, glad to have something, at last, to celebrate. The Americans were here to free them from Saddam. She watched her little sister waving at the distant black specks, skipping over the mud and straw in her fancy shoes. A few days ago, Nunu had overheard on her shortwave radio that American troops were marching through Iraqi villages, going door-to-door, and ever since then she had been getting up an extra hour early in the morning just to do her hair and makeup. So far, no war heroes had shown up, but it was so good to see Nunu happy that Zia hadn’t even teased her for it. They could feel the electricity in the air: after years of oppression, the government was about to be overthrown, and Iraq would be free—a “freedom” they had only ever known through their mother’s stories of Iraq’s glorious past. After weeks and months of waiting, these military planes were their first, welcome sign of that immense promise.

As the sound of the planes died away and Nunu scanned the horizon for more, Zia’s own thoughts grew darker. In her mind she followed the bomber planes to Baghdad, 115 miles to the east, where her father, stubborn as ever, had insisted on waiting out the invasion to protect their house from looters. As a child she had heard bombs falling around their neighborhood during the Iran-Iraq war, and she remembered the terror, as she moved through adolescence, of the American bombing raids on Baghdad in 1991 and 1998. She couldn’t bear to imagine anything happening to Baba, or to her beloved city—though she tried to tell herself that some destruction was necessary and understandable. Her throat tightened as she remembered Baba’s admiration of the “incredible precision” of American bombs, and his insistence that the Americans weren’t interested in targeting civilians. That had been three weeks ago, though, and they’d had no news from him since. Though she knew it was forbidden to doubt her own father, she still whispered a silent prayer, under her breath, that he’d be safe.

Nunu skipped toward her across the roof. “Zia, let’s go tell Mamina! Now that the Americans are here, soon we’ll be able to go home!”

As they climbed down the ladder into their uncle’s home, Zia wished, again, that women’s lives would change with the Americans’ arrival. She was tired of being an outcast. As the eldest daughter, Zia had unconsciously stepped into the patriarchal role usually assumed by the eldest son, earning income in her job, driving the car, tutoring Nunu, and even handling financial matters with her uncles. She liked being in charge, even though she knew her outspokenness had earned her a reputation as “unmarriageable” around the neighborhood.

“The Americans are advancing toward Baghdad!” Nunu cheered when they found Mamina, folding her prayer mat in the bedroom the women shared downstairs. Their mother’s darkly lined eyes lit up, and she gave them a tight, perfume-scented hug. Even with her hair hidden under a veil, Mamina radiated the warmth and beauty of a woman twenty years younger, Zia thought. This time, they all felt sure, the Americans would get the job done.

Mamina sighed contentedly. “Like he parted the sea for Moses, we pray God makes a smooth path for the Americans. Then, my dears, you will know how it feels to be proud of your homeland—you’ll see the progressive, cultured Iraq your father and I loved so much when we were young. Iraq was once a paradise for women, and the Americans will help us restore that. I dream that you will be able to live as you wish from now on.”

Zia caught Nunu’s eye and they both collapsed into excited giggles like children, unable to believe this fantasy would soon be real. Clapping her hands, Nunu cried, “Mamina, when the American soldiers see us, maybe they will fall in love and want to marry us!”

“Shhhh!” Mamina scolded, though her eyes belied her joy. “Keep your voice down. Remember we are in Hit.”

indeed, living with Uncle Jalal, the women were all too aware that not every Iraqi was celebrating the end of Saddam’s twenty-five-year rule. Although their uncle’s family had agreed to shelter Zia, Nunu, and Mamina because Mamina’s sister, Sahra, was married to Jalal, the imminent invasion had awoken dormant religious tensions across the country. They, like most of the other townspeople of Hit, were conser- vative Sunni Muslims, while Sahra and the rest of Zia’s family were Shia. It was a divide that had arisen in the seventh century, over which group held true claim as descendants of the Prophet’s rightful successor. Saddam and his government were mostly Sunni, and during the quarter century he’d been in power Saddam had deepened the distrust between the two groups by overtly favoring Sunni villages, granting them more reliable electricity and public funding. Although in recent years most residents in the educated areas of Baghdad dismissed infighting between religious sects as backward, and intermarriages like Sahra and Jalal’s had become common, there was still strong religious feeling in conservative tribal centers. As the American invasion neared, politics had begun to increasingly break down along these religious lines, with provincial areas like Hit remaining deeply loyal to Saddam while the more urban Shia were suspected, often rightly, of supporting and even helping the USA with the imminent invasion.

these tensions were certainly making the evening meals increasingly awkward. That night, as Mamina, Zia, and Nunu sat cross-legged on the floor around the embroidered tablecloth, they tried not to betray too much of their excitement. Inevitably, though, as the family began to eat, roughly tearing off pieces of flat bread and using it to spoon the stuffed onions, rice, cucumbers, and kebabs, the discussion turned to the war. Everyone had heard the planes overhead that afternoon, and knew that the long weeks and months of suspense would soon be over, for better or worse.

