On top of a hill in Kabul’s southeast is a unique community. It is locally known as Zanabad (“Women’s Town”) and has survived all turmoil of the last decades. A group of widows started building homes there for themselves as far back as the 1990s. Initially, the people of the neighbouring communities looked down on the women, who broke taboos by living alone and building their own village, but they have come to respect them. The story of Zanabad is a story about the challenges that Afghan widows face, but more so it is a story about women’s ability to overcome these challenges. In a country where women are usually reported on as victims, AAN’s Naheed Esar – who used to worked in Zanabad as a research assistant focusing on the ethnography of everyday lives of widows and who has visited again this year – wanted to share a different story.Bibikoh - the grandmother from the hill. Widowed twice, thrown out of her home. In Zanabad, she built herself a new existence. The photo shows her with grandchildren. Photo: Naheed Esar
When I visited the widows on the hill for the first time back in 2007, one of them welcomed me to her house. 12 women were seated on her mud floor, learning how to read and write. They were using a well-illustrated grade one textbook. My host, Bibikoh, had organised the literacy course herself. She also had found the teacher, Zarghuna, who additionally taught them basic health care, based on a book called Where There Is No Doctor. The book, provided by an NGO, Care International, was in English, but Zarghuna used the pictures and translated the text for her students.
The house was on the top of a stony and rather steep hill in Kart-e Naw, a large settlement in Kabul’s southeast. Kart-e Naw means “new quarter,” because it was built by Afghans displaced during the 1980s wars who were looking for a new place to settle. When it rained, the steep roads became very slippery, and as the area then still lacked water and electricity, the widows had to carry buckets or pots of water from the formal settlements below, at the foot of the hill. Bibikoh’s house was small, with two rooms only – one for living and one for guests, with no separate kitchen – and the toilet was still under construction. The women sat in the guest room and talked about their weekly classes and how they were building their houses, in fact their community, with their own hands. The community became known as Zanabad – “Women’s Town” or also “Built by Women.”
None of the widows or any the authorities in the area recall when exactly Zanabad came into being or the women who established it. It seems to have happened during the political chaos in the early 1990s, after the fall of President Najibullah’s government in 1992. The war of the 1980s and the following wars produced an enormous number of widows. According to Beyond 9/11, a US-based non-profit group that provides direct financial support to Afghan widows and their children, Afghanistan had around 1.5 million widows in 2008, of which 50,000 to 70,000 live in the capital, Kabul. Official data on the current number of widows in the country does not exist, but both Care (in a phone conversation with AAN) and the UN estimate that today there are more than two million. (1) This amounts to one of the highest numbers of widows (proportionate to the total population) in the world.
The average age of Afghan widows is just 35 years, says Beyond 9/11. About 94 per cent cannot read and write. About 90 per cent have children, four on average. Widowed women are also at greater risk of developing “emotional problems and impaired psychosocial functioning than either married women or men, typically because of social exclusion, forced marriages, gender-based violence and lack of economic and educational opportunities,” says the organisation. Officials of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs (MoWA) add that shelter, food, earning a living and social protection are among the most pressing issues for widows. To survive, many Afghan widows weave carpets, do tailoring, beg or even engage in prostitution. But nevertheless they still lack strong governmental and community support.
However, the collapse of the Najibullah regime also created opportunities. People were able to take over government land. (2) The hill, on which Zanabad would emerge, was one such piece.
Bibikoh’s story: From ‘head eater’ to community mobiliser
Many widows still remember vividly how hard it was to build their houses with their own hands. One of them, Humaira, a young, shy widow in her late 30s, recalls this time as dawa-ye talkh, bitter medicine. The construction work was often “beyond her physical ability” and caused her “physical trouble” – but she also said that building her own house in this community had “cured” her in the long run as it gave her life-long shelter.
Bibikoh adds that, at times, they had to fight to defend their houses. She recalls how she protected another widow by throwing a stone at a policeman who was trying to beat her. The police would regularly come and try to knock down the widows’ illegal houses. She also recalls how at first other families living nearby, those with men, would not mingle with them, as these determined, independent and house-building women broke taboos. These neighbours looked down on them, even calling them prostitutes. But meanwhile they have come to respect the widows because they all – neighbours and widows alike – are socio-economically in somewhat the same position.
Bibikoh – her actual name is Bibi ul-Zuqia – is in her mid-60s and the engine of the Zanabad community. She came here in the early 2000s, after she was widowed for the second time. Against a payment – actually a bribe – of 5,000 Afghanis (about 100 dollars) to police officers who guarded a military arsenal on the hill, she was allowed to take a plot of land where she started building. Today, she claims, her house is worth 500,000 Afghanis – 10,000 dollars. Because of the arsenal, police patroled regularly on that hill. Humaira told AAN that if it hadn’t been for these night patrols, she would not have felt safe moving here with her five children and without an adult man in the house. The safety of the area was a main point of attraction for several widows AAN talked to.
Bibikoh’s first husband died when a rocket hit their house, in her province of origin, Parwan, north of Kabul. Her second husband, who had been her brother in-law and a mujahedin fighter, died on the battlefield in Parwan. However, after becoming a widow for the second time, Bibikoh’s status in the community changed dramatically. All of a sudden, she was seen as a bad omen and, despite her six children, lost the respect and support she had among the in-laws. She was called kala-khor, head eater. The abuse reached its peak when she was thrown out of the neighbourhood altogether.
