Behind the Burqa: Our Life in Afghanistan and How We Escaped to Freedom

Behind the Burqa: Our Life in Afghanistan and How We Escaped to Freedom

by Batya Swift Yasgur


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Advance Praise for Behind the Burqa

"Whenever and wherever adults make war, children die and women are subjected to fear and humiliation. This is true of Afghanistan too. Read this harrowing book. The tragic yet heroic tale of two women is told with great simplicity. They will haunt you."
-Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate

"The stories of Sulima and Hala achingly articulate the twin and enduring legacies of misogyny and violence. A critical historical document, Behind the Burqa ultimately reveals the unbreakable strength of Afghan women."
-Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues
Founder and Artistic Director, V-Day

"Behind the Burqa provides important information about conditions in Afghanistan, as well as the plight of asylum-seekers in the United States. I highly recommend this book to all people who are concerned about human rights, both at home and abroad."
-Senator Sam Brownback, (R. Kansas)
ranking member, Immigration Subcommittee, Committee on the Judiciary

"This book is a gripping reading experience, and it also offers important suggestions for those who would like to participate in making our asylum politics more humane."
-Eleanor Acer, Director, Asylum Program, Lawyers Committee for Human Rights

"This book shows the injustices suffered by innocent women seeking asylum in the U. S. and the power of religious faith to provide hope and courage even in prison."
-Fauziya Kassindja, author of Do They Hear You When You Cry

"Sulima and Hala epitomize the worldwide struggle of women for equality and justice. Their story is gripping and illuminating."
-Jessica Neuwirth, President of Equality Now

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781681621043
Publisher: Turner Publishing Company
Publication date: 10/02/2002
Pages: 290
Sales rank: 738,545
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

BATYA SWIFT YASGUR is a freelance writer of both nonfiction and fiction. She won the 1995 Mystery Writers of America's Robert L. Fish Award for Best First Published Story and the Coalition of Alternatives in Jewish Education's David Dornstein Memorial Creative Writing Award for short fiction. She is the author of America: A Freedom Country (published by the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service), the project through which she met Hala, one of the sisters whose story is told in Behind the Burqa. She is also the coauthor of Women at Risk, a book about cervical cancer and the HPV virus.

Read an Excerpt

Behind the Burqa

Our Life in Afghanistan and How We Escaped to Freedom
By Batya Swift Yasgur

John Wiley & Sons

ISBN: 0-471-26389-3

Chapter One

I am in Paradise.

My toes tickled by the moist, green carpet under me, I am tumbling toward the breathtaking tapestry of reds, blues, violets, and yellows. The flower beds are rich and lush. They are perfectly sculpted, a rainbow of visual magic. I am romping through the rolling landscape to the orchards. The sun kisses my cheeks, the wind laughs in my hair, and then ... a hush. I am under the cool shade of the orchard. Crimson pomegranates, chubby golden pears, trembling to be picked, almonds and quinces ... the ripe fruits hang over me, a ceiling of sweet delights. Birds drape me with their twittering music. A pear falls beside me. A gift from heaven as I giggle and stretch out my arms in wonder. Blissfully, I take a bite. The juice dribbles down my chin and I am transported by the peace and beauty of it all. I will always live here, under the orchard trees, the flowers and grass a cocoon of heaven to shield me against the thorns of Earth. I close my eyes and sleep.

I am at Babajan's farm.

These are my earliest memories. I spent much of my early childhood in eastern Afghanistan, in the gardens of Babajan, my mother's father. He was a kind man, gentle and compassionate. He wore a beige chappan, the traditional robe, and a karakul, a soft oval-shaped lambskin hat. He and Bibijan, as wecalled my grandmother, lived with various children, grandchildren, cousins, and miscellaneous other family members in their immense mansion. I say "mansion," but actually, it was more like a compound-a series of attached town houses with a shared mosque and several indoor and outdoor bathrooms, all surrounded by a wall. It was almost a self-contained village. In our language, this is called a qallah.