Jalal’s mother, eyeing her guests, openly praised Saddam. “He is a strong man who will stand up to the infidel Americans.” She looked around the room bitterly, her fierce face swathed in a black abaya. The tribal tattoos on her wrists were visible as she waved her arms in defiance. Mamina glanced in alarm over at Zia, knowing how hard it was for her daughter to keep her opinions to herself when she was angry, but Zia just shot their hostess a hostile look and swallowed hard. Nunu, who never said anything in public anyway, kept her eyes downcast, refusing to risk anyone’s disapproval. Mamina hurriedly tried to move the conversation to safer ground. Saddam’s secret police could be anywhere, and no one had dared criticize the dictator for more than two decades. It wasn’t yet safe to start.

Luckily, Jalal’s sister, who was far less interested in politics, soon dominated the conversation. She wanted to gossip about the woman next door, whom she considered “barren” because she had only two children: “I have sixteen children, mostly sons,” she haughtily reminded her city cousins, and the dinner discussion soon settled into a polite appraisal of these young men’s virtues.

After dinner, Nunu and Zia retreated to the bedroom to listen to the news on Nunu’s little shortwave Sony radio. Although most channels were government-controlled and spewed pure propaganda, the girls had found an international station, Radio Monte Carlo, where they could get reliable outside information. They listened anxiously for news about their Baghdad neighborhood, praying nothing would happen to Baba and their neighbors, but there wasn’t much information available. “Do you think our relatives are listening to these same stations too, from London?” Nunu asked.

“Maybe,” Zia mused. The family had little contact with their family members who lived in exile. They suspected their phone calls were monitored by Saddam’s Ba’ath Party, so they didn’t dare speak openly with them on the rare occasion when they called them. Letters addressed to foreign countries were also opened and screened, and Iraqis had no access to the Internet or email. “I hope our uncles are not too worried. I wonder if they’ll want to come visit, now that Iraq is going to be safe again.”

As snatches of broadcasts interrupted the static, the sisters talked about how different life would be once Saddam was defeated: Zia would finally get her medical degree, and Nunu would “marry Redha al- Abdullah”—a famous Iraqi singer—and “have seventeen children!”

“And they’ll all be boys!” Zia added. They laughed. These impoverished, aggressively conservative villagers were looked down upon by the well-educated city girls, who had grown up among much more liberal attitudes, even under Saddam’s brutality. Baba generally let them wear pants and makeup, if they wanted to, but here the old women’s abayas covered their faces, hands, and feet. Barefoot young women and their dirt-smudged children carried urns of water alongside the roads. Few of the women in the village had gone to school beyond elementary, while Zia had graduated from university and Nunu would too, in a few years. These villagers’ lives were not governed by the modern strictures of Parliament, police, and the court of law, but instead by a small band of tribal elders and Islamic clerics whose families had ruled the region for generations.

Still, Hit and Baghdad did have one thing in common: the center of town had a monument to Saddam. Every town and city in Iraq was peppered with government-ordered murals and statues of the dictator. There was “Uncle Saddam,” the loving patriarch; “Muslim Saddam,” shown in religious attire to underscore his devotion to Islam; and, most frequently, the armed “Warrior Saddam,” perpetually victorious against the modern-day evils of America and Israel. Everyone knew these symbols, but it had been a long time since any of the government’s rhetoric held even an echo of truth; Saddam had stopped caring for or protecting his countrymen long ago. Nunu and Zia found the statues both ridiculous and terrifying—even the smallest act of vandalism to one of these images could mean a painful death.

Mamina came into the bedroom and found her girls gossiping about Saddam, Jalal’s family, and the backwardness of Hit. Nunu looked up at her mother. “Saddam has done nothing but steal from Iraqis for two decades, and yet they are still loyal to him over the Americans. How can they defend him?”