The fall from grace that Bibikoh experienced has to do with the ‘traditional’ socio-economic status of women in Afghan society. Before marriage, a woman is identified as the daughter of her father, after marriage as the wife of her husband. She always belongs to the male head of the family, as a kind of commodity, and also embodying the ‘honour’ of the family. Widowed women, however, in the eyes of society and their families, become “women without identity and protection”; deg-e be-sarposh – a pot without a lid – is the derogatory term. In most cases, they are either returned to their father’s home or married to a brother-in-law – as happened to Bibikoh after her first husband’s death. But either way, they are often seen as a burden, an additional economic liability. This is even stronger in wartime when many families come under additional economic strain.
Bibikoh, though, neither went back to her father nor did she marry any relative of her husband. She chose another way. A widowed friend who already was a resident told her about Zanabad and encouraged her to join. In her new community, she organised weekly gatherings for the widows. The women continued to gather weekly over the four years I was working there, to study but also to discuss daily events. They also looked outside of their group and started spreading knowledge in the wider community. Some of the 12 I met on this first day in Zanabad would hold gatherings with other widows and enthusiastically share what they had learned.
Bibikoh also conducted surveys in her area to help NGOs such as Care to provide monthly rations to needy widows, consisting of a seven-ser (49 kilogram) bag of flour, oil and beans. The widows claim that if it weren’t for Bibikoh’s work, such NGOs would never have found the truly needy ones. (Among the widows were some women who pretended to be widows in order to benefit from the NGO rations.) According to Bibikoh, over the past 11 years, about 400 widows of the area benefited from the rations. Because of her work to educate and teach them how to be financially independent, she is now widely known as a community mobiliser. She regained the respect she had lost before, and also earned her respectful nickname: Bibikoh – the “grandmother from the mountain.”
Security and sisterhood
Zarghuna, the woman who taught the widows how to read and write, noticed that beyond the educational aspect and the discussions, the gatherings of the women also became a place to share painful stories and, by telling them, to overcome the pain. With support from the International Centre for Transitional Justice, the women also used participatory theatre –where the performers interact with the audience – for this purpose. (Interestingly, this method was also used by civil society actors after the recent Kabul lynching of Farkhunda.)
The safe environment of Zanabad, Humaira said, created a sense of sisterhood among the members of the community. She gave the example of two young women, a widow and a divorcee, who came from other parts of Kabul to live on the hill. The other widows consistently accompanied the two women in their daily activities; sometimes they even spent the nights with them to make them feel safe.
Some widows in the community described their shared pain as the main cause for the sisterhood felt in the community, but the shared work and assistance to each other also contributed. In this community, said Anisa, one of the widows who had built two houses in the area, the widows have become each other’s sar-posh, each other’s cover.
When our research project ended in 2011, most of these 500 widows of Zanabad had finished building their houses. Some had become literate and, as a result, were able to find jobs. Some work at other people’s houses, while others have started small businesses, mainly cooking and selling Afghan food – namely bulani, mantu, ashak and shor nakhod – in the markets. Some widows teach in a girls’ school in Zanabad. Some, including Bibikoh and Anisa, now even work as government employees at the local police station. Few of them have continued working in their old occupation, which is begging in the streets.
Improvements continued. Today, the community looks more colourful, as many of the building are now painted. In Bibikoh’s house, the floors are now covered with red Afghan rugs. But the windows are still covered with plastic sheets, ‘poor people’ style. Outside, most of the junk from the wars – wrecked tanks, artillery pieces and rocket launchers – have been cleared away. Remaining land has been occupied by newcomers, both widows and families. Humaira is hoping to buy her neighbour’s land and build a new house, where she could bring her parents. Anisa has finished painting her second house and is now renting it out for 3,000 Afghanis (60 dollars).
The road up the hill is still slippery. But since early 2014, the government has been providing electricity and water, thereby acknowledging the widows’ right to live in Zanabad. The government also has taken over the girls’ school. The widows still do not possess legal documents for the land they live on, though, and Zanabad is not yet part of Kabul’s official city map. Bibikoh said they are in the process of convincing the government to give them land certificates. Once their status is fully legalised, the success of Zanabad might even become a model to other homeless widows.
Bibikoh and the other widows of Zanabad have challenged, with their unusual decision to take matters into their own hands, the pervasive idea that widows have no independent identity, cannot survive without protection and cannot be economically productive. They have not only re-gained their social status, but they gave the community they live in a very special, feminine identity.
(Editing by Thomas Ruttig)
(1) UN Women (formerly UNIFEM) even speaks of two million war widows. Deutsche Welle, in a 2013 article, apparently citing an Afghan women’s organisation, put the figure of widows at 2.5 million – which then would be almost 12 per cent of the entire Afghan population. This article is also interesting because it describes how women in Jalalabad and a rural area of Wardak province live.
With the on-going conflict and casualty rates continuing to rise in the Afghan security forces and the civilian population, the number of widows continues to increase.
(2) An unwritten law says that, if you can build the four walls of your house 1.5 meters high over one night on a ‘free’ piece of land, even the government cannot evict you if the land does not belong to you. This is, apparently, how strongmen have grabbed a lot of government land.
Our author told the story to a Washington Post journalist who wrote about Zanabad in 2011. You can read his story here.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020