My grandfather was not only wealthy, but also gracious and hospitable. His home was always open to wayfarers as well as to family members. "Why spend money on the inn if you can stay here?" he used to say. Consequently, his home became a haven for travelers, even those he did not personally know. This practice continued after his death, and there were always some twenty-five to thirty people at any given time eating in the guesthouse, or mehmankhana.

Bibijan and Babajan had a very special relationship, I am told. My grandfather had been married before, but his first wife died young. Once he married my grandmother, he never took another wife, which was quite unusual for a man of his generation and stature. The peaceful energy of their marriage pervaded the house long after his death. Just walking onto his property, I felt tension dissipate and melt away. Their home became a haven for me and remained so until I left Afghanistan in 1979.

I was born in 1954, and although I spent a great deal of time at Babajan's house, I was actually living at the home of my paternal grandparents, Aghajan and Guljan, which was also located in eastern Afghanistan. Like Babajan, Aghajan was a very wealthy and important man. He was a landowner of some real prestige and a shrewd businessman besides. He moved to eastern Afghanistan when land was cheap, then when real estate values rose, he found himself quite wealthy. Like other Afghan men of his generation and background, he did not use his wealth to acquire a new car or a new horse. Instead, he used his money to acquire more wives and yet more land.

Aghajan's estate was also quite beautiful but looked wild and unkempt. Aghajan did not believe in spending money on landscaping. The untamed quality of the property reflected much of my grandfather's personality. Under his controlled, proper exterior, a terrible temper simmered, a wildness that we all found terrifying. When I think of his garden, with its stream, its tangled flowers, its unpruned orchards, and its farmlands, I think of something that could have been beautiful had it been nurtured, but instead it was harsh and unfriendly.

Aghajan was a difficult and complex person. He could not bear to be beholden to someone else-perhaps it made him feel powerless, and Aghajan was all about power and control. So he constantly resisted accepting invitations to other people's homes. In Afghanistan, hospitality-mehman nawazi-is one of the most important values. Afghans become deeply offended if an offer of hospitality is refused, and they do not take no for an answer easily. So Aghajan was often forced to dine at the homes of others. On such occasions, he sent rice, sheep, and other gifts to pay them back.

As I've grown older, I've come to believe that there was another reason for Aghajan's insistence on paying his hosts for his meal. He and Babajan were distant relatives, both wealthy and prestigious. While there was no enmity or hatred between them, there was some rivalry. Babajan was known to be a generous and giving person. I believe Aghajan wanted to make the same impression on others-but he did not have the nature for it. In fact, he was quite stingy. He begrudged spending money on anything. Certainly, wayfarers and poor people were welcome on his premises-but for a price. He built a series of houses on his property. Poor people were allowed to live in these houses for free, but only in exchange for tending the orchards and helping with security around the qallah.

The atmosphere in his household was tense, a simmering pot of conflict. The four wives squabbled incessantly. Of course, they could not be very loud in their arguments. Women were expected to maintain a peaceful atmosphere in the house, and to remain inconspicuous. When the men were out, the wives allowed themselves the luxury of screaming, cursing, and raging, but when the men were present, they fought with silent hisses, glares, muttered laments, and pursed lips. They argued, stopped speaking to one another for a few days, then grudgingly resumed contact, only to have the cycle repeat itself. Sometimes a particular event such as Eid-the festive day with its message of peace and forgiveness following the end of the Ramadan fast period-would trigger reconciliation. Otherwise, the natural passage of time usually brought some softening of feelings-until the next time anyway.

Although Aghajan respected Guljan, who was his oldest wife, very much and always spoke to her, as well as to his third wife, politely and affectionately, he spent most of his time with his fourth wife, who was the youngest. And it seems that he was intimate almost exclusively with his second wife. This was bizarre because otherwise, he never spoke to her at all. In fact, he treated his second wife with the utmost contempt by day. But he visited her residence in the qallah almost every night-and far more frequently than he visited his other wives. I found this out when I was an adult, and it bolstered my impression of my grandfather as a strange, mysterious, and difficult man.

The real friction was between my grandfather and my father. Father, whom we called Abajan, had a small business as a freelance photographer, taking family portraits. The rest of his time, he devoted to his father's crops of wheat, rice, sesame seeds, and cotton-but with no form of recompense. Aghajan believed that being allowed to live rent free on his property was enough pay. In desperation, Abajan started his own sesame seed oil company.