Mamina settled on the bed between them, curling her fingers absentmindedly through Nunu’s glossy hair. “Did you know Aunt Sahra and I grew up in a world very much like Hit? There were twelve of us children, and your grandparents were very poor. When we were young, Iraq had few roads, and no cars or airports. Most people in these rural areas traveled by donkey or walked, married their cousins to preserve family unity, and never ventured beyond their villages. The old ways are deeply ingrained, and there was never a lot of reason to change. You can’t call them backward just for carrying on the ancient traditions—after all, Iraq is famously known as the cradle of civilization. All great history and culture began here. The epic of Gilgamesh was first told by Mesopotamians more than five thousand years ago; the ancient tales of Kahlila and Dimna inspired Aesop’s fables, and, as you know, the story of the Arabian Nights is set in a Baghdad neighborhood right near our apartment. We have much to be proud of.”

“But Mamina,” Zia pointed out, “you left your village, and you’re not like Uncle Jalal’s sister. And you’re always telling us that women can be as good as men at some things. These people certainly don’t believe that.”

Mamina sighed. “One of the things I loved best about Iraq, in the years before you girls were born, was how we led the Arab world in culture, education, and women’s rights. Iraq had the best of both worlds—the ancient heritage and modern, secular policies. When I was in elementary school, General Kassim overthrew King Faisal the Second. He was just a puppet for the British government, which had been running Iraq for almost forty years. We adored General Kassim. For him, Iraq’s women and children were just as important as the men. When an interviewer asked him why he wasn’t married, he said, ‘Iraq’s old women are my mothers, the young women are my sisters, and the baby girls are my daughters.’?” Mamina laughed. “That made us all want to marry him! Under his rule, the public schools gave out milk, yogurt, and vitamins, the government tested children’s health annually, and medicine was free. In the winters our headmaster gave the poorer students pieces of thick material and dinars to take to the tailor for jackets.”

“That’s what Saddam should be doing if he wants to have those statues of him as our ‘uncle,’?” Nunu interjected. “Instead we have nothing to be proud of—no nice shampoos, no fancy cheeses, no fruits, bread, or milk half the time, and the markets have nothing to sell.”

Meet the Author

Christina Asquith was born in New York City and was educated at Boston University and the London School of Economics. A journalist for more than a decade, she has written for The New York Times, The Economist, The Christian Science Monitor, and The Guardian, and she was a staff writer at The Philadelphia Inquirer. She lives with her husband and their daughter in Burlington, Vermont.

