The Lovers: A News Story

The LoversThe Lovers is a love story. Of course it is. But it’s also a news story. A news story about women’s rights. A news story about what U.S. intervention has and hasn’t done in Afghanistan. And a news story about some of the most backward social customs on earth.

The author, Rod Nordland, is a journalist who at one time was the New York Times Kabul bureau chief. He was on the hunt for a story about an honor killing. Instead he found the story of an Afghani Romeo and Juliet. Zakia and Ali are illiterate peasants from a remote region of Afghanistan where they met when their farming families worked side-by-side in the fields. They had never seen a TV or a personal computer and had never been on the Internet. Zakia is Tajik, a Sunni Muslim. Ali is Hazara, a Shia Muslim.

They are now in hiding from Zakia’s family who are out to kill them. Zakia’s crime: she fell in love with Ali, and at age 18 ran away with him and married him. That, in Afghanistan, is wrong in so many ways. First there’s the ethnic mismatch. Then there’s the fact that Afghani girls and women are generally considered the property of their men, whether it be father or husband, and thus not free to make their own decisions about who they should marry. And last, but sadly not least, ‘what will the neighbors say?’

Nordland quotes Maniztha Naderi, executive director of one of the women’s shelters that at one time protected Zakia, “…most families think this way in Afghanistan. They would rather kill their female family members if they are thought to have committed wrongdoing than lose face in the community.”

During a stop at the Montclair Public Library to promote the book, Nordland suggested that Afghanistan might be the worst place on the planet to be a woman. He compared the status of women in that country to what it was for European women in the 1600’s.

Maybe none of that comes as a surprise, but reading some of the details is nonetheless shocking:

  • “The age at which many girls are married in Afghanistan would be considered criminal sexual abuse in most countries.”
  • “Though a daughter can bring a substantial bride price to their fathers, they are disdained. Many Afghan men don’t even know how many daughters they have.”
  • “It is plausible, and even commonplace, for a father to tie a neka (formally marry) his daughter without her presence.”
  • “Under Afghan penal code even rape was not a crime.”
  • “Baad is a common practice, in which young girls are exchanged to compensate for a marital infidelity, a murder or other transgression, or just to settle a debt.”
  • Another unique Afghan crime is Zina, which is attempted adultery. In some rural areas if a woman is found out on her own she can be apprehended by police and given a virginity test, which determines whether she will be charged with adultery or attempted adultery.

Zakia is not the only Afghan woman hiding from her family. Nordland also reports on the story of Breshna, a 10-year-old girl who was brutally raped by a mullah in a mosque. Breshna was protected in a women’s shelter from a family that threatened to kill her. Ultimately the shelter turned Breshna back over to her family when they vowed not to kill her. So instead they solved their “honor” problem by forcing her to marry her rapist.

Rod Nordlund

Rod Nordland at Montclair Public Library

Where he didn’t get any help was at the American Embassy. Apparently they were concerned about intervening and offending the sensibilities of the government with which they are supposed to be allied. Norland’s comment: “Give me break. We’re not talking here about a woman who wants to put on a miniskirt and dance at the disco – she wants to marry the man she loves and live an Islamic, religious life.”

According to Nordland, the U.S. has made an investment of more than $1.2 billion to promote women’s rights. The shelters that protected Zakia, Breshna and others are largely American financed. Some of our efforts, however, border on the ludicrous. Consider this one:

There was a “$35 million ‘go fly a rule-of-law kite’ program, dreamed up and funded by a United States Agency for International Development contractor. Their idea was to stage a public event at which they would hand out kites, comic books and posters with slogans printed on them touting equal rights for women and respect for the rule of law. Hundreds of kids and some adults showed up. First, no one could read the slogans on the kites and poster, let along the text-heavy comic books. Then handing out the kites went badly awry when policemen systematically stole them from the kids who had come, in order to take them home to their own children, beating some of the kids at the event with sticks when they didn’t cooperate. Finally, gender equality was hard to come by. The few times any girls got their hands on the free kites, their fathers took them away and gave them to their sons instead.”

When you consider that this young couple, whose lives are endangered, cannot get any help from the U.S., despite the large number of private American citizens willing to help and support them, it is totally infuriating to listen to the blowhards and posers who are running for president with the promise that they will ban Muslim immigration. Personally I’d much prefer to welcome Ali and Zakia to my home than Trump or Cruz.

This is a story with no end. Zakia and Ali managed to flee Afghanistan once going to Tajikistan, largely because it was the one place they could go where they could understand the language. Tajikistan is, in Nordland’s words “a country characterized by pimping policemen and roving drug dealers.” So the couple was robbed by police of the donated money they were carrying, Zakia’s jewelry and all of their possessions. And though they were deported and driven to the border, they had a bit of trouble crossing back into Afghanistan due to the border police who were expecting a bribe.

