The browser or device you are using is out of date. It has known security flaws and a limited feature set. You will not see all the features of some websites. Please update your browser. A list of the most popular browsers can be found below.
In 1972, the year that Heela was born to a family of journalists and professionals, Kabul was a quaint, relaxed mountain town. An important stop on the “hippie trail” — a well-trodden route for Western stoners and flower children often heading to India — the town had reinvented itself in a few short generations. A wave of progressive reforms had rippled through Afghanistan in the 1950s, resulting in a government decree that veiling was optional for women. In 1964, they were granted the franchise. Photographs from the era show besuited men accompanied by women in short skirts and beehive hairdos; there are movie theaters, broad paved roads, and tree-lined sidewalks.
“There was complete freedom in those days,” she said. “No one could tell a woman where to go or what to do.” Even the headscarf, that shibboleth of societal conservatism, had become a matter of familial discretion. Heela was supposed to wear one, but upon leaving the house she would stuff it into her purse.
Out in the heavily tribal Pashtun countryside, however, conservatism still reigned and women lived cloistered in their homes. The state was largely absent, and civil society nonexistent; politics worked through kinship and patronage, leaving clan leaders and landlords to run their own fiefdoms. If you managed to make it out to Kabul and attend university, you came away with a tantalizing taste of what your country could become, and a stark, unremitting sense of the inadequacies of the world you’d left behind.
Education was Heela’s abiding ambition. At seventeen, she won admission to Kabul University, the nation’s premier institution of higher learning. She majored in economics, hoping to go on for a master’s degree.
One day during her junior year, her family brought home a young man for tea. He had a sharp nose, prominent cheek-bones, and — impossible to ignore — a disarming smile.
His name was Musqinyar, and he had been living by himself in Kabul, working for the government. She also learned that he was a Communist and a fervent defender of women’s rights. They spoke of Pashto poetry and overbearing relatives, of traveling the country after the war and some day visiting central Europe, where Kabul’s electric trolleybuses were built. They would go to Germany, he promised, after peace arrived.
In 1991, they were wed. Shortly after, they moved into a small Soviet- built apartment near downtown Kabul. Musqinyar was making good money working for the Ministry of Health, and Heela, upon receiving her diploma, found a job as a teacher. In her spare time she took courses in nursing and midwifery, which led to a moonlighting gig with the World Health Organization. It wasn’t long before she gave birth to a baby boy, Omaid.
Life was good. Infused with tiny, daily acts of hope, their imagination told of a future that belonged entirely to them. But beyond city limits, in the rust-hued mountains girding Kabul, that future was being unwritten.
It was an unseasonably warm evening in April 1992 when one of Heela’s neighbors appeared at the front door. “Sister!” she pleaded. “Do you have a headscarf? The mujahedeen are coming!” Heela rarely wore Islamic head coverings anymore, inside or out. But she knew that she would have to find something, for the mujahedeen’s reputation preceded them. In the closet, she discovered two large pieces of torn cloth. Her neighbor took one, wrapping it around her head. Heela kept the other and waited.
Although there had been occasional assassinations and terrorist attacks over the years, during the occupation the mujahedeen had never openly set foot in Kabul, lending them such an aura of mystery that they were dubbed dukhi, ghosts, by the Russians. Now, with the government collapsing, Kabul residents began to burn their state-issued ID cards to avoid any visible link with the previous authorities.
As smoke filled the air, Heela heard, again and again, the cry of “God is great!” The rebels surged past them toward a government rations center, torching it as well. Heela and her husband looked at each other. A new order had arrived.
Outside the capital, mujahedeen rule veered into the tyrannical. A commander in the northwestern province of Faryab decreed it permissible to rape any unmarried girl over the age of twelve. In the western city of Herat, authorities curtailed musical performances, outlawing love songs and “dancing music.”
Soon enough, the Supreme Court demanded that the government oust female employees from their jobs and girls from their schools, because “schools are whorehouses and centers of adultery.”
There wasn’t a safe neighborhood left in the city, and the truth was becoming painfully clear: it was time to flee. But where? Pakistan was out of the question; they knew what life could be like in the squalid refugee camps and had no desire to run from violence to abject poverty. Iran was a possibility, but Musqinyar had heard that only refugees who practiced the Shia version of Islam were welcome. There was just one obvious destination: his ancestral home, the southern backwater province of Uruzgan. He’d heard that things were calmer there. He knew that the deep countryside was no place for a city-bred woman like Heela, but what was the alternative?
