OFF THE SHELF: ZOYA'S STORY: AN AFGHAN WOMAN'S STRUGGLE FOR FREEDOM

Posted by CODEPINK Staff


Zoya's Story: An Afghan Woman's Struggle for Freedom by Zoya with Rita Cristofari & John Follain (HarperCollins, 2002).

Zoya's gripping memoir opens with her donning the burqa in stifling heat to cross the border at a Taliban checkpoint, returning to Afghanistan after five years as a refugee in Pakistan. She is smuggling RAWA literature documenting atrocities committed by Taliban militants, and will surely die if this is discovered. But as a woman, her burqa and a decoy male relative are the only passports required. The screen chafes her eyelids, and she can see neither ground nor sky. A fitting introduction to the woman called Zoya, pillar of the Jamiat-e Inqalabi Zanan-e Afghanistan (Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, or RAWA).

No amount of covering can dim the feisty spirit of a girl who lost both parents to the struggle when she was only 14 years old. Fleeing with her grandmother to the relative safety of Pakistan ended an unusual childhood, one in which Zoya was both protected by being educated and kept largely at home, but endangered by accompanying her mother as she did the work of RAWA in Kabul. Zoya often carried the literature her mother distributed, as it was safer entrusted to a child who would not likely be searched. She visited women and heard firsthand their accounts of abuse and oppression. Her father did his own work of resistance, respecting his wife's independence and commitment to helping women. Zoya grew up as a strong willed girl, uniquely prepared to carry on her mother's work, and in the end received her secondary education in a school run by RAWA in Peshawar.

Continuing the work of RAWA is primarily empowering women to draw on their inner reserves of strength and wisdom, and work together. Education is the cornerstone of this effort. In a region where the literacy rate -- especially for women -- is dismally low, the luck few who receive an education as girls are inspired to share with adult learners. The immense power of this key skill threatens warlords and fundamentalists who aim to keep women ignorant and cloistered in the home. Oppressors sense that an educated woman is a formidable opponent. The film View From a Grain of Sand (Eclesis Films, 2006) documents some of these ongoing education efforts, and is a good companion to this book.

Zoya's memoir naturally calls to mind another book, the biography Meena: Heroine of Afghanistan, about the woman who founded RAWA in 1977. Both stories chronicle the courage needed to organize under the veil of oppression, and the need for frequent, dangerous border crossings such as the one that begins Zoya's account. But these are women of different generations, struggling against the Soviet empire or the American empire and the warlords they fund. Author Melody Ermachild Chavis holds Meena in high esteem, and rightly so, making Meena's story more historical and the tone more reverent. Zoya tells her own tale, with the help of co-authors, and the voice that emerges is gritty and spirited. Her immediacy is energizing, helping the reader to understand that Zoya and her allies stand on the shoulders of pioneers like Meena who established RAWA to struggle for women's freedom. Zoya says she decided at 14, “I would not avenge [my parents] with a Kalashnikov but by fighting for the same cause Mother had fought for.”

For details on this fall's East coast speaking tours by Zoya and former Afghan MP Malalai Joya, or to contribute to RAWA efforts, visit the Afghan Women's Mission. Co-founded by tireless advocate for Afghan women and girls, Sonali Kolhatkar, it may be found at AfghanWomensMission.org.

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