I remember my childhood days when I got sick and my father took me to his pharmacist friend, who I called Uncle Zia. After greetings, Zia asked if I was sick and after Dad explained my symptoms, he immediately recommended a penicillin injection. Most of the time I cried when he put that crazy big needle in my leg and then he would tell my father that a complete course of antibiotics would help me to recover.
I hated the injections, which hurt and seemed to me like being poisoned by a snake. I was afraid to get sick again. It seemed like we faced injections for almost every kind of disease, but my Dad was thankful for having Uncle Zia as his friend and we were happy that we didn’t need to go to the hospital.
I was a teenager in the summer in 1998. It was during the Taliban time and it was the most difficult days of my life. I was no longer allowed to go to school and it was not easy to cope with staying at home. Sometimes there would be a knock on the door and we would receive an invitation card. One was for my dear classmate Noria’s wedding. One by one, most of my classmates were having arranged marriages.
It was very hard for me to accept that I would not see my friends at school again. The desire to go to school was burning at my heart and soul. I thought about it all the time, counting seconds, minutes, hours and days and nights. Thinking did not change anything; I was in a prison without having committed a crime. The four walls of the house were killing me and even when I went outside I wore the burqa with heaviness as if the world was a burden on my shoulders.
Every day was the same. After months and years nothing changed for the better and it was as if I was eating my heart. I developed a bad pain in my stomach. Uncle Zia prescribed his antibiotic course, but it didn’t help. One day I told my father I felt a horrible pain and I was afraid it was not my stomach, but my heart.
Dad took my words seriously and he went to see Uncle Zia for advice. It was not easy for me to see the doctor. It was forbidden for a girl to visit a male doctor. Uncle Zia knew someone in Ebn Sina hospital and he arranged a date and time for us to go and take an EKG test, and then I would see a doctor whom he knew well.
We had to walk to the hospital because there was no place on the bus or minibus or a taxi for two women and a man. It was a long walk to the hospital from Khair Khana and when we reached Share Naw we all were tired and we stopped to take a break beside Share Naw Park. Dad bought a little food and he asked me to uncover my face and eat the food, but I was afraid that if I did, the Taliban would see and come and take away my father. It was forbidden for women to walk in the park and there was nowhere to sit. On my right side there was a big tall tree and my Mom stood in front of me and Dad stood on my left side so I could I turn my back to the shops, and in this way Mom and I could eat our food.
Finally we reached the hospital. It was my first time in a hospital. I cannot forget all the catastrophes that I saw there. On the first floor was a long hall with small rooms off of it, each small room with a dirty short curtain, and in each room a bed and a patient. There were no doctors or nurses. Some patients were screaming from pain and others were unconscious and flies were everywhere. The hospital smelled of blood and vomiting. It was very unclean. Ahead of us I saw two young women screaming and carrying a young boy in a white coffin. It was very painful to see. The boy’s sister was crying and saying how she wished she had money to buy medicine and she wished she could take him to Pakistan.
We crossed that deadly hall filled with tears. Dad was looking for the man we had the appointment with. We went to a room filled with doctors and nurses drinking tea and laughing. A young man greeted my father and then we went to a room divided by a curtain. After ten minutes a man came with a machine in his hands. He looked at my father and asked which of us is the patient. He looked me over and told me to take off my clothes and lie on the bed.
I lay down in the bed and he arranged his machine, plugged it into a battery, and took the cables and stuck them one-by-one all over my body, on my back, my breasts and my legs, and he told me to close my eyes. I closed my eyes and breathed. During this time this doctor was pressing something very soft in my right hand. I had no idea what it was but it got harder and harder every time he was pressing it. I thought that it was part of the examination. Then suddenly I began to worry and my heart was shaking. I couldn’t believe what he was doing. My father and my mother were sitting in the same room and I had the penis of this doctor in my hand.
I was very afraid that if my parents knew about this, if I told them about this doctor, that the doctor would either kill my father, or tell the Taliban that we had come to a male doctor, which was not allowed. I forgot about my sickness and had a panic attack. The examination was over and the doctor said that there was nothing seriously wrong with me, but we must see the specialist before prayers started. We went to the other side of the hospital, this time to a dark room and we sat down to wait. The specialist who came had a long black beard and long, wide Taliban clothing and my father talked with him. I was the patient, but the doctor only talked with my father. He spelled out the name of a medicine and my father wrote it himself in his little notebook with my mom’s eyebrow pencil and we left the hospital.
Outside, a Taliban car was parked in front of the gate and people were searching for a direction to run. Taliban soldiers were divided up in different areas to stop people and take them to the mosque for prayers. The loud speakers brought the voice of a mullah giving a religious speech in Pashto: “Oh people! For the sake of God, pray for him, for the sake of God have more control at home and do not let your wives, sisters and daughters go out of home alone. When you protect your females, God will protect you in doomsday…”
My burqa was now feeling much too hot. My hair was wet from the warmth and I was burning all over. I felt very bad. I felt pity for people who were forced to pray for God and had to listen to the mullah. I thought about the God who gave freedom to men, but took it away from women, a God who we claimed created all of us equal. I thought about the patients screaming in the hospital, and the ones who were dying, and the doctors who swore on the Qur’an to help patients with honesty.
I thought about our Islamic society and the separation of men and women, and about the cruelty, blindness, and injustice. By the end of the day we were tired of searching for medicine. My father could not find the medicine anywhere in Kabul and he finally got it six months later from Pakistan. I did not recover and I still have holes in my stomach. But I am a survivor and I survived all those injections I had in my childhood. The injections were very painful, but it was more painful to live in a sick society in which we all suffered from a cancer in our spirit.
Photo: Kanishka Afshari/FCO/DFID