Zakia has given birth while they were on the run. They now have a daughter who Ali maintains will be able to choose her own marital partner. This is a story with no end. As of a month ago when I heard Nordland speak, Ali and Zakia are still in Afghanistan, still in hiding, and still in danger.

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19 Responses to The Lovers: A News Story

  1. Ken, this story makes me weep. I know how far the USA is in our equal rights and yet we are a thousand years, steps, thoughts ahead of Afghanistan. It’s a shock to re-realize that there are places where people haven’t seen a TV/used the Internet…but that just drives home the far more important point that there are women whose basic human rights are not getting the attention and assistance they should.
    And, I’m totally with you on who I would much rather welcome into my home.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Colleen Pizarev says:

    This book is a difficult read, but so well researched and written that it should be on everyone’s book list. It was recommended by a friend several weeks ago, and I read it right away – and never regretted it. I have since recommended it to several other people. The plight of women as chattel in this region is horrific, and the word needs to spread. Thank you, Ken for spotlighting it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Interesting story, Ken. Thanks for sharing. It doesn’t sound like the people who coordinated the awareness event did not really do their research on who may be coming.


  4. This story is a true-to-life (or is it death?) heart-breaker. It underscores the work we humans have to do to bring about a universal humane consciousness in our world. My heart goes out to this young couple who must spend everyday on guard in their own homeland. May they stay safe and may their daughter grow up an independent young lady who learns well from her parents’ bravery to follow their hearts. Thanks for this informative blog. And, your taste in house guests, by the way, I can well appreciate.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Donna Janke says:

    What a sad story. The Lovers sounds like a tough story, but one worth reading and important to be told.


  6. lenie5860 says:

    Ken, I’m going to see if I can get hold of this book. Hearing the news you get the impression that everything is hunky-dory in Afghanistan – that this kind of inhuman practice still goes on is unbelievable. How can you possibly change that kind of thinking? Imagine the nightmare the young 10 year old faced every morning being married to her rapist. It’s all to horrid.


  7. heraldmarty says:

    Tragic indeed, and yet there are so many stories like this, and even worse in the news these days. The problem is that helping individuals such as this couple may feel like the right thing to do, it doesn’t solve the problem, the only way to solve something like this is to change a cultural mindset which is highly unlikely to happen anytime soon.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. What happened to “Romeo & Juliette in Afghanistan” is very comman and is even happening to young refugees in Europe. They are from the Middle East or Central Asia, grew up in Europe, want to be Western and are just taken by their parents to say, an Iraqi village and married off to someone. When they fall in love with a boy or girl from a different tribe or of a different nationality honour crimes start. Some of the girls even become victims of honour killings.


  9. Jane Booth says:

    Thanks for bringing this book to my attention. I intend to buy it today. I knew Rod Nordland from his Phila. Inquirer days — an excellent reporter shining much needed light on the tragic, yet inspiring, story.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Arleen says:

    Yes it is a sad story but it will make them stronger. I do not think their culture will change in our lifetime but one should never give up.


  11. Phoenicia says:

    What a sad state of affairs.

    In this day and age, women should be free to choose their husbands and not be forced to marry by their parents.

    I cannot imagine what it feels like to be born into a family where you have little or no say over your life. It is controlling and takes away the freedom that women all around the world have fought for.

    Thank you for sharing this.


  12. My goodness. I cannot imagine what it is like to be a woman in Afghanistan. I am so very grateful to be a Canadian.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. resultize says:

    Wow, sounds as such an interesting book. Definitely will put it on my to-do list. Thanks for sharing it with us.
    Indeed, details that you mentioned about being a woman there are so scary and shocking


  14. W.A.Rusho says:

    It is ironic, if men are being mistreated, even a minority, we declare it as unfair and oppressive. If it happens to woman,1/2 of a population or more, we look the other way, thinking it is a cultural difference.
    Society will look back at this time in the future, will we be judged as the ones who moved toward equality, or the ones who simply sat by and did nothing.
    thanks for sharing

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Erica says:

    What a difficult story. I can’t imagine being treated like I have absolutely no value due to my gender. I’ve always been such a strong opinionated woman. I rarely stop to think that many women don’t have the privileges I have. I hope that they eventually find a way to safely be together and that by some miracle, there is a happy ending.

    Liked by 2 people

  16. Andy says:

    Those slogans on the kites and posters at the “go fly a rule-of-law kite” program weren’t in English, were they?

    In my fantasy world we would equip Afghan women with martial arts skills or even guns to fend off misbehaving Afghan men. Is that what it would take to change this ugly situation?

    Lastly, what would happen if someone like Bill Gates were to turn his attention to this issue? Would that cause U.S. Government officials to take it more seriously?


  17. Thank you for bringing this book to my attention. I’m adding it to my reading list. Granted, I’ve experienced plenty of sexism in my life but it can no way compare to what this couple is going through.

    Liked by 1 person

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