Heroic Normalcy

As I sat in the courtyard of my guesthouse in Kabul Thursday morning waiting to be picked up, I heard a car bomb explode off in the far distance. Of course, I didn't know it at the time. I blithely wondered, "Was that a bomb? No, don't be silly," and thought nothing more of it.

I was on my way to visit the Halfway House program run by Women for Afghan Women (WAW), a transitional housing program for women who have nowhere else to go after they have left the emergency shelter -- they can't return to their homes or would be killed, they have no family to claim them, and they can't live independently. They effectively have no other option but to live at the WAW Halfway House indefinitely.

The abuse that some of them have suffered is horrendous. One woman had acid thrown on her face, another had her cheek slit open, and another is crippled after being shot in the back. Yet another young woman had been badly tortured, no only by not just her husband, but his whole family; they had kept her prisoner in the basement of their house, prostituting her out to other men, and ripping out her fingernails when she didn't comply with their demands.

Not all of the women experienced abuse this severe, but they all face uncertain futures.

When I spoke to the women, however, what they expressed were themes that are very familiar to me after having worked with survivors of violence for more than 20 years. They said they are grateful to have a safe place to live, and the opportunity to study and pursue work. They told me that they want people to know that they are just like other women, that they aren't broken or bad.

And they want to make sure that women's rights are protected, so that other women don't have to go through what they have gone through.

It occurred to me that the nature of survivors' basic needs and wants don't vary much, at least not those of the women in this program and of the ones who live at DASH, the housing program that I run in Washington, DC -- that is, to live free from violence so they can lead their lives. The scale of the challenges is a different matter, though.

The Halfway House program at Women for Afghan Women in Kabul is exceptional in its ability to serve these women, whose staff comprise more than just your average shelter contingent of counselors, case managers and administrators. Theirs is also complemented by a physician, live-in caretakers and 24-hour armed security, all of which seems necessary to house the many victims who face overwhelming challenges due to the violence they've experienced.

When I spoke with the staff about the effect that dealing with that level of abuse on a daily basis has on them, they seemed confused by the question. They fight, they told me, because it is necessary. I suggested that maybe it gets tiring to have to fight that much all the time; for example, I sometimes feel fatigued and frustrated by my own work and wondered if they feel the same, to which one young woman replied, "You are born in your country. You know the challenges and the facilities, and you do what you have to do."

Upon returning to the guesthouse, I learned of the details of the deadly car bomb attack and was struck by how little disruption it had caused in traffic on the way to the site visit or among the people I met with. It appears that, unfortunately, the people here have become accustomed to these sorts of things. People are adaptive that way, for better or worse.

But the advocates at WAW are refusing to adapt to the violence around them passively. They are working as hard as they can to meet the need. But the challenges to ensuring women's rights and safety in this country are daunting. And their facilities - their capabilities as well as their housing - are extraordinary, even if they don't think so. But then, these are the same people who are relatively unfazed by a car bomb.