The first time a woman enters her husband’s house, she wears white [her wedding dress] and the first time she leaves, she wears white [the color of the Muslim funeral shroud].
Heela Achakzai, talking of life in the countryside
“The first time a woman enters her husband’s house,” Heela told me about life in the countryside, “she wears white” — her wedding dress — “and the first time she leaves, she wears white” — the color of the Muslim funeral shroud. The rules of this arrangement were intricate and precise, and, it seemed to Heela, unchanged from time immemorial. In Uruzgan, a woman did not step outside her compound. In an emergency, she required the company of a male blood relative to leave, and then only with her father’s or husband’s permission. Even the sound of her voice carried a hint of subversion, so she was kept out of hearing range of unrelated males. When the man of the house was not present, boys were dispatched to greet visitors. The markers of a woman’s life — births, anniversaries, funerals, prayers, feasts — existed entirely within the four walls of her home. Gossip, hopscotching from living room to living room, was carried by husbands or sons.
Heela settled into Musqinyar’s ancestral home in a corner of Uruzgan Province called Khas Uruzgan (khas meaning “special,” the district having been the provincial capital ages ago).
In the countryside a woman was expected to work long and hard at keeping up her home, and in a way this was a blessing. Heela threw herself into the task of remaking their inherited house, which had sat empty for more than a decade. The squat, one-story structure was designed to honor the local virtues of family, privacy, and hospitality. A large compound wall of tawny mud bricks surrounded the property, with holes punched through to examine visitors. Upon entering you found yourself in a small courtyard, where weeds and crabgrass had edged onto the walkway. To the left sat a guest room, the quintessential mark of a southern home, set off by itself so that visitors might not inadvertently glimpse a female. A pair of apple trees stood near the opposite wall. It took about twenty paces to get from the main gate to the front door.
The house itself measured about fifty feet to a side and consisted of a number of narrow rooms arranged in railroad fashion. The living-room walls remained bare, because Heela hadn’t been able to bring photos from Kabul. Beneath the house was a small cellar. In the backyard, a vegetable patch grew near the door and privet lined the mud walls. In the far corner stood a tiny chicken coop.
Had Heela been able to leave the compound, she would have found a bucolic hamlet of maybe fifty homes, each very much like hers. There was no main road; instead, a web of narrow dirt tracks ran between the farmers’ fields, connecting one house to the next. The village was bounded on one side by a muddy stream, which ran just a few hundred feet from her house, and on the other by rock formations that rose rapidly skyward into a set of looming massifs. An old wooden footbridge crossed the stream to a grassy embankment, from which a gravel road led to the bazaar.
Heela’s village was one among dozens that peppered the basin of the mountain range, which stretched as far as she could see. In total, some fifty thousand souls called Khas Uruzgan District their home, most of them farmers and herders. If the women rarely left their homes, the men did not venture much farther — some had never set foot outside the district in their lives.
Out here you lived by nature’s rhythms, rising and returning with the sun, growing the food your family ate and sewing the clothes they wore. Without electricity there were no televisions or telephones, although by the late 1990s hand-cranked radios were making an appearance. To hear the latest news you headed down to the bazaar, a ramshackle row of windowless one-room shops fashioned out of old shipping containers, each with corrugated iron shutters and straw flooring. Out in front hung signs advertising Iranian colas, Pakistani biscuits, spare tires, and jerry cans of gasoline, which you could purchase once a week when the fuel truck came through.
When winter came to Khas Uruzgan, the meadows were left yellow and ruined, the mountain passes and roads buried under snow. Life retreated indoors, and no news from the outside would come until springtime. It had always been that way, until one winter afternoon in early 1995, when a neighbor came by to inform Musqinyar that the war was over. When Musqinyar reached the bazaar, he saw Toyota jeeps with rocket launchers piled in the back and some mullahs milling nearby. The big landowning families and the major warlords were surrendering their weapons to the new authorities. If the men of the bazaar rejected the rule of the Taliban mullahs, they did not show it. Instead, they approached, one after another, to kiss their hands and thank God for peace.
As the weeks passed, it transpired that life went on much as before, except that now you could drive the breadth of the district without worry, which meant that the shops were stocked once again and the prices settled back down to reason. Heela watched the events with little interest. There was no whip-wielding religious police because the men of Khas Uruzgan had beards and prayed regularly anyway. There was no shuttering of girls’ schools or orders for women to stay indoors because there had been no such schools to begin with and women were confined to the home as it was. With no TVs or cameras, the ban on moving images meant nothing. Heela might have disliked the injunction against music, but the civil war had already rendered outdoor music parties obsolete, and no one would stop her from listening to her cassettes in the privacy of her own home.
