As a child, I never rode bicycles or played sports such as gymnastics and karate because it was “not good for girls”. I later understood it was to avoid the risk of breaking my hymen and “losing” my virginity, but I only understood the magnitude of this “loss” when my cousin and best friend got married. She had been abused by a mullah – a religious cleric – as a baby. Her mother was less worried about the trauma caused to her daughter by the abuse than she was about her daughter’s hymen having been broken as a result.
These fears were not misplaced. When my cousin did not bleed on her wedding night, she was sent back to her mother’s home the next morning beaten black and blue. Nobody questioned or blamed the husband.
As I got older, I was always told by my grandmother to avoid wearing tight-fitting clothes that showed my body, and not to put on makeup or leave my hair open (without a burqa), because it would take away from my character. I was not allowed to wax my eyebrows before getting engaged. I grew up in a society where a woman’s worth is her beauty and body, and it is measured in herds of animals, given as a dowry when she is married off.
As Afghan women, our bodies have suffered under fundamentalism, misogyny, violence, patriarchy and US occupation. Today, under Taliban rule, the oppression and violence against women has only worsened. Women wearing nail varnish, high heels or perfume, or leaving their homes without a male companion, or laughing loudly in public, are deemed “immoral”, as are women who venture out of their homes for work or education. Women are paying the price for having dreams because of their bodies; bodies that many people believe are only created to fulfil men’s lust, and therefore have to be covered and hidden, not decorated and revealed.
However, the tide is beginning to change. Afghan women have long felt miserable and ill-fated because of their bodies, as well as guilty about what they are told their bodies do to men. Now, many are beginning to realise that the Taliban burying women’s aspirations beneath a burqa is actually a sign of their weakness. They are fearful of our beauty, strength, resilience and resistance. The brave and glorious protests by women in Afghanistan are proof that we will no longer be silenced. We will continue to fight, resist and rise against fundamentalism, inequality, violence and patriarchy. The Taliban cannot repeat today what they did two decades ago.
I am not ashamed of my body. My body is a symbol of resistance against the forces who want to use it to control me. I will make sure that my daughter also sees her body in this way. Her hymen and virginity will not define her. I will make sure that she rides a bicycle, plays sports and dances freely. She will be proud and courageous. In a society that is exceptionally cruel to women, our bodies will not weigh us down.