Photo Essay: The War Widows of Afghanistan
By: Robert Nickelsberg
When I was in Kabul, Afghanistan, at the end of August 2015 to oversee the installation of an exhibit of my photography in the Afghanistan Center at Kabul University, I was struck by the rapidly deteriorating security situation the Afghan people faced. There was a 28 percent increase in the number of dead and wounded security personnel, including army and police, in 2015 compared to 2014.1 I had only seven days in Kabul, and it seemed to me that the best way I could illustrate this tragedy would be to search out and speak with a number of surviving widows: women who were bearing the brunt of survival for themselves and their children without a male breadwinner. I also wanted to find out how the Ministries of Defense and of Interior Affairs were looking after these families, especially given that the traditional Afghan fighting season would continue through the winter months and thus, more men were bound to die. Afghanistan already has an enormous population of war widows, both military and civilian, who do not receive any official support. The photographs presented in this essay, taken between 30 August 2015 and 6 September 2015, come from this project.
Every wife of an Afghan soldier or policemen killed in the line of duty is eligible for regular payments from her husband's service branch equal to his salary. The widows of civilians killed in terrorist attacks are to be given 5,000 afghanis per month, or about USD$80. If you ask these women how much they've actually received, however, they will tell you that they've gotten one full payment and a bit more after that. Even at best, the payments usually stop in less than a year, and the women have no further recourse. Humanitarian assistance for widows, whether from the Afghan government, a United Nations agency, or an international nongovernmental organization (NGO), is often undermined by a tradition of male dominance that goes unchallenged and perpetuates the dependent status of women. Both tradition and pseudo-legal norms such as men's hereditary property rights are codified through interpretation of the Qur'an. If school fees are thought to be too high, girls may be pulled out of school and made to take on housecleaning and other daily chores. Once they reach puberty, girls and women are traditionally kept separate from their male relatives in some form of purdah (sequestration). The intense societal pressures in rural agricultural areas further reinforce this traditional hierarchy and the vulnerability of women. As a result, most widows are uneducated and illiterate. They are often left to fend for themselves and are highly vulnerable to abuse and neglect. Still, women who are resigned to their fate nevertheless possess the strength to endure.
The plight of Afghan widows varies but is invariably harsh. Most of them have had to endure the subjugation of traditional arranged marriages and male domination in all aspects of life. Some of these women, however, have been able to find reprieve from the bleakness of their lives in the Marastoon Social Welfare Center in Kabul, a shelter for war widows and others without family support. The Center, which is funded by the Afghan Red Crescent Society and the Afghan government, offers these women the possibility of making their own choices about the future.
Marastoon is supported by the Afghan Red Crescent Society and also receives some government funding, though it's unclear how much support comes from the government in Kabul and in what form. The Center sits well off the main road in western Kabul, in an extensive campus-like garden setting that has been maintained since the 1930s as a government-run orphanage and as a home for the mentally handicapped. Marastoon suffered greatly during the Afghan civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal and fell into neglect under the Taliban. Since 9/11 and the overthrow of the Taliban regime, the Center has regained its stature with donations from the international community and funding from foreign NGOs. It now houses 24 families. Women have access to classes in tailoring and dressmaking, embroidery, basic carpentry, and needlepoint. Marastoon also provides a free health clinic to families in the neighborhood, although it's very hard to determine who is or is not eligible. There does not, however, appear to be a literacy program for the residents. Providing education for women is considered a financial burden in a country where unemployment can approach 30 percent. For chronically cash-strapped Afghan government agencies, reforming assistance programs and supporting the growing number of widows is not a priority.
Overall, media access to Marastoon is spotty. To make the photographs in this essay, my team had to deal directly with people in the housing and training programs. There's very little precedent in Afghan culture and society for an institution like Marastoon. Humanitarian and charity work are not popular sectors of Afghan society, and the social welfare offices are rarely fully funded. As is often the case in Asian countries, aid and assistance are provided within the extended family structure. The Afghan Red Crescent Society is the main link for Marastoon and its residents to outside funding and assistance, the United Nations, and the various embassies that oversee their countries' aid programs.
In a country torn apart by four decades of political instability and war, Jamella personifies a growing number of Afghan women who have suffered from their husband's fatal decision to join either the Afghan National Army or National Police. Jamella's husband, a 35-year-old Afghan National Army soldier, was killed by the Taliban nearly four years ago, when a rocket-propelled grenade struck his American-supplied truck, killing its occupants. The Afghan military compensated Jamella, who was 34 at the time, by paying for her husband's coffin, contributing some rice, oil, and other food items to the family, and giving her a bit of cash. As mentioned earlier, widows are entitled to a pension equivalent to their husband's salary, about $120 a month, but Jamella has not heard from the Ministry of Defense or the army for nearly three years. In 2015, Jamella married off her 15-year-old daughter to lighten her financial load and moved with her other child into her parents' home in Lagman province, two hours from Kabul. Soon after, however, her mother died, and her brothers could no longer support her. She and her child have now been in the Marastoon Social Welfare Center for over a year.
