Mazar-e-Sharif Suicides: Poisonous Freedom for Afghan Women

Zarghana's groom was her stepbrother. "I was allowed to keep going to the school only because I fought for it," she says. One day, her husband disappeared, leaving her alone with their seven children. Over the past two years, he has only shown up sporadically. Zarghana has lost her job and her source of income. She wants a divorce, but her father forbids it.

When Zarghana speaks, she sometimes starts to shake so much that her teeth clatter. Her youngest daughter, merely 2 years old, is crouching in a corner. Zarghana's cries for help have faded away unheard. Her broken body keeps dragging her further down into a spiral of self-destruction and depression. The prospect of a happy life has slipped away from her.

Then the meeting is suddenly adjourned when several men show up at the gate to the garden. They demand that the journalists leave, saying there's nothing to see here.

Reversing Progress Made Since 2001

For so many Afghan women, and for some men as well, it is the deep contradictions that wear down their will to keep living. Their society's conservatism insists on controlling everything, right down to the most intimate details. But the urban middle class has come to know other ways of living, even in its own country.

There's Malalai Joya, the activist and former politician who demands that the warlords and heads of the drug cartels be prosecuted; there's Elaha Soroor, the singer who appeared on the TV show "Afghan Star" and keeps making music despite all the death threats; and there's Khatool Mohammadzai, the only female general in the Afghan army. All of them represent the seemingly impossible: freedom and resistance to tradition.

When Western forces invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and ended Taliban rule, conditions started improving for Afghan women. For example, girls could go to school again, and women and men became equals in the eyes of the law. But now there are more and more indications that such progress might be reversed.

Over the past year, the number of women arrested and imprisoned for "moral crimes" has skyrocketed. In May, the parliament in Kabul opted not to pass proposed legislation outlawing violence against women; instead, representatives are now considering an amendment that would prohibit relatives from appearing as witnesses in trials, thereby making it significantly harder to prosecute cases of domestic violence. And the quota for women in provincial councils was recently reduced from 25 to 20 percent.

What's more, the Taliban are regaining some of their military and political power. Human rights experts are concerned that the West, as well as the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, might be willing to sacrifice women's rights in order to reach a compromise with the Islamists.

Should that happen, cases like the double suicide of the Gul sisters in Mazar-e-Sharif might no longer be an exception.

Grief upon Grief

Marzia Gul, their mother, is standing in her garden. "This is where I found Nabila," she says. "She kissed my hand and said she was sorry." At the hospital, Nabila was screaming in pain and shouting that she regretted everything. Relatives came to visit; her father and mother were sitting by her side, holding her hands and crying. Two hours later, Nabila was dead. Her father broke down, and the doctor gave him a sedative.

Nabila's body was brought to her parents' home in a wooden coffin. Her family was in mourning, praying and singing. Shortly after, her mother noticed that Fareba left the house wearing a burqa. "I thought she wanted to go out and tell the others," she says.

Instead, Fareba went to the Blue Mosque. When she didn't return home that night, her mother telephoned some relatives. "Fareba is in the hospital," they told her. "She is doing well."

Marzia spent the night next to her daughter's coffin, crying and kissing the wood. In the morning, she went to the hospital. There, she was told that Fareba was "already home."

When Marzia returned to the house, she found two wooden coffins lying side by side.

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