In time, as Musqinyar returned in the evenings to relate the news of the day, she grew to appreciate her new rulers. She was pleased to learn that authorities were clamping down on the tribal practice of using females to settle feuds, for which they found no sanction in their version of religious law. They were even prepared to look the other way when the stubborn details of state making clashed with deeply held beliefs. When the wife of Mullah Abbas, the new Taliban minister of health, fell ill, he ran up against the prohibition of contact between women and male doctors and nurses, which had created a dire shortage of female medical practitioners. In response, he pushed for the creation of a nurse training program in Kabul. One afternoon in 1998, Abbas, a Khas Uruzgan native, called Musqinyar to explain that Heela, as one of the few educated women in the district, had been selected to participate.
Heela and two others, with chaperones, were taken in a van across a gutted country, along highways that lay ruined but bandit-free. They arrived in the city of her birth on a quiet spring day. From the car, she stared at what had become of her childhood streets: crippled beggars wheeling themselves about, roads torn seemingly beyond repair, almost no traffic anywhere, whole neighborhoods lying in apocalyptic ruins. She turned away, wondering how Muslims could have done this to themselves.
The first snows had already set upon the lower slopes of the ranges behind Heela’s house in the autumn of 2001 when Musqinyar heard a terse radio proclamation: the Taliban government was finished. Within weeks, the air began to throb day and night with the sound of helicopters. In December, a twelve-foot-high barbed-wire fence appeared in a desert clearing near the bazaar, curling around a set of massive camouflage tents. Heela greeted these events with as little interest as the previous change of power, eight years prior. Life began and ended within her compound walls, a life in which dreams and memories were lost or deadened, leaving only the incessant din of daily being.
Patients dribbled in to Heela’s house at a rate of about one per month. Usually they would complain of highly nonspecific ailments, but occasionally a pregnant woman would present with symptoms of anemia. Without access to a clinic, there was little Heela could do beyond offering dietary advice. Sometimes, in severe cases, she dispatched the patient’s male blood-relative escort, her mahrem, to a mullah or a peregrinate Sufi saint to collect an amulet containing a Koranic verse suited to the problem at hand.
It was well into the springtime of that first post-Taliban year before she saw a sign of change: a shipment of medicines donated by the US government arrived at the new base and was subsequently parceled out to community leaders. Heela could now prescribe iron pills. Shortly after, an NGO showed up to remove mines left over from the Soviet war. It was the first time, as far as anyone could remember, that an international aid group had ever visited the area. Then, that summer, workers from another agency appeared, to distribute seeds to needy farmers.
For six months, she trained under the watchful eye of her Taliban supervisors and was not allowed outdoors even once. But the work was engaging, and as she roomed with women from other provinces, it almost felt like her university days. She learned midwifery and basic nursing, and it filled her with hope that she might be able to make Khas Uruzgan her own, that she might carve out a future for herself there.
Back home, news of a woman with medical skills spread quickly through the village. Husbands started to bring in their pregnant wives or ailing mothers. For many women, it was their first trip outside in years. Some even feigned illness for the opportunity.
From her patients, Heela learned that extended confinement had varied psychological effects. For some, the compound walls so completely delineated the limits of their universe that they had developed something akin to agoraphobia. For others, especially those who’d had a taste of freedom in childhood, the internment of married life plunged them into depression. (One favored method of suicide was self-immolation; another was throwing oneself down a well.) A third group, certainly the largest, adapted to their confinement, if only because it was the sole world they had ever known.
Although she was a transplant, Heela herself had been slipping into this last category as the demands of the household and her growing family consumed her. “We all thought,” she said, “that life would just go on that way, forever.”
That something inside her that had driven her to economics at university against her parents’ advice, that something that had given her the courage to travel cross-country with Taliban officials to study nursing — it was pulling at her again.
Musqinyar began to see the world anew. Ex-Communists around the country were embracing the US-backed government — many were even working directly for the Americans — and he didn’t want to be left behind. He began making trips to the base to meet soldiers, who were members of the US special forces, and he often took Omaid along. In the evenings, he would regale Heela with tales of his visits. Old dreams were dusted off and updated. For the first time in years, he spoke of traveling abroad. He promised that Germany awaited, and maybe even Mecca, too, where they would make their holy pilgrimage together.
