Review of Batul Moradi’s Ghadf

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I must confess that initially it was a sense of lingering guilt that made me buy Batul Moradi’s book “Ghadf”. I met her seven years ago, standing bruised in front of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, soon after her ex-husband had beaten her up and snatched her six year old son. The commission wouldn’t help so we all went to the police station nearby. I don’t remember what happened there as I left to be home.

Next day I went to Paghman for a picnic, and saw her ex-husband. He looked jolly, chatting with colleagues. The snatched child sat in the car. I had always imagined that in a situation like that I would leap and grab the kid and return him to his mother, or at least say something challenging. But I didn’t, I sat in my car, with my scarf around my head maintaining the air of respectability that my social status required. We had oxtail and spinach stew that day, sitting in the cool breeze of a private Paghman garden, but a sense of guilt and inability to do something made everything taste bitter.

In her book Moradi chronicles her fight in the labyrinth of the Afghan court system. She fights on several fronts, central is her Ghadf case, which intends to clear her name from accusation of adultery and punish her ex-husband for libel. She pushes for DNA test to prove her innocence, a first in Afghan legal history. She fights to keep her children’s custody beyond the 7 years mothers are entitled to under Sharia law. She fights for her mehr and child maintenance. She also attempts to get justice for violence.

The Sharia law rules around divorce, child custody and maintenance favour men and create an environment where misogyny breeds. Moradi is educated, intelligent, saintly patient and has a determined group of family and friends around her, which enable her to fight her cases for years on end. An ordinary Afghan woman has no chance going beyond the first hurdle faced with challenges similar to Moradi’s, be it in Afghan courts or the UK based Sharia courts. Women that fight for Sharia courts to decide on child custody and divorce in the UK must read this book and see how implementation of laws skewed in men’s favour can harm, specially in societies where secular legal system to fall back on does not exist.

As she goes about fighting her cases, Moradi tells stories of every day sexism in the Afghan society, be it street harassment, solicitations at places of work or down right sexual assaults. Her sharp wit make reading these stories tolerable.

Discussing Moradi’s book with other Afghans has highlighted something terribly scary in my community, which is the unconditional support of men and absolute vilification of women. In last seven years, every time Moradi is mentioned in my presence, she is slandered as a whore and a fraud meanwhile her extremely well linked husband is supported as a victim. The support that men give to each other in the Afghan society (beyond class, ethnic and other divides), as they go about supressing women is unconditional. This shows that every Afghan woman is only one unamicable divorce away from going through what Moradi went through.

Despite the subject matter of the book, Moradi doesn’t come across as a victim. She is a complete person, engaging cleverly with world affairs, creating and appreciating art and, most important of all, an amazing mother to her two sons. I laughed out loud reading how she negotiates her identity as an Iranian born Afghan, full of energy, critical of dogma as she brings her sons up in Kabul. Moradi’s voice breaks the dichotomy of Afghan women as either victims or survivors.

Moradi writes beautifully, creating vivid pictures and evoking emotions (I already love her sons), using very few words. This book is one of the best that I have read by Afghan women, or anyone for that matter.

The book is self-published and can be bought at app Kodo.

If you would like to read this book in English please write to me.

Dance to the beats of Qataghan…

One Friday night in Kabul, when I was about five years old, I watched Farhad Darya’s song Dukhtarak e Watan on Rangarang and felt the most intense jealousy towards the little girl that danced in it. Her footwork was decisive, her face was confident and her long hair and swirly dress mesmerised me. I wished nothing more than to be her. Later, in my teens and twenties, I joked that I was her, all the while wondering where she was, if she was married with kids, if she regretted her dance or proudly showed it to her daughters.

My mother would take me to weddings and engagements with her. Everyone said that my mother danced the best out of her five sisters. I remember that she always laughed when she danced. Her dance was slow, she was always on her tiptoes, her wrists coiling and her shoulders softly moving. Her dance was graceful just like her. Sometimes in mixed wedding she would dance with my father and they looked like beautiful birds. I mimicked my mother, dancing around her legs and an old aunty would pull me back.