Abida's husband, a taxi driver, died from injuries suffered in a suicide car-bombing in 2012. Two of her children now stay with her at Marastoon while three others live with relatives outside Kabul. As is customary in Afghanistan, Abida was offered marriage to her brother-in-law, but when she declined, she and her children had to leave her in-laws' house. She had neither savings nor a pension from her husband's death. A doctor who treated her husband before he died urged her to sell one of her children to lessen the financial burden. Instead, Abida is taking tailoring classes at Marastoon to become a dressmaker and gain some financial independence. It's not uncommon for the downtrodden in Afghanistan to pay off personal or family debts by offering a child to another family as an indentured servant or farmhand. For girls and women, the burden and stigma of poverty are even more pronounced than for men.
Safia Tajweed, 36, lives with her two sons at Marastoon, while her five daughters live with assorted relatives. Four years ago, in 2012, Safia's husband, an Afghan Border Police officer from Badakhshan province, was killed when the Taliban overran his post. Safia was given a compensation payment of 100,000 afghanis, or $2,000, when his body was returned to her. Since her husband's burial, she has not heard from the police and remains ignorant about the status of her pension. When I spoke with her, Safia remarked that an Afghan woman can't fight for her rights in Afghan culture, least of all in the culture of the military establishment.
Zahra Husseini, 45, sits in her Kabul apartment with a relative's daughter, Abida, right, 3 September 2015.
Zahra's husband died in the late 1990s from injuries suffered in a rocket attack that struck their shop during the civil war with the Taliban. She worked for nearly two years as a cook at a Kabul NGO but stopped working when a rotator cuff injury in her shoulder left her barely able to lift her arm. Zahra has three sons, one of whom is paralyzed from a car accident. Her second son works in a bakery and earns $2.50 per day. Her third son goes to school. Zahra pays $20 a month for rent and hopes the NGO she worked for will pay for her needed shoulder surgery.
Hamida works as a cleaning woman for a small NGO, where she earns 10,000 afghanis per month, or $160. Her husband was also killed by Taliban forces in the late 1990s, near Quetta, Pakistan, where the family was taking refuge. As ethnic Hazaras and Shi'a Muslims, Hamida and her husband had fled Kabul from fear of persecution by the predominantly Sunni Taliban. Hamida, with her two sons and three daughters, returned to Kabul once the Taliban were removed from power following 9/11. After their return, her eldest son was killed in a suicide bomb attack. Her surviving son suffers from rheumatism and is unable to work. Hamida's main concern now is traffic gridlock at rush hour, which increases the likelihood of suicide attacks at the intersections she must cross every day on her way to and from work.
The suffering of Afghan women is not, of course, confined to war widows. Amina Sajadi's husband is in jail for 10 years because of a propane tank explosion that killed his brother, a crime Amina claims he did not commit. With two children to support, Amina, 27, lacks the money to hire a lawyer to appeal the sentence. After her husband's incarceration, she tried to support the family by working as a cleaning woman, until the prospect of destitution led her to Marastoon two years ago. She has no parents to assist her. She sees her husband once a year, and he calls her if he needs anything. He has been in jail for four years and won't be released until 2022.
The cultural headwinds in Afghanistan are generally against organizations like Marastoon that support female empowerment and gender equality. Such programs are considered a threat to the traditional male power structure, and liberal Western countries and organizations have had to temper their public enthusiasm for aid and assistance programs that could actually endanger women in the religiously conservative regions of the country. I'm grateful to the women of Marastoon for their courage and for allowing me to share their stories and images. ²
About the Author(s):
Robert Nickelsberg worked as a Time magazine contract photographer for nearly 30 years.
To learn more about Robert Nickelsberg and his career as a photojournalist for Time magazine and other publications, see "The CTAP Interview: Robert Nickelsberg," in CTX 5, no. 1 (February 2015):https://globalecco.org/ctap-interview-robert-nickelsberg-time-magazine.
Copyright 2015, Robert Nickelsberg. The US federal government is granted for itself and others acting on its behalf in perpetuity a paid-up, nonexclusive, irrevocable worldwide license in this work to reproduce, prepare derivative works, distribute copies to the public, and perform publicly and display publicly, by or on behalf of the US federal government. All other rights are reserved by the copyright owner(s). Foreign copyrights may apply.
- An estimated 16,000 Afghan security personnel were killed or wounded in 2015. The figure in 2014 was approximately 12,500. Tom Vanden Brook, "Afghan Casualties Surged in 2015 because of Increased Taliban Attacks," USA Today, 4 January 2016:http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2016/01/04/gen-john-campbell-taliban-afghanistan/78262480/