And just like that, Heela felt the tug herself. That something inside her that had driven her to economics at university against her parents’ advice, that something that had given her the courage to travel cross-country with Taliban officials to study nursing — it was pulling at her again. It had now been four long years since she’d last set eyes upon anything outside the main wall of her compound, four years of births and meals and quarrels: life lived, no doubt, but she wanted more.
It was a summer’s day in 2002, a day so hot that Heela was avoiding the garden altogether, when someone rapped on the front door. Musqinyar was at work and the boys at school, so she did not answer, but the knocking continued and finally the visitor called out her name. She pressed her face against the metal gate and carefully said, “Who is it?”
“Qudus Khan,” said the voice. It was the district governor, one of the most powerful men in Khas Uruzgan. He was also in charge of an NGO that operated on foreigner-donated funds.
“I’m sorry,” she said self-consciously, “my husband isn’t here.”
“No, we’d like to speak with you. We heard there’s an educated woman in this house.”
“That’s me,” she said through the closed door. “I can read and write.”
The governor told her that they had received funding to establish a female vocational training center and needed someone to help oversee the project. Would she be interested? It took a moment for the words to register. Heela knew that this sort of opportunity came along only once or twice in a lifetime. But turning around, she saw her mother-in-law — standing “with her arms folded like a warlord,” she recalled.
“Thank you for your offer,” she said, “but I don’t want to work.”
Qudus Khan insisted that she was the perfect person for the job, since they didn’t know of anyone else who had experience “outside the house.”
Although Heela knew of no female in her village who had successfully worked outside the house, she didn’t see why she couldn’t be the first. Confidence was a rare currency, and ironically her stint working under the Taliban had endowed her with more than any woman she knew. That evening, Musqinyar jumped at the news. Nine years of village life had not yet eradicated the last vestiges of his former world.
Heela hadn’t gone to work for the money, but, holding the cash in her hand, she felt a gravitas like she’d never experienced. It felt as if she were rediscovering her old self.
On the appointed day, Heela awoke earlier than usual and fished out her most respectable outfit, holding it up for inspection. The burqa was loose and flowing, sandy-brown like the earth. She set it aside and readied breakfast, then proceeded to finish her chores for the day. It was not yet mid-morning when she and Musqinyar and the children, along for effect, loaded themselves into the station wagon. As they drove the long back road around the village, she caught herself telling rambling stories, her habit when anxious.
The car pulled up to a nondescript house and Musqinyar scanned the area, then motioned for Heela to get out. She had taken only a few steps when a man on a bicycle appeared on the horizon, pedaling toward them. She jumped back into the car. He sped by without looking up.
Heela got out again and this time nearly ran to the gate. Inside, a group of women trainees were crowded together in a small room, hunched over sewing machines. Most were Hazaras, whose families tended to take a slightly more permissive approach to purdah than the Pashtuns of her village. Still, like Heela, they had all endured significant risks to come, and, as the machines sputtered along, the mood was tense. It was 2002, the Taliban had been gone for almost a year, and the Americans were busy building a new Afghanistan, yet in Khas Uruzgan these women had no choice but to work in secret. Everyone there knew the stakes: if word leaked, they would almost certainly be accused of prostitution — a charge that, under the strictures of village life, was usually punishable by death.
Heela was to be an auditor, ensuring that none of the students or teachers made off with the materials. As thrilling as it was, she was not happy to linger. She kept glancing at the door, expecting village men to burst in at any moment. She took down the inventory and hurried back to Musqinyar’s waiting car.
One evening a month later, Musqinyar arrived home with a wad of cash and handed it to Heela. She counted it: 8,500 Pakistani rupees — nearly $150. She looked at him.
“Take it,” he said.
Heela knew that she’d be getting paid, but the amount still came as a shock. She handed it back, saying it belonged to him, the man of the house.
He pushed it right back into her hands. “It’s yours,” he said. “You’ve earned it. It’s your right.”
Heela hadn’t gone to work for the money, but, holding the cash in her hand, she felt a gravitas like she’d never experienced. It felt as if she were rediscovering her old self. On those rare occasions when elderly female relatives visited the house, she spoke more knowingly and confidently. She knew that despite their age, they would never understand the world the way that she did or see what she’d seen. “I stopped thinking only about my children and my four walls,” she recalled. “I thought about my village and Afghans everywhere.”