When I was about thirteen we moved to Mazar e Sharief. I went to lots of weddings in my village in Balkh. There women danced differently, their arms extended longer, their billowing dresses and their large black and red scarves were perfect for their big swirls, and they ducked up and down. They first danced slow to the beat of dayra and then they will go faster and faster until they sweated and sat down laughing. They always want to see my mother’s city dance, she always obliged, as the daughter in law to my father’s family she had to share their happiness after all. She would take the dayra and play a very fast beat – that was the only beat she knew.


Sometimes men’s party next door brought live musicians and women would dance to their qataghani beats. They would send a little boy to request specific songs. And sometimes a battered tape player would be brought out and we would dance to city music. I would dance with other girls, in a group, each of us tried to mimic our mums and aunts. I used to go to school in Mazar. Sometimes my girlfriends and cousins would visit. We would find Bollywood music videos on VHS, fashioning a sari out of scarves and sheets, we would mimic the Indian heroine’s moves for hours, always to be told off to stop.

When my youngest uncle got married, we set up the dusty yard of my great uncle for the party. There was wall that run between the women’s quarter and the men’s. As the party was at full swing, there was a hullabaloo next door in the men’s quarter. My cousin, and best friend at the time, and I climbed up the wall to watch. We saw that the local warlord from my village had arrived with two Jeeps full of guests and he had brought along a troop of musicians and dancers. We remained hidden behind branches of an old tree and watched the show. Two young men danced, they were dressed in women’s clothing. Neither their dance nor their clothing or make up were like the women next door. Their movements were not smooth, they swayed their non-existent hips and pretend breasts suggestively, they would clap their hands in front of them then put them on their shoulders and swung around their stage. Men drooled and threw wads of Dostumi cash on them. Soon my uncle caught us watching and ordered us down and we returned to women’s party and danced our hearts content to my uncle’s wife singing a song addressing the mother of the bride.

When the Taliban took over I moved to London. I was 16 and alone so I never got invited to Afghan wedding and parties. I missed everything Afghanistan so I took to YouTube. I watched videos of Khumari, a renowned prostitute and dancer. She danced obviously under the influence of drugs. Her intense eyes, her chic short fringe, her prominent nose, white straight teeth and her skinny frame left me haunted. When she didn’t dance, she would sing duets with the famous folk singer Biltoon, as she puffed on a cigarette, her charbaitis were the same as the ones I heard in Kabul weddings in the late 80s. One day I want to find out more about Khumari and maybe write her biography.

I saw videos of Laycee Maryam school girls dance their choreographed pieces, singing a Pashtu song in praise of turban wearing Khan Delawar Khan, while their classmates dressed in men’s traditional clothing answered them back calling them Bibi Gul. My favourite two pieces on YouTube are solitary dances by Sitara Herati. They remind me of my mother’s dance the most and these are the dances that I decided to mimic in my bedroom in London when no one invited me to weddings.

I always think about the whereabouts of the women that danced on TV in the 80s. I found that Sitara is alive and living a quite life in Canada, and a star of school girl sketch dances went to haj to repent for her dances. Those that had put these videos on often did so with a sense of nostalgia for the good old days when women could dance on TV. The comments sections of these videos are always full of men cursing these women dancers for insulting Islam and Afghan culture – as if dance is not our culture? They say that women dance to seduce men, but all my life I saw Afghan women dance without male audience and Afghan men dressing up in women’s clothing to seduce each other. 

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After I got married and moved back to Kabul, one night I danced to my old larger than life aunt in law, Khala Setaro, playing dayra. When I was too tired and almost collapsed she kissed my face and called me “sama kheza” – a proper woman. I learnt to accompany my Pashtun in laws in their songs and dayra. I started to watch Naghma’s old videos to learn words to my favourite song “baran ro ro wareda” and the next day sang it with them. I was slowly becoming my mother, I danced and played music with my in laws and my small daughter would pull me onto my legs and mimic me. The circle was complete.

