The devastating images conjured after the fall of Kabul resonate in women’s hearts around the globe. Afghani women grew up hearing stories of their grandmothers wearing mini-to-knee-length skirts, pumps, and lipstick, and going to school and work in Kabul in the between the 20s and the 60s. Their mothers donned the burqa in the face of the first Taliban reign, and even then were not safe from horrific violence. With U.S. occupation came greater educational and employment opportunities for the daughters; however, the burqas were not, as we know now, thrown away, but packed away, saved, for what these women assumed was the inevitable rise of the next (or original) oppressor. The rise and fall of women’s rights in nation states is clearly reflected on the family level, and has me reviewing how that principle is reflected in my family.
Family lore often revolves around the triumphs and failures of the male line. In my family, there’s Lovell who extended and forgave credit in his general store to desperate families during the Great Depression (and dove into a river to save a dog), and Benjamin Joseph, who thought he accidentally shot and killed his friend as a 10-year-old boy in Montana and so fled to Texas to join the cattle drives (but to his surprise came face to face with that boyhood friend at the dry cleaners in his 80s). As the first woman in the history of my direct family line, as far as I know, to attend (and hopefully graduate!) a master’s program, I frequently reflect on the multitude of women who came before me and repeatedly ask, “Why am I the first?”
Five generations of women in my maternal line are still alive. My nieces, myself, my mother, her mother, and her mother’s mother. My great-grandmother turned 99 in early September of this year. She is the granddaughter of immigrants, grew up during the Great Depression, and was the first woman student body president at her high school in the face of World War II. She was poised for a life of independence and prosperity. Indeed, later in life, she worked at a bank, owned property, and ended up traveling the world with no man to accompany her. But at 18 she married a man who would not only abuse her and her children, but marry another woman and raise a separate family in secret at the other end of his rail line. Although Gran divorced him and the other two men she married who didn’t treat her right (she will tell me even today “don’t marry someone unless he’s crazy about you”), the impact of the abusive men on her children took its toll. Her daughter, my grandmother, attended only one semester of college before my grandfather impregnated her out of wedlock, and in the 60s, that meant a shotgun wedding in a loose wedding gown. Her dreams of entering the National Guard to pay for her university degree faded away at age 18 in the face of a marriage to a man who belittles her even still. Because her mother didn’t attend college, my own mother doubted her ability to successfully navigate university to the point that a neighbor and mentor filled out her college application and scholarship application to prove her wrong. She was 17 when she entered college, graduated with her associates degree, and married my abusive father at 19. Six children and thirty years later, she just got notice from the courthouse that the divorce was finalized this week.
While there are no chests of burqas in a closet in my grandmother’s basement, I cannot help but feel a part of a 100-year cycle. I am haunted by a vision, like pages thumbed rapidly past, from my great-grandmother’s youthful freedom cut short to my own mother’s burgeoning freedom as a grandmother herself, surviving in a tiny studio apartment with an air mattress where my father cannot find her as she has waited over a year for the divorce to finalize. Needless to say, it has been a cycle of effort and crashing early in the lives of the women of my family–and while they are wonderful women who have made the best of what they faced in life, I look seriously at my trajectory in life for any indication of the “downward” slope. I have travelled and lived abroad, graduated with my bachelor’s degree, and am in the middle of my master’s degree. I am the first in generations not to marry in my teens, and my husband is a kind, equal partner. And yet, I cannot let go of a heightened awareness of how quickly things can change, and planning my life “just in case.”
My history holds no candle to what the Afghan women and their families have endured in the last century.
“Afghan women had the right to vote in 1919, with gendered segregation abolished in the 1950s. By the 1960s a new constitution [that women helped write!] allowed for women in politics. It was during the 1970s onwards, as turmoil in the region grew, that women’s rights were curtailed. And then came the Taliban’s rule from 1996 to 2001, which effectively annihilated female progression. By 1998, the military group had not only taken control of 90 per cent of Afghanistan but also stolen control of women’s basic rights, freedoms and autonomy.”
Let me be clear. I live a life of privilege. There are not and have never been formal armies of men enforcing oppressive codes of conduct, dress, opportunities, and mobility outside my home, in my community. My family didn’t spend 20 years in an actual war zone. My country has not been occupied for two decades in my lifetime. I have not been abandoned by an invading government who promised to protect me in the face of national conflict.
But in 1920 our great-grandmothers were full of hope. In the 1960s our grandmothers saw a horizon with even greater opportunity, but it was snatched from them and exchanged for a life of oppression. Now, as I and my counterparts in Afghanistan face forward, we may see two different futures. The oppression and liberation of women seems so cyclical it’s expected now, so how do we make liberation permanent for us all? Why do I get to look forward to a master’s degree graduation ceremony in mere months while my sisters in Afghanistan look ahead to a life behind a veil?