A father's love. Some of us are blessed to be nurtured by our fathers from birth. Some of us find this love later in life, from fathers, or from father figures. Some of us spend a lifetime chasing after this mysterious force. Some of us will never know what it's like to mean the world to the man who brought us into the world. I find this is true no matter if you are born in America or Afghanistan or anywhere else on the map.
I work with Afghan women via the Afghan Women's Writing Project (AWWP). Over the last weeks, some of our writers have focused on the themes of love and forgiveness as part of a Fetzer Institute-sponsored writing project. We've only just begun, but it already feels deeply rewarding to focus on these forces so central to peace and happiness, and the women are sharing incredible stories and poems. I've been particularly struck by descriptions of fatherly love. As an outsider, it had been easy for me to make assumptions of how fathers treated their daughters. It had been easy to assume that because one man treats his daughter like cloth, to be bought and sold, as writer Lena once described, that all Afghan fathers are like this.
But clearly this is not the case. Despite conditions and cultural attitudes that many AWWP writers decry as deeply oppressive, many find great love and comfort within their own homes. As Saifora recently wrote: "My family is my world; it is my antidote to all my miseries, hardship, and pain."
When the Taliban ruled, and Lena, then a girl, was forced to wear a burqa outside of the home, she writes of how her father tried to comfort her:
I remember when I wore my burqa and you didn't like it so you bought flowers to put in my hair. I said that the burqa hides the flowers, but you said, "No matter. When you take the burqa off, you will smell the flowers." From "My Father" by Lena
One writer, Zahra A., writes of the difficulty of accepting terrible treatment in society, especially given the respect and love she finds at home:
"I grew up in a family where I was treated the same as my brothers, and sometimes even better. My dad, my hero, always wanted the best things for my siblings and me. But we lived in the north, in Kunduz, in a society that did not accept me. It was hard for me to be a good Afghan girl.
I couldn't follow the rules, such as wearing a burqa, staying home and doing housework, or skipping school because of a party or guests. In the family I was encouraged to be outspoken, but not in public.
At school I was punished for saying what I knew was right." From "Small Reasons Add Up to Becoming a Feminist" by Zahra A.
One writer, Mahbooba, writes movingly of how her grandfather trusted her, and how this fatherly love is not rare in her society:
One day he told me, "I trust you." I said, "Why do you trust me? I am human, I can make mistakes." But he said, "We are human; therefore humans have to make mistakes. But some people make a lot of mistakes and these become sins, but they never accept that and they say "I didn't do this." He said, "You never say these things and you always admit if you have made a mistake and try to do better the next time. Therefore I trust you."
This was a special gift from my grandfather. If all people give this gift to their children the children will be lucky. Yes, we can use a car for ten years or we can use our clothes for a year, but I can use my grandfather's love like a moral compass forever. My grandfather is just one example, but many people in Afghanistan think that no one supports the women and this is not true. My father also helps me in my life. I know he loves me. I respect my family and grandfather because they show me the way to be strong and moral in my life. From "My Grandfather's Gift" by Mahbooba
However, the Afghan women writers do not hesitate to tell the terrible truths, nor to question them. They share their painful emotions. As Lena writes:
When I see a father who loves his daughter, when I see a brother struggle for his sister to earn a scholarship and study abroad, when I see a husband love his wife, I remember you. But when I see a father lock the door of the house to prevent his daughter from going to school, when I see a brother force his sister into marriage, when I see a husband kill his pregnant wife, I hate men. From "My Father" by Lena .
But the love Lena has for her deceased father shines so beautifully in this piece. I will close with this last excerpt:
When I made dinner you came into the kitchen. Your smile was the spice of my cooking. You helped me, but at the table when everybody licked their fingers and said food was so tasty, you replied, "My daughter is the best cook," and you winked at me. You provided me everything I needed. You gave me the gift of Hangama's songs. You bought me a greenish dress and said it was the color of my hopes! During that time, I hardly knew the meaning of need. But when you went to the heavens, I understood the meaning of loss.
I remember how you supported my education; you said only knowledge will recover our sick society! You encouraged me to become a leader who will speak to millions of people and say, "Nobody will give us Afghan women our rights. We must struggle and we must take our rights!" Your words shone like stars in my heart. You bought books for me and taught me to respect myself, love myself as a woman, and never give up, even when life is difficult. You, my angel father, taught me that I'm not only an Afghan woman, I belong to the world. You taught me to respect humanity because we are all created to love and there must be no hate in our hearts." From "My Father" by Lena.
I encourage you to visit the AWWP website and read more of the work by these fantastic, brave, and beautiful Afghan women writers. If you're at all like me, you will have some of your preconceptions of what it means to be an Afghan women, or an Afghan man, blown away.
Note: Some names in this post have been changed to protect of the privacy of those mentioned.