"You are forbidden from using my seeds for this company," Aghajan said, his voice as sharp as his farming implements. "If you really feel the need for extra money-and I cannot imagine why you would, since I am allowing you to live for free on my property and eat at my table-then you must do as I did. Purchase land of your own. It is not seemly that my son should be selling oil like some peasant."

Abajan remained silent. One did not argue with a parent. One certainly did not defy a parent. The word of a parent was considered equivalent to the word of the Qur'an. Just as you could not talk back to God, you could not talk back to an elder. But Abajan reached a decision. He would move out of his father's house and seek his fortune in the big city of Kabul. And he would make it on his own. He would not accept Aghajan's hospitality, nor would he ever accept money, should Aghajan be so disposed to offer any. Never again would he be beholden to Aghajan.

My mother, whom we call Madarjan, was only too glad to leave her in-laws' home, where she had been regarded as the lowest in the family pecking order. All the wives and other daughters-in-law took their share of food, clothing, money, and other privileges first, leaving my mother to scrounge around the leftovers. For Madarjan, this was humiliating. As the daughter of a wealthy, generous man, she was used to being treated with respect and being given plenty of material comforts. My mother is a person of quiet dignity, restraint, and patience. She did not complain, nor did she turn to her own parents for help. She bided her time, suffered silently, and felt profound gratitude when Abajan decided to move to Kabul.

I was five years old when we moved to Kabul. My older brother, AbdelKarim, was nine, my younger sister, Husna, was two, and Madarjan was pregnant. Abajan began establishing his photography career in a more organized fashion. He made connections with magazines and government ministries, and slowly his business grew. But his family grew more quickly than his business, and my parents were forced to return to Aghajan's house when Madarjan gave birth to my brother AbdelAsim. Abajan needed a short period of respite when his family would be fed at someone else's expense, and Madarjan needed help during childbirth. But Abajan resisted Grandfather's attempts to pressure him into staying. Kabul was his home now. We returned to Kabul when the baby was a few weeks old and remained there for many years afterward.

It took a long time for us to get established. My father was barely eking out a living at first and had to supplement his photographer's income by buying a minibus and leasing it to a bus company. We rented a series of progressively larger homes, as my father's income gradually inched upward. When I was seven, we moved to the large house that remained in our family until long after I left Afghanistan. Meanwhile, my mother continued to have babies. When AbdelAsim was two years old, my brother AbdelZamin was born, followed by a sister, Gula, in 1964. We did not call our brothers by their full, formal names. In Afghanistan, the father picks out a prefix or suffix for all his sons that stands for some ideal or important family value, such as courage or adherence to God's will. Father chose Abdel, which means "servant of God." But in day-to-day conversation, we called them by their individual names-Karim, Asim, and Zamin.

In 1970, two major events occurred in the family. After a series of miscarriages, my mother gave birth to my sister Hala; and my Uncle Murid and his wife, Aunt Nasima, were killed in a car accident. My parents adopted their little daughter, my cousin Surya, who was three years old at the time. We immediately started calling Surya "sister," and indeed, that's what she was to us. No one made any distinction in the household between the biological children and the adopted sister. It was typical of my father that he assumed responsibility for his niece and raised her as his own.

The big house we settled in had six bedrooms. I shared a room with Husna. Karim had his own room. Asim and Zamin shared a room, as did Gula and Surya. The newest baby always slept with my parents in their room. As we grew older, Husna moved in with Gula, Surya, and Hala, leaving me to my own devices. The final room was occupied by Uncle Daoud and Aunt Layla. Uncle Daoud was studying at the university in Kabul. He was one of many relatives who lived with us while they were enrolled at the university, but he stayed on even once he had graduated. Visiting cousins slept on the floor in my brothers' rooms.

