This is a book that readers will find both shocking and inspiring, whether or not they are familiar with the subject matter: the ordinary lives of Afghan women, told in their own words.
Peggy Kelsey is an American activist photographer who has worked and traveled extensively in the Middle East. She has created an unusual format for her book. After photographing and interviewing many Afghan women from all walks of life over the course of several years, she calls the different segments of Gathering Strength her “salon,” where the interviewees are “invited” to come in and chat on various subjects. This device allows her not only to reveal the everyday experience of Middle Eastern women, but also to bring in certain experts--women in the legal professions, for example--who can verify the facts behind some of the extraordinary stories, all in the safety of Kelsey’s “salon.”
Nearly all of the women questioned agreed to be photographed, so we can see their faces as well as read their words. Dispelling the common perception that Afghani women are generally uneducated and kept in cultural ignorance, Kelsey interviewed people like Muzhgan, who sent her a Power Point CV (resume) prior to the interview, and who, as a refugee in Pakistan, has started her own businesses marketing local crafts in the lobbies of international hotels. Muzhgan says she is often indirectly propositioned by the men she has business dealings with, but “I can deal with it because I’ve been groomed in the professional world” through programs like Peace Through Business and USAID’s Afghan Women’s Empowerment.
On the other end of the spectrum from the very sophisticated, some would say “Westernized” Muzhgan, is Z (name and picture withheld) who was interviewed in prison. She told Kelsey that she was raped by the man who wanted to marry her, and was then jailed by testimony of her father. The story is more complicated than it seems, with Z having allegedly been in a sexual relationship, so that if she were to be released, “her only refuge would be her own family, where the chances of an ‘honor killing’ would be very high.” Since adultery or premarital sex is a crime in Islamic countries, women like Z can wind up in prison for an unspecified number of years. Sometimes a woman’s children live with her in prison, but the husband has a legal right to take the children away once they reach a certain age. Though there is some recourse through international human rights agencies, most women endure these and many other abuses because to ask for help is to bring shame on the family and increase the chances of further abuse or even death.
One fascinating chapter in the book involves a “discussion” among several women on the strengths and weaknesses of Islam from a woman’s viewpoint. There is a consensus among these women that “Islam has many good things, but we Muslims don’t implement them.” The Quran, according to these women, teaches people to be kind and peaceful. There is disagreement as to whether headscarves are actually part of Islam. One woman sensibly argues: “I’ve heard that a scarf keeps women from arousing men…why doesn’t Islam ask the man to control himself?” The theme of the domination of Afghan men, their absolute rule over girls and women, repeats itself even in the most liberal recollections. One harrowing account tells of the Taliban rounding people up to watch punishments; in these public demonstrations of power, hands of convicted criminals were cut off and displayed, and one woman was shot in the head.
Kelsey concludes her well-researched collection with the statement that these women do not wish to be “saved” from their culture; they want the right to “reshape their society according to their own vision, in ways that work for them.”
This collection of vignettes will doubtless affect Western women in a powerful way. By humanizing those often considered objects either of distrust or of pity, the author has given us a window into the Islamic Third World, a realm disturbingly dark and perilous for ordinary girls and women. In the light of these facts, the hope and indeed happiness expressed by many of the interviewees is inspirational.