It requires a lot of guts to fall in love in Afghanistan. This was particularly true during the Taliban era, when the separation of male and female societies was taken very seriously and often enforced with violence. My mother’s 25-year-old cousin, a dentist, certainly had guts. He proved it by falling in love with S, one of his patients. The Taliban required every female patient to have a male relative accompany her to the doctor. The good thing about the rule was that there were no age requirements. So a seven-year-old nephew worked just fine during their dates at his clinic, which was within walking distance from S’s house. Finally, the dentist asked my aunt and my mother to go khuwast gari (ask for a bride’s hand).
Monday afternoon, my mother dressed in her best outfit, long black skirt and reddish shirt. I wore my black salwar kamiz (dress with pants) and combed my hair back. Looking in the mirror and feeling proud, I decided to stay serious and act like a grown up during our visit. My aunty, with her burqa half open, entered the yard and asked us to hurry, for the taxi was waiting outside. My mother put on her burqa very carefully so her hair did not get messed up. I was neither old enough nor tall enough to have to wear a burqa or a scarf – the only benefit to being a child and short back then.
We rode in an old white and yellow taxi. The taxi driver was in his mid-thirties and had a long beard and a long face. He drove quietly and with great focus the whole way. While my mother and my aunt were chatting, I looked out of the window. It was the usual scenes – a Hazara man in his late thirties pushing an overly loaded cart, a woman in a navy blue burqa bargaining at a fruit cart, children with muddy faces holding packets of gum to sell, shouting and running after cars. The only thing they all had in common was an air of grief.
The cab driver left us at the end of the paved road. We had to walk for another five minutes to get to the home of the woman my mother’s cousin wanted to marry. It was a muddy, narrow street with houses located out of order. Finally we got to the right house. The blue, metal door was open, so with a small knock, we entered the yard. S’s mother was talking to her daughter-in-law, but as soon as they saw us, they hurried to greet us.
My aunt introduced my mother by saying, “This is my eldest cousin and my late mother’s favorite niece.”
S’s mother nodded and asked us to come in. It was a narrow room with tin, painted walls and maroon curtains, giving it a dark, gloomy look. The mother asked about our health and our preference for tea.
“Aunty Jaan, I am here all the way from Pakistan to ask for your daughter’s hand. I hope you will not disappoint us,” my mother said, smiling.
S’s mother frowned and said: “Well, child, we have no problem with the marriage, but we have already told aunty jaan about our conditions.”
“I know, you have been extremely kind but the dowry money is way too much.”
“Too much! Is 80,000 Afghanis too much for you? Trust me, daughter, it is nothing. The only reason I am ready to give my approval to this marriage, ignoring my sons’ disapproval and the fact that you are Shia, is that I know my daughter is happy with this union. My father and brothers married me off to a man twenty-five years older than I was. I was widowed at a very young age. I went through a lot in life and I do not wish the same thing to happen to my daughter. She has no shortage of admirers among our relatives.”
My mother and my aunt tried to get her to decrease the dowry, saying that my mother’s cousin would never be able to afford that amount of money and a debt would affect both of their lives negatively after marriage.
But S’s mother refused to decrease even a penny, saying, “Look, child, I had to pay 20,000 Afghani for my daughter-in-law who is not even that beautiful, as you saw. All I am asking from you is 80,000 Afghani.”
My mother and my aunty stayed pretty much quiet until the end of our visit. We left, saying the matter would be discussed with our men and we would get back to them. On our way back, walking towards the dental clinic, my mother expressed her feelings against the dowry and said this had never been part of her family traditions.
My aunt nodded and added “I know, and guess what? She’s not even worth that much. Did you notice the big scar on her head?”
They both agreed that since S was not Shia, not beautiful enough, and not modest enough given that she’d had a love affair with the dentist, he would be better off not marrying her.
After hearing the news, my mother’s cousin the dentist took a deep breath, looked up and said, “Fine, I will sell the land and pay the dowry.”
My mother and my aunt were not happy about it, but they had to agree. Despite their disappointment, I was happy. I thought S was beautiful. And besides, I would get to go to a party, even if music was forbidden. It would still be fun.
The couple ended up being happily married, but there are thousands of Afghan women who are forced into marriages with elder men for big dowries. A lot of them live as prisoners for the rest of their lives. Many put an end to their lives, increasing Afghanistan’s suicide rate among women.