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Sisters in War: A Story of Women, Life, and Death in Iraq 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
PENewcomb More than 1 year ago
Sisters in War, by Christina Asquith, documents the lives of four women in war-ravaged Iraq. Asquith anchors her story with names and events that are the memorable war headlines of American news in 2003-2004. She then reveals truths that were not known state-side: details of events and their effect on women's lives, and how the continued American military presence affects the Iraqi people outside the enclave known as the Green Zone. Iraqi sisters Zia and Nunu experience pre-Sadam and post-Sadam Iraq, and find their daily lives, education and sense of a future interrupted and altered beyond their control. American Army reservist Heather arrives in war-ravaged Iraq, with a naïve dream and official mandate to bring American-style women's rights, as defined by American military strategists, to a traditional conservative Muslim society. She collaborates with American aid worker Manal, who understands both cultures and attempts to bridge West and Middle East in Iraq, as she has in her own life. The day-to-day details of four women's lives chillingly reveal the impact of war, in ways that more formal reports of troop movements and statistical analyses do not. We know that soldiers are horribly traumatized by war. Still, if one considers the broad cultural devastation perpetrated by war, it is written indelibly in the minds, hearts and lives of the non-combatants: most often women, children and the elderly. Civilians in war zones are murdered, gang-raped, tortured, displaced and bereft of home, food, clothing and education. Families and communities are disrupted, often destroyed. Rarely are the day-to-day details of civilian war experience honored in the recording of political change. The bystanders are unknown, stripped of identity and dignity, marginalized by historical record, and transformed into riveting anonymous photographs and textual footnotes. Asquith's telling of the inept arrogance of American military decisions reveals a narcissistic political solipsism, reminiscent of the 1958 novel The Ugly American, by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer. Tell it she does, with flawless straightforward prose that clearly exposes the suffering caused by a protracted war that did not have to happen. Asquith is equally articulate as she describes details that reveal the strength and determination of women whose choices are restricted by cultural constraints and military regulations. History books and the documentation of political conflict and war have been written primarily about powerful men, by powerful men. Even with the inclusion of women in government, on foreign battlefields and in major newsrooms, war and history are still, officially, first and foremost, male domain and enterprise. Through the writing of Sisters in War, Asquith contributes significantly to correcting this omission in historical documentation. More women's stories need to be told. There is a fifth sister in this Iraq war narrative. We can read this story because Christina Asquith, a compassionate and committed journalist, spent two years reporting from Baghdad. It is through her willingness to tell the truth of the Iraq War, that we can know Zia, Nunu, Heather and Manal. Asquith's dedication to writing has given eloquent voice to women's experience in war.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Non-FictionReader More than 1 year ago
I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the Iraqui family and the way life was for them. On the political side of the story---ENOUGHT of the President George Bush and his Administration BASHING!!!
mandersj More than 1 year ago
American journalist Christina Asquith was sent to Baghdad on assignment in 2003, where she spent the next two years on the front lines of the war. By the fall of 2004, all journalists living in Baghdad were under death threat, and Asquith was forced into hiding in a Baghdad house with two of her Iraqi girlfriends. Living with an Iraqi family gave her a first-hand look at how Iraqis were affected by the war, especially women. Women went from holding respectable positions in society, to not even being able to leave their homes unaccompanied by a male relative. From this experience, Asquith got the idea to write "Sisters in War." Asquith follows the lives of four women affected by the American attack/invasion of Baghdad. Two Iraqi sisters, Zia and Nunu; one U.S. soldier, Heather; and a U.S. aid worker, Manal, who is an American Muslim. Heather worked inside the area of Baghdad where most American soldiers work from, called the Green Zone. American soldiers live and work there, and it is considered safe. Based out of one of Saddam's former palaces, the Green Zone is also where Iraqis working alongside Americans can go freely to and from work on a daily basis. However, once outside the Green Zone's gates, Baghdad is a free-for-all where violence is rarely brought to justice, and women are treated like lower-class citizens since the Americans took Saddam from power. Manal and Heather meet up through the work that Heather is wanting to do installing womens' centers in Baghdad. Heather has big ideas and Manal has the means to carry out the ideas, and together they make a good team. However, Heather's idea of building nine centers throughout Baghdad within a few weeks is simply impossible. When they open the first, and only, center several months later, Heather has finally come to terms with how slowly the American bureaucracy works, and how little the extremists in Iraq want women to succeed. At first Zia and Nunu and their families saw the Americans coming to Baghdad as something wonderful that would free them and deliver to them the opportunities they've always longed for. However, several years after the war began, both Zia and Nunu fear for their lives daily, and Zia has been fired from her job within the Green Zone because the Americans have stopped trusting Iraqis. Their neighborhood still does not have stable electricity or clean water. They are no longer safe attending university or even leaving their home without having to be veiled to cover most of their body and head. Interestingly enough, how most Iraqis view America's involvement in their country is still optimistic and hopeful, no matter how weary they are about how things appear to be worse than when Saddam was in power. They hope that once the militants and extremists are taken care of, their country can be handed back over to them as a democracy. There is even a law, when followed, that calls for 25% of their governing council be female. Asquith has hit the nail on the head with following these four women and getting their aspects on this entire situation. Their lives are so different from anything we can imagine in America, and so interesting in how they have to live versus how they want to live. Definitely a different perspective, a sympathetic one that thinks perhaps there will be some good to come out of the war, yet still fearing there won't be.
ShannonColleary More than 1 year ago
For those of us who know Iraq from newspapers and TV, this book is important. For those of us who are women, it is essential. Christina Asquith's, "Sisters in War," puts us on the ground in Iraq from the beginning of the war up to present time. It's told from the point of view of three seemingly disparate women; a U.S. soldier who is a cog in the democracy-building bureaucracy, an American-born Arab aid worker trying to establish womens' rights programs in Iraq and a young Iraqi woman waiting for her life to begin. On the eve of war, all of these women are full of hope, optimism and ambition. They want to participate in the creation of an Iraq where women don't just survive, but thrive. We come to feel we know these women. We recognize them as we recognize ourselves. They want the same things we want; freedom to pursue a career, freedom to fall in love and safety for themselves and their family. The thing they want most, perhaps, is to give women a voice. And to find their own voice. We follow these women into the crucible of war. We witness their disappointments as the Americans are unable to secure the country and get it up and running again, we witness their pain, fear and frustration as chaos and terror reign. Christina Asquith's book does what fine journalism should do, which is bring us into intimate contact with The Other. The Refugee, The Warrior, The Human Aide Worker become Zia, Heather and Manal. They could be our sisters, our best friends, our colleagues. And as harrowing as their tale is, the remarkable resilience of all three gives us cause for hope.