I was on my way home one day when the smell of spices wafting through the air drew my attention. My nose led me to look across the street. Sitting in the wet dirt was a thirty-year-old woman who looked more like sixty. She had a dry, yellow face and cracked lips. She wore a filthy burqa, though her face was uncovered. She was selling bolani—a ball of dough filled with salted leek and then fried and eaten with yogurt or spices. She was yelling: “Buy hot and fresh bolani. Buy home-cooked bolani.”
At the woman’s breast was her one-year-old daughter. The child had no hat or warm clothes. Her fingers played with her mother’s burqa; they were as red as a carrot from the cold. Sitting beside her was her four-year-old daughter. Her hands and lips were cracked and split, her face and hair messy. She was without a jacket or socks. She kept looking at the shops behind her mother where fruit juice was sold. In a glance, I took this all in.
I went into a shop and bought juice. I tried to give it to the four-year-old, but she hid her face behind her mother’s back. The woman looked up at me and said: “She is my shy girl. She doesn’t want anyone to give her anything. Give it to me and I will give it to her.”
The woman gave the juice to both daughters. As they drank, the older girl looked up at me shyly and quickly smiled. Her small, cracked hands circled the glass of juice.
I learned the woman’s name was Magul and her eldest daughter was Bas Bi Bi. Magul sounded hopeless as she thanked me. “We were not like this before. We had a good and happy life like others, but this war took our happy life and replaced it with sorrow and grief. That is why Bas Bi Bi is ashamed.”
“How much money you will receive from selling these bolani? Will it support you and your family?” I asked.
“If I get money, I will first buy warm clothes for my daughters.”
“Is your husband working?” I asked. Tears were the response to my question. For a while she couldn’t manage to speak. Then she answered. “My life has lots of tragedy. Where should I start?” She wiped her face dry with her scarves. “My husband was a shoemaker and made enough money for us. A year after our wedding, I gave birth to a daughter, which made my mother-in-law sad. She was a widow who had lost her husband in the mujahadeen’s war. They had just one son, my husband. My mother-in-law hoped that her son’s first child would be a boy to help his father. She didn’t want me to have more children because we were poor and couldn’t support them. My mother-in-law named my daughter Bas Bi Bi.”
Bas Bi Bi means “stop having girls” or “stop girls.” In Afghanistan, an uneducated family will often name girl children Bas Bi Bi if they have more than two girls. Superstitious old women believe if they use this name, their daughter-in-law will have a son next. Magul explained that her mother-in-law also gave her a lot of medicine so that next time, she would have a son. She did become pregnant again.
One Sunday morning, two months into her second pregnancy, “while I was sweeping the yard, our neighbor, a doctor, came to tell my mother-in-law that her son had died in a suicide bombing. The doctor had been at the hospital when the wounded and dead were brought in. He saw my husband among the dead.
“At first I told myself this was a lie, and my heart gave me the voice of hope. But my mother-in-law went to the hospital to fetch his body and bring him home. As my mother-in-law cried, I kept thinking that just two hours ago, my husband was with me. I shouldn’t have let him to go.
“My life of adversity started that day. Six months later, I gave birth to a girl. This made my mother-in-law even sadder. She named her Khatema, meaning ‘the last.’ ‘Without a man in the house, we are just four women,’ she repeated until the day she died from a heart attack. Now I am alone living with my two daughters. Whenever I become sick, I remember my mother-in-law’s speech. Sometimes I wonder if I die, who will support my daughters?”
I told her not to worry, that our government will be thinking of her and that they have passed a new law to support poor people. But she was skeptical. “Which government are you are talking about? Which law?”
I was sad to say goodbye to them. As I left, Magul offered a prayer for me as thanks for the juice.
She was right to doubt the government. Often our highest authorities will try to find a way to employ women. Usually the women they hire are experts, but more than half the women in our country need to be trained in order to support themselves and their families. We don’t have an organization that trains those widowed or poor women who are begging in the street. Women like Magul need to learn skills so they can stand on their own feet.