Coming back to the UK, I show my daughter videos of Afghan women dancing on YouTube – I am not a big fan of the Tajiki women dancing as Afghan women though. My daughter is not interested in Setara or Khumari, she is interested in Aryana Sayed. The vivacious, curvy feminist singer. We sit and watch Aryana’s video where she, in her skin tight white dress swaying seductively, created an uproar in now more conservative than ever Afghan society. My daughter’s favourite, however, is Anaram Anaram. When I cook she dances around to it on her tiptoes in the kitchen. And I think, maybe in my next life I will be a dancer or maybe my daughter will be able to become a dancer in her lifetime.


P.S. this post is on the occasion of international dance day.

The Nandara Must Go On

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I was about six years old when I heard someone say the word “nandaray” – it sounded lovely nan-daaa-ray… I imagined it to be a woman wearing a floaty white dress doing a twirling dance. I could only imagine nandara until one day I saw it. By then I was well into my twenties and it was 2009. The nandara, the show, I watched was at the French Cultural Centre in Kabul.

On the stage were Dur Mohammad Keshmi and Mir Maftoon and in the audience were teenaged Kabulis, boys with the shadow of moustache above their lips and girls made up, dressed in tight jeans and long tunics huddled together.

Maftoon and Keshmi were amazing. The rhythm of their music, the almost erotic words of their songs about young, often unrequited, love and their subtle dance moves, Maftoon with his shoulders and Keshmi with his bearded face made us drunk. The boys cheered, whistled and danced, the girls swayed. It was beautiful – it was the first nandara – the very first show I watched. It was magical.

That day I cried. I mourned the loss of the two decades of my life when I couldn’t be part of a show – the twenty years lost to the war, the displacement and the Taliban. I also cried of happiness that, unlike me, the auditorium full of young people could experience the magic of show without waiting for so long. They were so beautiful to watch.

Today, a young man blew up the same auditorium. Early on people said that the bomber sat in the audience, watched the play and then blew himself up. I couldn’t believe it. How could someone watch a play – be part of a nandaray – and still decide to end his life? Why did he do this and why a show? Why kill magic and beauty?

I am now wondering what (else) can we do to change things for good? Should we be more careful of our security and build our fort walls higher? Should we run around telling the world that YES Afghanistan has hit iceberg but isn’t sinking? Should we fight the “experts” on Afghanistan who claim that we are a naive, corrupt and insignificant minority in Afghanistan and strong majority, the religion and the tribe is on the side of the bomber? Should we pull Ghani from his collar, look him in the eye and tell him that he must fight and not embrace the enemy? Should we create a mural, light candles, place flowers, should we invent a new language, should we break the Internet??? What should we do? What can we do?

One thing that I know we should do is to make sure that the nandaray goes on. We must make sure that everyone in this country gets hooked on a magical show. And we need to make sure that this show is a good one; with excellent loud music, beautiful colours and lights, with poems that pulls on heartstrings, with intoxicating dance. Maybe one person will watch the nandaray, see the beauty and decide to live on and not die and kill.

Gang Rape in Paghman – A Case of Men Raping Other Men by Proxy

Paghman Gang Rape

In the early hours of the 23rd of August a group of men gang raped a group of women in Paghman, a town near Kabul. Uncharacteristic for Afghanistan’s justice system, the perpetrators were tried, found guilty and hanged very swiftly; within weeks of the crime. On the surface, the case appears to be a triumph for Afghan women’s rights lobby that has historically called for rapid and harsh punishment in cases of violence against women.

However, when dug deeper it becomes obvious that the reason why this case was resolved so quickly was nothing to do with justice per se, the reason, instead, was the case’s coincidental conformity to the male ideals of rape in Afghanistan, where an honourable woman, while being protected by her menfolk, is attacked and raped by strangers who are objectively bad. The victim then reacts in the correct way by hiding in shame, shows rage while keeping her modesty and through killing herself to show that she is nothing without her virginity.

