Book review - Dear Zari: Hidden Stories from Women of Afghanistan, ByZarghuna Kargar

In recent years, the lot of many Afghan women has improved considerably, but their repression continues unabated in certain parts of the country. Arranged marriages are still the norm and many women are denied a basic education.

As Zarghuna Kargar notes in her absorbing collection of life stories: "Cultural roots run deep in Afghanistan and many people believe in them completely, often more than they do in Islamic faith."

The stories are drawn from the radio programme Afghan Women's Hour, produced by Kargar from 2004 to 2010, and they cover such controversial issues as the "exchange" and sale of child brides, rape, honour and virginity, and the pressures on women to produce a son. Some of the most poignant stories are those of the widows and divorced women, who find themselves shunned by their own families: "Becoming a widow in a traditional society like Afghanistan means you lose the right to talk freely, you lose the right to put on make-up and dress up."

In certain parts of Afghanistan, women are not allowed to work outside the home, so they become carpet weavers. Samira's story describes how their babies are sedated with opium to allow the women to concentrate on their work.

One of the most heartbreaking stories is Wazma's account of the disintegration of what had been a happy marriage after she loses a leg in a rocket attack. She discovers that her husband no longer wants her when he realises she is permanently disabled, claiming she is unfit to look after their daughter.

Kargar's family was forced to leave Kabul during the civil war and interwoven throughout the book are reflections on her own experiences: the childhood trauma of living though conflict (after witnessing a school friend's death, Kargar was given electroconvulsive therapy for depression); life as a refugee in Pakistan and Britain; and an unhappy arranged marriage followed by a painful divorce.

All the stories in Dear Zari illustrate the suffering caused by deeply ingrained Afghan traditions. Although women now have a voice – there are more than 60 female members of parliament – boys continue to be valued more than girls, parents still force their daughters into marriages, and most women remain dependent on the men in their family. But their bravery and resilience shines though and Kargar touchingly reveals how hearing others' life stories finally gave her the courage to share her own.

Originally published in the Sunday Independent  8 May 2011