“The burqa is the invisibility cape that makes travel possible”. Journalist Kristin Solberg stayed in the ‘death room’ in communal living quarters in Kabul, namely the room closest to the road. She is leaving Afghanistan after three years. This is her story about the women who risk their lives for an education that gives life to others.
The entire world is light blue. I have no peripheral vision, it’s difficult to breathe, and I’m squinting through the fine gauze to reduce the nausea. The nylon fabric rustles around my eyes and I need to concentrate to hear what Doctor Khadija Safi in the seat next to me is saying.
“My mother says that if I go to Wardak, I’ll be killed,” she says.
“But we all die someday. Whether that happens in Wardak or Kabul makes no difference to me.”
We are driving from Kabul to her midwifery school in Wardak, one of the most volatile provinces in Afghanistan, and we have just received bad news: The school has been bombed by the Taliban.
This does not come as a complete surprise. Wardak is a place where girl’s schools are bombed, burnt down or threatened with closure, where people like Doctor Khadija are considered by some to be traitors who deserve to die, where ‘night letters’ with threats are sent to teachers who teach girls and women who dare to work.
It is a place where foreigners run the risk of being abducted and killed if they are discovered.
To travel there, I needed to hide under a burqa. The moment I pull it over my head, I transform from a person everyone sees to one that no one notices. None of the insurgents along the way pay any attention to a seemingly Afghan woman in the back seat of an old, dented Toyota Corolla.
The burqa is the invisibility cape that makes travel possible.
Doctor Khadija has lived under the Taliban and hates the burqa. “It has nothing to do with Islam,” she says, but this is not where she focuses her efforts.
“If I could choose between the burqa and peace or neither of the two, I would definitely choose the burqa,” she often says.
Now she has neither of them.
“Welcome to the land of the brave”
Two-and-a-half years earlier in July 2010: It looks just like I imagined. When I look out the airplane window and down at Afghanistan for the first time, I see barren brown mountains. Afghanistan, the land of deforested mountains, a country where strangers are invited to palou and green tea, but where the wrong choice at an intersection can cost you your life. It is the country where Avicenna, the father of modern medicine, was educated, but now has the worst health and education status in the world. A place that has been ravaged by war, a victim of superpower politics and its own unfortunate geography for three decades, but that expresses a pride and independence that frightens everyone – the British, Soviets and NATO – who come here with the illusion of an easy victory.
This country has been called the world’s worst for women, insofar as it is possible to compare such things, but the women show far more strength than I have seen anywhere else.
But I did not know any of this that first trip. It is the first time I land in Kabul. “Welcome to the land of the brave” is written in English on a advertisement for a mobile company at the airport. In the long queue at passport control, women pull shawls out of their bags and place them on their heads. I watch them and do the same.
War profiteers and relief workers
Kabul is a city with barbed wire, high walls and Kalashnikovs. The city has infrastructure for a half a million people, but is home to five million. In the streets, old Toyota Corollas fight for space with the bulletproof four-wheel drive cars driven by foreigners.
Illegal settlements without water or drainage are creeping their way up the mountainsides. The outskirts of the city are home to internal exiles in tent camps, while huge, multi-coloured villas with columns and statues are built in the centre. They are called Poppy Palaces because they are said to be financed by the drug trade. They could just as easily be financed by corruption, by war dollars.
There are more foreigners here than I expected. In the evening, they fill a few bars and a handful of overpriced restaurants. This is where you find Paddy, an Irishman who lost his British fiancée two weeks before the wedding, when her throat was cut by one of the insurgents in the Badakhshan Province.
This is also where you will find the North American feminist relief worker who, after moving to Kabul, enjoys being beaten by her lovers. This is where you find the American who builds new camps for soldiers, who keep increasing in numbers, and calls his Rottweiler his ‘honey’. This is where you find war profiteers, idealists, cynics and war junkies.
And this where you find those running away from something and those looking for something, those who have just arrived, and those who have been here far, far too long.
“You’ve moved into the death room”
War dollars have made housing prices in the safer areas of the city reminiscent of Manhattan’s, and when I move to Kabul a year later, I have to make do with a room in housing shared with relief workers.
“You’ve moved into the death room,” one of them tells me one night.
“The death room? Why is that?”
“Because it’s the room closest to the street.”