Unlike this black and white case, other cases of violence against women with grey areas such as those involving non-conformist female victims, perpetrators that cannot automatically and objectively be categorised as “evil” or “bad” and crimes which take place within traditionally safe settings such as homes, remain unresolved by the justice system.

The victims in Paghman case were viewed as honourable women, one was an older mother, another a virgin girl and one a pregnant wife. Their identities, as expected in Afghanistan, were tied to their male relatives. The crimes against them were crimes against the honour of their male relatives.

Contrast this with cases where non-conformist women of Shaima Rezayee who was the outlandish presenter of popular TV program and was shot dead in Kabul in 2005 and the recent killing of the journalist Palwasha Tokhi. These women had their own identities that separated them from their male relatives; they were professional women that did not conform. In these cases, swift resolution and justice has not materialised.

In Afghanistan to be able to access justice, women must resolve to simply being an extension of their male relatives’ honour. When a woman deviates from this and creates her own identity, any crimes against her become justifiable. The civil society has historically been unable to do anything about it and the society in general have maintained this system.

Cases of violence against women, specially rape, where the perpetrators are men that cannot be objectively labelled as “bad” also fall in the limbo of long court cases, enjoy little serious and unified backing from the civil society and suffer from unfavourable public opinion.

This is evident in the case of 17year old Shiba who was repeatedly raped by her own father in the presence of her 9 siblings. While many have disputed the authenticity of Shiba’s case, amongst those that believe in it, the opinion is divided. Some people, when discussing the case in social media, have blamed the victim either for falsely accusing her father of rape to hide her own sexual deviance or of seducing her father. Others see this case as real and have called for justice. These calls for justice are weak and have fallen on deaf ears of those in authority that cannot be seen to acknowledge that fathers can rape daughters.

How women react to sexual abuse is also an important factor. In the case of the Paghman rapes the women behaved as expected of honourable women, they were embarrassed, enraged but modest. One killed herself. In another case, a father raped his own daughter resulting in several pregnancies and abortions. The girl decided to speak out in the media. She chose not to cower in shame. Many in social media asked her to kill herself instead of speaking out.

Location of rape is important too. There are certain places that are always viewed a secure and safe for women such as home. When rapes happen in these places then the blame lie on women who are accused, effectively, of lying about rape, of bringing the rapist into the safety of their homes or of seducing men within the home into comitting rape. I was once witness to the ordeal of a young woman who was raped by a street seller who had entered her home and raped her in the outside toilet in the yard. The woman was accused of having bad character and of inviting the rapist in. The arrangement of her marriage broke down and she was left homeless.

When the civil society wants to lobby and advocate a resolution of these grey cases, they end up fighting battles on three fronts. The first front is the simple fight for the rights of the victims through lobbying the formal justice system. The second fight is a fight against the public opinion, which in these grey cases often rest on victim blaming. And the third fight is a fight to maintain their own legitimacy within the Afghan society as they are often branded as corrupt and reliant on Western money and corruption of the weak minded such as the young and the female, which in turn causes rapes. The civil society, being a collective of NGOs mainly with little actual ideals driven activism, has failed to work on changing people’s views on these issues or projecting a more wholesome image of themselves.

In the case of Paghman rapes, for the first time, the general public shared their views with the civil society. They, together, pushed for the harshest punishment, which the rapists received. The few anti death penalty and those concerned with possible miscarriage of justice drawn in the hysterical roar of the majority that wanted and got the hanging of the culprits.

The execution of the offenders in the Paghman case has killed five men that had raped other men by proxy – through raping women that were treated as an extension of the honour of the other men. The women victims in this case, and all other rape cases in Afghanistan, are yet to be vindicated. Justice will be achieved once the civil society and the good people of Afghanistan come together and be vocal about the fact that women, both rural and urban, professional and housewives, are raped on the streets and in homes in Afghanistan, by strangers and by relatives. They should make it clear that a woman that is raped is never to be blamed, that women do not need to die after rape, that no one, when accused of rape, is above the law by virtue of social and familial status.