One morning in the summer of 1999, Shukriya Barakzai woke up feeling dizzy and feverish. According to the Taliban’s rules, she needed a Maharram, a male guardian, in order to leave home to visit the doctor. Her husband was at work, and she had no sons. So she shaved her 2-year-old daughter’s head, dressed her in boys’ clothing to pass her off as a guardian, and slipped on a burka. Its blue folds hid her fingertips, painted red in violation of the Taliban’s ban on nail polish. She asked her neighbor, another woman, to walk with her to the doctor in central Kabul. Around 4:30 p.m. they left the doctor’s office with a prescription. They were heading toward the pharmacy when a truckload of Taliban militants from the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice pulled up beside them. The men regularly drove around Kabul in pickup trucks, looking for Afghans to publicly shame and punish for violating their moral code.
The men jumped out of the truck and started whipping Barakzai with a rubber cable until she fell over, then continued whipping her. When they finished, she stood up, crying. She was shocked and humiliated. She had never been beaten before.
“Are you familiar with something we call sadism?” Barakzai asked me when we spoke recently. “Like they don’t know why, but they are just trying to beat you, harm you, disrespect you. This is now [what] they enjoy. Even they don’t know the reason.”
She credits this moment for the birth of her life as an activist. Before Afghanistan’s capital descended into civil war in 1992, Barakzai had been studying hydrometeorology and geophysics at Kabul University. When the Taliban, then a relatively new militia, emerged victorious in 1996, Afghan women were forced to leave their studies. As Barakzai recovered from the beating, she made a decision: She would organize underground classes for girls at the sprawling apartment complex where she and her family lived, home to some 45 families. Barakzai would go on to help draft Afghanistan’s constitution and serve two terms in Parliament.
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