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The Petal and the Rock: Meena


kamurj

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Excerpted from
Veiled Courage; Inside the Afghan Women's Resistance
By Cheryl Benard, Ph.D.

The story of Meena, the legendary founder of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, begins in the early 1970s. On university campuses the world over, turmoil was rife. The world's youth was filled with energy, idealism and the determination to make the world a better, fairer place. They formed groups, movements and organizations; they distributed leaflets, chanted slogans, organized demonstrations, rebelled against the older generation and their antiquated values.

The winds of change were powerful enough to sweep all the way to far-off, remote Afghanistan. Even in Afghanistan, students traveled, spent semesters abroad with relatives or on exchange scholarships. They went to the Soviet Union, to France, to the United States, and when they returned they brought exciting and incendiary ideas with them, tales of freedom, progress, equality and revolution. Even the girls traveled. The government sent a clutch of them to modern, exciting, progressive Turkey to study nursing. Others went abroad with their parents or their brothers.

Western movies arrived on the cinema screens of Jalalabad and Mazar-i-Sharif, bringing glimpses of alien and wonderful worlds, worlds where men-and women, too-lived lives of unimaginable freedom. Sitting there in the darkness while these panoramic visions filled their minds, Afghanistan's young people did not aspire to the full measure of such liberation, but they longed for just a little slice of it.

Wouldn't it be wonderful to marry for love? To meet someone you liked and got along with, then to get to know him, to fall in love and many-instead of being handed over on your wedding day to a total stranger selected by your parents, someone whose looks you might find repellent and who might turn out to be mean.

An unhappy marriage with an incompatible partner was worse for the woman than the man, but young men had their romantic dreams, too. They didn't much like it, either, to have a bride picked out by their family according to the last generation's criteria, then foisted on them sight unseen. It would be much more wonderful to fall in love, to spend your life with someone who liked you and with whom you had things in common, someone who could be a friend and a partner.

And young Afghan girls wanted to go to university. A few years of glamorous and exciting student life, then a career and their own money-that was clearly better than the conventional life plan, which foresaw being a quiet, obedient, sell-effacing daughter-in-law in the household of a husband's extended family.

And even the most cursory glimpse of an outside world revealed this much: that Afghanistan, compared with nearly anywhere else, was extremely, heartbreakingly backward. Conditions that before had seemed natural or at any rate inevitable came into question when you compared them with the larger world.

As always, change came rapidly in the cities, more slowly in towns and hardly at all in rural villages. In places such as Kabul, young people seemed ready to abandon centuries of tradition without so much as a backward glance.

Western clothes and music were adopted with enthusiasm. Girls wore miniskirts, hung out with their girlfriends in giggling groups, and took the long way home from school, carefully choosing a detour that would route them past the local boys' school. Their mothers, as girls, had still worn the veil and meekly gone as brides to an unknown husband's house at the age of twelve.

Kabul's young women studied medicine, journalism and law. When they graduated, they took jobs in offices, ministries, brand-new clinics. Their mothers were illiterate but were a welcome and valuable part of the modern new dual-career household, which needed them as baby-sitters.

Afghan pop stars such as Ahmad Zaher sang about love and justice and were mobbed by hysterical teenagers, just like the Beatles in Liverpool.

And an earnest young woman named Meena was preparing to graduate from high school.

Born in 1957 to a middle-class family, Meena had always been a star pupil, bright, serious, inquisitive. That had landed her a place in the desirable Malalai High School for Girls. Meena enjoyed literature, liked to read biographies of famous women such as Joan of Arc and was interested in philosophy, but the big issues of the day fascinated her the most. Several of her teachers were social activists. In their lectures, they spoke to the girls about democracy, class struggle, the politics of poverty, the role of political parties and movements and the responsibility of intellectuals. And it wasn't just talk. One of her teachers was threatened by the secret police. A famous social critic and poet, Saidal Sukhandan, was assassinated by fundamentalists. Politics was serious business, and the stakes were high.

Meena was accepted at the highly regarded Shariat University, which had formerly been an institute for Islamic law but was now just an ordinary university, considered one of the country's most prestigious places of learning. There is a photograph of her from those days: slender, pretty, terribly young, wearing a thin sweater and looking composed and hopeful. It's my favorite picture of her.

It was almost inevitable, in Afghanistan, that university students became radicalized. The country's poverty was so extreme, social conditions were so desperate, the political system was so patently corrupt, the elites were so manifestly overadvantaged. Outside of the big cities, hardly anyone could read or write; girls were still married off at or before puberty; infant mortality was astronomically high, and children died in huge numbers of illnesses easily prevented by better hygiene, cleaner water and vaccinations or easily cured by modern medicine. How could these conditions be rectified, the country modernized, democracy introduced? Kabul's students debated these questions passionately with each other and with their professors. They demanded reforms and progress. They organized demonstrations to push for change.

The monarchy was sympathetic to such views and goals but slow to implement them. The king, his family and his entourage preferred the spas of Europe to the depressing conditions at home. Their distance from the common people was symbolized by the fact that most of them did not even speak the country's dominant language, Pashtu, conversing instead in cultured Persian or French.

Meena was immediately attracted by the student movement, but a number of things bothered her about it. Women had hardly any role to play, and their specific situation was not addressed. Nor did it seem sufficiently mainstream and democratic, with its tendency to splinter into innumerable factions to debate the finer points of leftist ideology. Also, they didn't seem sufficiently concerned about fundamentalism. Already, a young engineering student named Gulbuddin Hekmatyar had rallied like-minded fundamentalists and was targeting female students and demanding their removal from campus, throwing acid on them to protest their shameless modern dress.

What was really needed, Meena thought, was a broad, genuinely democratic movement. Maybe it should be organized in the form of an independent women's organization. That was probably the only way that women could determine the issues that were important to them and plan their own political activities. In traditional Afghanistan, women working with other women was also a much more acceptable and familiar way of doing things.

In 1976, at age nineteen, Meena married Faiz Ahmad, the head of a leftist organization. Starting with the no-nonsense ceremony they chose in place of the elaborate, days-long rituals customary in Afghanistan, the marriage was an intellectual partnership, though not always a political one. Meena and Faiz didn't always agree, but Meena had apparently chosen her partner with care. Unlike many men, many Afghans and many leftists, Faiz was able to tolerate dissent, even in his own household.

From Meena herself, we have this description of the "politics" of her marriage: "I never felt any kind of obstacles from him regarding my mission. I have to say, he is my strong partner. When I first consulted him about the establishment of a woman's organization, he immediately saw the merit of the idea and advised me to concentrate all my energies on it and not to be distracted by other things or even by housework.

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