By Behzad Sadiq
A story of a Kandahari girl who was lost in her own city, rejected by her own family, and later saved by a stranger. Together they tell this story.
It was a hot summer’s day when Farzana’s family travelled west from Kandahar province in Afghanistan’s south to the neighboring Helmand province to attend the wedding of a relative.
Farzana was excited. Travel was not something the 13-year-old did often. And a wedding was a big deal.
Two days before the ceremony, after they had arrived in Helmand, Farzana went with her mother and three other female relatives to buy dresses in Helmand’s provincial capital Lashkargah.
It was 2017 and the Taliban had not yet come to power. Farzana’s family lived by the Pashtun cultural norms of their tribe, but the Taliban’s strict ban on women travelling long distances without a male chaperone was not yet enforced.
The hustle and bustle of Lashkargah’s market was fascinating to Farzana. But her wonder would quickly turn to worry after she lost sight of her mother.
Farzana frantically searched among the stalls and carts and crowds of the market, but to no avail. She could not find her or any of the relatives she travelled with.
She imagined her mother looking for her up and down the markets too and then searching wider into the city for any sign of her. But she’ll never know if that happened. She’ll also never know what was the turning point when her family gave up and denied she ever existed.
After some hours wandering the streets, Farzana’s distraught face caught the eye of an older woman. Amid her tears, Farzana explained her predicament and how she had no idea where her family was staying.
The 50-year-old woman offered to help her search. But as night closed in and no familiar faces emerged, the woman who Farzana calls “Khala” or aunt, took her back to her home.
The next day, the woman took Farzana back to Lashkargah city. But there was still no news of Farzana’s relatives or of anyone looking for a girl. The woman decided to bring Farzana home to Kandahar province in the hope Farzana would find her way or someone would know her.
But Farzana was equally lost in Kandahar city. She had rarely been out of the family home, much less navigated streets herself. That is typical for a girl her age in Afghanistan’s Pashtun south.
The only thing Farzana had was the name of the area where she lived, “Loy Wala”. But it was not enough. Finally, Khala went to a local radio station to send out a news report that Farzana was missing from her family.
That day, Usman, 30, was the local radio station reporter who read out the announcement on the airwaves about the girl who had lost her family. Now all they could do was wait.
Khala left Farzana at the radio station to return to Helmand.
But no one contacted the station. No one came for Farzana.
“It was about five in the evening,” Usman recalled. “Colleagues in the office said that we should hand the girl over to the security department or the human rights office so that they can find her family. I knew one of the officials of the Women’s Human Rights Department, so I called them. They said to take the girl to the police and they will help her find her family.”
But Usman’s gut told him it wasn’t safe.
“I knew the situation well at the police headquarters, I preferred not to hand over this girl who was completely alone to them,” he said. “I decided to take Farzana to my house until her family is found.”
So Farzana returned home with Usman who introduced her to his wife.
“I decided the next day I would talk to the department of women’s affairs again. After that, they sent someone to our house to talk to the girl so that maybe they could find an address about her family.”
It would be two months before the department finally landed on a concrete connection to Farina’s family.
“When we got out of the car in front of Farzana’s house with the women’s affairs representative, the children who were playing in the street noticed Farzana and called out, “Tashtedale biya rale” which means, The fugitive has returned home,” Usman said.
It was a warning of what was to come. After Farzana confirmed it was her house, the three of them approached to enter.
Farzana’s mother and two sisters-in-law were inside.
“We told them, We found your missing daughter! But the women denied knowing Farzana. They said that no one from our family is missing and we do not know this girl,” Usman said.
Even intervention from the ‘Lovale’ district police chief that day did not help – Farzana’s family would not accept her.
“The commander of the mosque, who was also my friend, brought two officers with me to go to Farzana’s house. But again, everyone denied her existence as a member of the family,” Usman said.
He was familiar with some of the more strict interpretations of shame around women in Pashtun culture, even for girls as young as Farzana.
“I came to the conclusion that if we hand Farzana over to that family by force, they might make trouble for her and she might die,” Usman said.
“After that situation, it was clear to us that her family thought Farzana had run away. To remove this disgrace from the family, they had to deny Farzana.”
Usman took Farzana in as one of his sisters and she returned with him to live with his family.
Now 19 years old, Farzana is formally part of Usman’s family after she married one of his relatives.
“She was married three years ago and has two children,” Usman said.
He is happy to have supported Farzana, but her family’s rejection of her speaks to a bitter reality in his culture – a pessimistic and controlling patriarchal view of women that often renders female victims ‘guilty’ if they don’t abide by strict norms.
It’s a view of women that is deepening and spreading further with the Taliban’s imposition of extreme restrictions on all Afghan women.
*Names have been changed for privacy reasons.