That small room with no windows and a dozen old sewing machines was the sole space where women regularly gathered outside their home anywhere in Khas Uruzgan save the Hazara areas. A girls’ school existed on paper, but only to soothe foreign powers and Western aid agencies, as there was no actual facility. In fact, there had never been a girls’ school in the village. With no jobs waiting for high school graduates, villagers could only see potential ruin in allowing their daughters outside.
Two decades of jihadi war had left purdah with a thick Islamic gloss. So everyone involved in the sewing enterprise took great care to keep the effort under wraps, lest they be accused of abandoning their religion. It took nearly three months for talk to start bubbling up around the district of the strange building where women had been seen entering. Heela took the news as a sort of inevitability, as if freedom, like all things in a world forged by war, was fleeting by its very nature. Yet even after Qudus Khan shut down the center to avoid trouble, she held on to those three months and did not let them go. It occurred to her that she now understood how the sewing business worked better than anyone. Why couldn’t she run a center herself, right in her own home?
Musqinyar did not even need to hear the details of her proposal. “I’ll arrange it with Qudus Khan in the morning,” he said, “and get some machines.”
The following day, under cover of darkness, Musqinyar and Omaid unloaded sewing machines from the car and carried them down to the cellar. In return for the donation, they had agreed to provide dresses for Qudus Khan to sell. The governor would quietly put word out about Heela’s “medical practice.”
On the first day of sewing class in that cramped cellar, fourteen women showed up. They would return once a month, each using her own brand of subterfuge. Nilofar, who might have been seventeen (though no one knew for sure), feigned illness to come. Mina snuck out in the afternoons, when her family was taking its midday nap, dressed in black — the color of the elderly, who were ordinarily allowed to pass without notice. Getting caught would likely have meant death, but she kept coming back. Nazo waited until the men in her house were asleep to cross the fields. At her advanced age she would not have been punished as severely as the others, but then she started bringing her two granddaughters. When her son-in-law discovered the excursions, he was incensed. With some effort, she convinced him that she needed help getting to the doctor.
The class, initially two hours, soon expanded to four. “At first, we didn’t talk about sewing at all,” Heela said, “but instead about how to maintain proper hygiene, how to take care of your house, keep your husband happy, time management, some useful kitchen skills, and so on. These were things I had learned in Kabul, but how could you expect these village women to know about them? I taught them about city life, about the Koran, and then how to sew. I also gave them a primary education, how to write basic things and do basic arithmetic.”
By the sixth month, the students were learning how to operate the machines and measure cloth. Upon graduating, each was granted a table, a ruler, and, to their astonishment, a working sewing machine. This created another set of difficulties, as they had to conspire to sneak the machines into their houses. Eventually the governor awarded the materials to the men of the house, under the guise of a foreign grant. Musqinyar delivered the dresses directly to Qudus Khan, who passed them on to other district officials for sale.
Heela found that she had a way with the students. For women venturing outdoors for the first time, her words came soft and reassuring. Yet they also saw in her a striking model of modernity, bedecked as she was in Kabul’s sartorial splendor: baggy trousers, ankle bells, and a daub of eye shadow. For many, she was the first woman they had ever met who had cast her eyes upon the outside world.
One spring day in 2003, Heela looked up from her machine to see her mother-in-law standing at the top of the stairs.
“Someone is here for you,” she said.
Turning to her students, Heela motioned frantically and they scrambled, noisily pushing their machines into a corner and taking cover behind curtains. She threw on a burqa and went upstairs. Standing glowering at the gate was Jamila, a relative of her husband — a woman “very clever and fat,” as Heela shared later.
“I heard you are working for the infidels.”
Heela’s mouth went dry. “I’m not working for anyone,” she said. “Someone is lying to you.”
“No, the whole village is talking about it. They’re saying that you’re working for the infidels. You better stop it.”
“I’ve done nothing wrong!” Heela exclaimed. “And I have an education. I have a right to work if I want to.”
“No, you don’t,” Jamila shot back. “Keep going on like this, and no one will see a single family member of yours alive.”
Heela canceled classes for the month. But the stoning started anyway. First, rocks rained down on the window and the roof. Then, when her boys left the house, village youths hurled stones at their heads. One month rolled into the next, and the students refused to return to class.
For months Heela had been living in stolen moments, snatched from a social structure that yielded little to women of ambition. In the end, she realized, you surrender that which you have taken — at least in Khas Uruzgan. And for the first time in years, the tug was gone.