That explains the price. There is a police control post on the street just outside the house, on the other side of the wall where I lay my head each night. If someone bombs the control post, the wall will go down with it. I saw the policemen in blue on the street before I accepted the room, but I didn’t give them much thought. A beginner’s mistake.
The most dangerous day of her life
They say life got better for women after the Taliban fell. In the unpaved side streets of Kabul, girls walk to school in matching school uniforms. In Parliament, 25 percent of seats are reserved for women. Women work in offices, go to university, and some play sports.
But the problems lie just below the surface. Women in politics and media receive death threats. Half of all women in prison are there for so-called moral crimes like having sex before marriage, even if it was the result of a rape, or for having run away from home, even if they are fleeing an abusive home.
Girl’s schools just outside of Kabul are bombed. Half of all girls in the country do not go to school, and only four percent attend upper secondary school. The minor progress that has been made in the cities is barely visible in the countryside, where 80 percent of the population lives.
In addition, the mother and infant mortality rate is among the highest in the world. Every half hour an Afghan woman dies in childbirth because she does not reach the clinic on time, because she is not allowed to go to the doctor, because she is anaemic and exhausted after too many births, and as a result of being given little priority her entire life.
Because the day she gives life is the most dangerous day of her life.
According to various organisations, women are at a 200 times greater risk of dying due to pregnancy complications than war-related incidents. At the same time, one in four children dies before the age of five, often due to diarrhoea and pneumonia.
“As many as 550 Afghan children under the age of five die every single day,” says a relief worker with Save the Children during an interview.
“There’s a media outcry when five children are killed in a suicide attack in Kabul. I’m not saying it’s not horrible when five children are killed in Kabul; I’m only saying that around 550 children die every single day in this country of conditions that can easily be prevented. But there’s no outcry about that.”
That is when I hear about the midwives: Village girls are trained to save lives, to overcome the sky-high mother and infant mortality rate in areas with far too few clinics. In the summer, they travel along roads plagued with road bombs and, in the winter, walk through snow carrying a medical kit in their hands.
Some members of the Taliban approve of their work and even pick them up and take them home to them – weapon in hand of course – to help their wives and daughters-in-law during childbirth. Others, however, claim that women should not work under any circumstances and burn down the clinics and threaten their lives. The midwives work in the large and complex grey zone between halal and haram, and perform a delicate balancing act between right and wrong, life and death.
The moment I hear about them, it becomes clear to me: I want to write a book about these women. In the international media, women are often depicted as victims whose lives are dictated by circumstances and decisions of others, leaving little room for their own will, strength or courage. The victim narrative in itself declares them incapable of managing their own lives, but the story of the midwives counteracts that.
Midwifery school behind barbed wire fence
I meet Doctor Khadija for the first time at the midwifery school in Wardak, which is run in collaboration with the Afghanistan Committee in Norway and the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan. The school is hidden behind high walls and barbed wire in Maidan Shahr, the small provincial capital in a valley between the mountains. Inside, 50 girls between the ages of 17 and 25 learn skills that will save lives.
Doctor Khadija receives me in the courtyard, dressed in a black abaya and with a shawl wrapped tightly around her head. She tells me that she secretly teaches the girls about women’s rights and peace studies – topics that can cost her her life in a small town surrounded by insurgents.
“I don’t just want to train them to be midwives. I want to train them to be peace ambassadors, women’s rights activists, and role models for other village women,” she says.
She runs a school of life surrounded by so much death.
Many of her students attend the school in secret, fearful of retaliation from the Taliban. Eighteen-year-old Nilab is especially unfortunate. She is the first girl in her family who can read and write, but her education has been a delicate matter. When she was in fifth grade, the Taliban burned down her school but her brother, a teacher, taught her at home and eventually sent her to the midwifery school.
But the Taliban ultimately found out that Nilab was going to school. They arrested her brother Yahya, holding a Kalashnikov to his head, and threatened to kill him if he didn’t bring her home. He did as they say, but is fighting hard to get her back in school.
“Even if it costs me my life, she will have the opportunity to go to school,” says Yahya, knowing fully well that the risk is very real.
A year later, Malala Yousafzai is shot in the head by the Taliban just over the border in Pakistan. Doctor Khadija became angry when she hears about it, but is not surprised. That is what they all risk, her and her students. Yet they carry on.