Our house was always overflowing with extended family members, mostly male students attending the University of Kabul. Because they were family, they were allowed to stay in the house and eat at the table with us, even though girls were present. Unrelated guests were accommodated in a smaller house separated from the main building-the guesthouse, or mehmankhana. These quarters were reserved for male guests who could not sit at the same table with the girls in the family. Because my father was very hospitable, the guesthouse was usually full. Often, the guests were college friends of my various cousins, but my father extended hospitality to others as well. When one of Aghajan's neighbors was going through some type of complicated legal procedure that necessitated his remaining in Kabul for two years, he was accommodated in our mehmankhana.

The presence of all these guests meant endless housework for the women. We did all the laundry for all members of the household, including residents in the mehmankhana. At mealtime, we served the guests, then withdrew. I myself started doing housework when I was about six years old. Gone were the days of freedom and laughter in the golden orchards of Babajan's estate, or even Aghajan's farm. Now I was in charge of my younger sister and baby brother. I was taught to wash cups and spent much of my day at the sink. In Afghanistan, drinking tea is like breathing air. You do it all the time. When a guest comes, offering tea is taken for granted. You don't ask if your guest wants tea, you simply serve it from a teapot, together with a pretty tray of sugar, candy, and cookies. Needless to say, the endless procession of guests led to an endless stream of dishes, which the women were endlessly washing.

At the hub of the giant, ever-changing family wheel was my father. Unquestionably the head of the household and its center, he held court in his living room or guest room when he was not working. I served countless cups of tea to countless men who came to discuss politics, religion, and current affairs with my father. Abajan was a brilliant, thoughtful, and provocative man. And, like his father, he was a character. Fierce, stubborn, opinionated, and powerfully articulate, he captivated his guests with his political insights.

Abajan was attracted to communism when I was young. He held forth for many hours to his friends about the teachings of Marx and Lenin, about economic equality among all people, about how the rich oppress the poor. He argued and debated with his friends, and often I would hear an "Aha!" of triumph as it became clear that he had made his point and a friend had no appropriate rejoinder to offer.

Abajan's charisma and unique style permeated all aspects of the household. He was always reading and educating himself, then applying his newfound knowledge to the running of the household.


Excerpted from Behind the Burqa by Batya Swift Yasgur Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents



Part One: Sulima.

Part Two: Hala.

Epilogue by Sulima and Hala.

How You Can Help.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Hala's religious faith and courage moved me very much. Her story reminds me of my own experiences in detention. Like me, Hala expected to be treated kindly and protected after she managed to flee persecution in her own country. Instead she found herself in detention, and was treated with cruelty and inhumanity. This book shows the injustices suffered by innocent women seeking asylum in the United States. I am sad that innocent people are still being imprisoned for no crime other than fleeing oppression. This book has information on how asylum-seekers are treated, and how you can help them. It also shows the power of religious faith to provide hope and courage even in prison."—Fauziya Kassindja, author of DO THEY HEAR YOU WHEN YOU CRY

"Women throughout the world have suffered at the hands of oppressive regimes, but the Taliban brought this subjugation to new levels of organized brutality. BEHIND THE BURQA dramatically brings to life the harsh reality women have faced in Afghanistan over the past twenty years. The story of Sulima's visionary involvement there in early efforts to promote women's rights is moving and inspiring, as is the story of her life. Both Sulima and Hala epitomize the world-wide struggle of women for equality and justice. Their story is gripping and illuminating."—Jessica Neuwirth, President of Equality Now

"The stories of Sulima and Hala achingly articulate the twin and enduring legacies of misogyny and violence. A critical historical document, BEHIND THE BURQA ultimately reveals the unbreakable strength of Afghan women." —Eve Ensler, Author, The Vagina Monologues Founder and Artistic Director, V-Day

"BEHIND THE BURQA brings readers dramatically into the plight of innocent asylum-seekers who are detained in the United States. The book is a grippingreading experience, and it also offers important suggestions for those who would like to participate in making our asylum policies more humane." —Eleanor Acer, Director, Asylum Program, Lawyers Committee for Human Rights

"Whenever and wherever adults make war, children die and women are subjected to fear and humiliation. This is true of Afghanistan too. Read this harrowing book. The tragic yet heroic tale of two women is told with great simplicity. They will haunt you." —Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate

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