Monday, July 21, 2014

Behind the Burqa by Sulima and Hala

Behind the Burqa
Our Life in Afghanistan and How We Escaped to Freedom
by Sulima and Hala
as told to Batya Swift Yasgur
5 stars - a very important book
ALR Green

Behind the Burqa is the story of two sisters, Sulima and Hala, their lives in Afghanistan, and their eventually escape to the United States. While sisters, they are separated by 16 years and so each tells a very different, but equally horrifying, story.

Sulima was born in the fifties into an Afghanistan that was different from that which we hear about today. She went to school, she was encouraged to have her own opinions and, for the most part, had a good life. That is, until, her father had a religious conversion to extreme Islam. Despite her father's clamp down on her freedom, she persisted in her quest to bring equality to women. Primarily to teach them to read so that they could have some opportunities. 

But things get pretty bad for Sulima, particularly after her father's death and the creeping extremism in her country. She finally flees, only to scrape and suffer and live in fear.

It's hard to read. However, Sulima's experience, as horrible and unimaginable as it is, pales compared to Hala's. Hala is in Afghanistan during the rise of the Mujaheddin. A time when women were robbed of every possible freedom and treated like animals. Men suffered grievously as well. As the Mujaheddin rose in power, they sought to eradicate all free thought which meant any man who was a scholar or a government employee was a target. 

Hala and her family are repeatedly forced to flee their home. They live in constant fear of being kidnapped, raped, murdered. Hala witnesses unspeakable occurrences.

When Hala finally makes her way to the US, she is confronted by an asylum seeker process that is so harsh it made me weep. While I understand the desire of the US government to vet people seeking asylum, the system appears to be quite arbitrary and frightening. 

The book left me feeling angry and helpless. Luckily, the appendix contains a list of resources that provide aid to Afghan women specifically, as well as asylum seekers in general.

And it also left me with a simple thought. One that I have lived with all my life. That so much violence against women occurs for no other reason than men are physically more powerful. Would that I could wave a wand and take away superior physical strength from men, at least for a time. Without the aid of the fist, the strength to overwhelm, could men continue to subjugate women the way they do? 

This is an important book to read. Not only is it a stark reminder of the desperate conditions so many live with, it is also a reminder to be accepting of strangers to our country who have come here to find a better life.


  1. It definitely sounds like a powerful read!

  2. This kind of book is really sobering. I'll have to look for it.