Photo Courtesy of Nadia Hashimi
Nadia Hashimi’s Novels Illuminate Afghanistan’s Dark Chapters With Courageous Women
The Afghan American author, who connects past and present in 'Sparks Like Stars,' writes about trauma as the U.S. withdraws troops from her homeland / BY Nadia Hashimi / July 8th, 2021
At the centre of my stories are gritty, resilient, resourceful, courageous Afghan women. Fereiba shoves her fears aside and makes the treacherous escape from the country with her three children in When the Moon is Low. Shekiba, orphaned, makes her way through a world designed by and for men, and, as a teenage bride, Rahima clamours to reclaim the destiny she believes to be hers in The Pearl That Broke Its Shell. In A House Without Windows, Zeba withers in a prison cell, more capable than culpable. And in my most recent book, Sparks Like Stars, Sitara resurrects herself and becomes a physician capable of healing others.
But where there is light, there is shadow.
These fictional characters are inspired by the light, by the very real Afghan women who have fought for their rights and agency during the time of peace and for their safety in times of war. In the book world, I have found my tribe – readers who gravitate to stories about non-conforming women who construct their own happy endings.
Many of the muses for my writings stand at the forefront of the struggle for Afghanistan’s future. In Afghanistan today, women represent roughly a quarter of the parliament, despite many of them receiving death threats for taking on a public role. Women in journalism challenge political leaders with questions on policy and conflict. Activists continue to cry out for justice and equality even as extremist groups target their counterparts. The liberation of Afghan women from the oppression of the Taliban rallied the global community and provided robust justification for entering Afghanistan.
While I wrote and edited Sparks Like Stars, the United States announced its plan to withdraw the last of the troops from Afghanistan. In preparation, a special envoy from the United States met with the Taliban several times in stately hotels in Qatar, Doha. Without the involvement of the Afghan government, they reached an agreement, a four-page document that contains no mention of women or human rights. It does not insist that the existing constitution of Afghanistan endure, although the United States did agree to facilitate the release of 5,000 Taliban fighters from Afghan prisons.
Since the agreement was signed in February of 2019, violent attacks have increased. Extremists have assassinated women judges and activists, journalists and university students. A recent attack on a girls’ school in the minority Hazara community claimed over 80 lives. Regarding the journeys of these women with a writer’s gaze draws me into shadowy hypotheticals. How would I fare if I stood in their shoes? I think of the students who survived a massacre at Kabul University. I think of the teenager returning to a classroom in a girls’ school devastated by bombs, with flowers across every desk in memory of her fallen classmates. When two female Supreme Court judges were killed one morning, bullets piercing their cars on their way to work, I wonder how their colleagues felt on their way home that afternoon. One activist avowed on a group call that she would not desist, the threats against her life be damned. Another told us that every time a motorcycle rumbles past her home, she wonders if her time has come.
The girls and women of Afghanistan are utterly human and vulnerable to the impact of isolation, poverty, conflict and abuse. More than half of the Afghan population suffers from some type of mental health condition – post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety or depression. There must be space in the narratives about Afghan women for these experiences too, for the woman too afraid to send her daughter to school. Or the teenager who contemplates whether she would rather give up this life than become a young bride. Or the woman who snuffs her own ambition gently before someone else does it violently. The women who identify themselves as victims rather than survivors are equally worthy of grace and our attention.
Sparks Like Stars is the story of Sitara, a fictional girl who loses her family, her best friend, her homeland and a promising future to the 1978 military coup in Kabul. The trauma she’s endured weighs heavily on her even as she resurrects herself in a new country with a new identity. To strangers and the few who are privy to her past, Sitara is polished and brave. But in her private moments, the darkness gnaws at her, nudging her to succumb. She spends a dangerous amount of time alone in her grief.
Writing Sitara was an exploration of psychological wounds and the thorny path toward psychological convalescence. And while Sitara is a singular figure, she also represents a collective experience.
Twenty years after the ousting of the Taliban from Kabul, the world is withdrawing the last of its military presence. The promises of continued humanitarian and logistical support are in danger of drying up amid increasing security concerns. The Taliban are clawing at the door. Left alone with their collective trauma, not all the women of Afghanistan will muster the energy needed to continue the fight for their basic human rights. They exist in the shadows.
The heroine narratives may be appealing and real, but they exist alongside realities of withering spirits and bodies. The stories of resilience can and should be celebrated, but do not absolve nations of their commitments to Afghan women and girls. Uncomfortable as it may be, we should find ways to acknowledge and support the survivors and the victims as the country fights for its future.