What does it mean to be a woman?

Torn apart by over 30 years of war, bereft of even the most fundamental human rights; political lies and an anguished silence continue to hover over Afghanistan’s future.

Maybe I am too emotional, too fearful of not being up to the task but, when I see her, I greet her with a whisper, even though inside all I want to do is give her a bear hug.


Selay Ghaffar – long, black hair falling around her shoulders and shining like a gemstone – holds a rucksack sporting a floral pattern in one hand and is 6-months pregnant. She is a woman. She is Afghan. She is the spokesperson of Hambastagi, the ‘Solidarity Party of Afghanistan’. She is hope made flesh for many, many women who every day, every blasted minute, day and night, are subject to violence and suffer from the total absence of the most fundamental human rights in Afghanistan.


You can feel the air charged with emotion as she talks to an audience of approximately 40 people: Selay tells us about her country, Afghanistan, and of how for over 30 years it has been the playground of the world’s big powers when waging wars. Since 2001 to date, it has transformed from a playground into a graveyard filled of innocent civilians, lives taken due to the constant attacks, constant bombings, constant missiles launched from afar and not that far at all; wars between ethnic groups promoted by the most powerful warlords, supported by the United States of America and NATO allies because the more unstable their country is, the more these big liars can do what they want to it. They can pull the virtually invisible strings of their sham governments. They can refute blame and responsibility, as though we were at kindergarten, ‘It wasn’t me!’ when yes, it was them: they continue inflicting deep wounds, twisting the knife in the wound, shredding even a glimmer of hope for peace into pieces. When Iran and the United States quarrel, the battlefield is Afghanistan. When Russia and the United States vie for power, the battlefield is Afghanistan. When tension rises between the United States and China, the American bases are in Afghanistan, ready to show their self-declared global supremacy: ‘Watch out! I am here, on the doorstep of your front door and at one foot out of line, I will be ready to attack.’


Selay belongs to the ‘war-generation’, a generation of Afghans which was born during war and for all their life has known nothing other than war. The daughter of activists, as a child they would already talk about political issues and values sat around the table: freedom, rights, emancipation. She says, ‘that is what normal looked like to me.’ She was a refugee in Pakistan and Iran, came back home. ‘I felt our country needed us.’ When she talks to me, she looks me straight in the eye: her eyes are as dark as the night, possessing a strength difficult to explain. She possesses a strong and robust shield, is reserved, sometimes shy but if you take the responsibility of wanting to understand what is behind it, you will discover a deep love for life. Courage. So deep, so sure, so uncompromising it will leave you speechless.

Now she is speaking about the peace dialogues with the Taliban, the most criminal group among them all, perpetrators of terrorist attacks: thousands of lives were lost because of them, and to this very day suicide attacks and violence continue. There can be no peace without justice. There can be no peace until the invader leaves.


‘Where do you live?’, ‘Kabul’. Her five-year old son is at home, with her husband, who fully supports her. When she talks of her family, you understand they are the people who give her strength, they are the people close to her, who believe in her. ‘They help me a lot’, she tells us. Feminism means defending female values; in Europe there is a concept of emancipation which, apparently, wants to give them up. ‘Being a feminist does not mean giving up being a woman, quite the opposite; it means being conscious of what it means to be a woman, increasing its value, being faithful to it, being coherent and proud of being who we are. Women bear life, they give live. That is not a weakness, it is a strength.’ She says it with a pinch of wonder, confronted with the absence of values used in the western world to tackle the matter of female rights. What does it mean to be a woman? When fundamental rights seem to be a given, what happens is we do not ask the more important questions: the risk of this behaviour it that of losing oneself, losing respect for people, women, men, and children. And I come to this realisation when I listen to the direct words of Selay, at times harsh, bursting with pathos and emotion. ‘Women in Afghanistan are treated worse than an animal. Raping a woman becomes normal, and abuse is the least bad thing that can happen to you; 8-year-old girls are forced into marriage to write off a family’s debt, as though they were even worse than worthless objects to pawn off.’ They cut off a woman’s nose, ears, for having left home without the approval of a male relative. Women are stoned for making love. They give birth at the age of 12 and do not know which of the men who enter and leave the house every day, raping them every day to make their husband rich, is the father of their child.


Girls’ schools continue to be bombed. According to the HRW ‘World Report’, in 2018 60% of Afghan girls did not go to school. Female literacy in Afghanistan is at 16%, probably even less. Robbed of any way of defending themselves, under the shadow of a burqa. The only hope of freedom turns into that very same burqa, the blue textile soaked in fuel and lit on fire. Thousands of women continue to immolate themselves looking for freedom. When the way out from constant violence becomes self-inflicted violence, to finally end hell on earth.


The good news is that there are many brave women the likes of Selay. There are just as many brave men who support them and believe in the human rights of solidarity, respect, and love. The good news is that there is strength in numbers, and that the trust in a better and free Afghanistan continues: it will not disappear, for it is resilient.

Thank you Selay, and thank you to everyone, male or female, who does not accept this situation, and is filled with indignation at the mere idea, and who will continue fighting for women’s rights in Afghanistan and the world.


*Selay Ghaffar was a guest of honour at the Costa Family Foundation’s charity evening in Corvara. The Costa Family Foundation supports female empowerment projects in Afghanistan together with RAWA.

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