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The veiled angels: a critique of stories of Spozhmai Zaryab

Spozhmai Zaryab is a prominent writer and a pioneer among female storytellers in Afghanistan. She has consistently focused her work on women’s issues and is critical of laws and traditions that oppress women. 

In  Shikar-e-Freshta (The Hunt for Angel), a collection of short stories written by Zaryab, one can observe her concerns, such as the imposition of discrimination and constraints on women (both in society and within the household), the entrenched humiliation and suppression of girls and women in culture, customs, and traditions, as well as the prominent role played by erroneous beliefs and religious superstitions in further infringing women’s rights in a patriarchal society. 

The stories in this collection, selected by Mohammad Hussain Mohammadi and published by Amu Publishing House in Tehran in 2022, were written during the 1990s and vividly depict Afghanistan’s political, social, and cultural conditions during that turbulent era. In most stories, women play a central role as the narrator or main character. 

In Khoroos Man (My Rooster), Zaryab critiques the biased and oppressive laws that, throughout history, have confined women in traditional societies by institutionalizing religious beliefs. The narrator in this story compares their mother’s behaviour in the presence of an acquaintances, a kind blind man, to how she acts around a male family member who is harsh and rude: 

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 “… wishing at times for a naive sort of stone-heartedness that would render all men blind so that her mother wouldn’t hurriedly cover her hair with a veil and could let her long, black, shiny hair reflect the sunlight and shine brilliantly. So that my mother’s hands and feet don’t become invisible in her sleeves and skirt hems, that she doesn’t cast her gaze to the ground, and that words don’t escape her. She doesn’t search for them, not wandering, and words flow calmly and beautifully from her mouth, reaching in every direction …” (p. 20) 

In Khoroos Man, both guests discuss religion, god, and religious pioneers while eating votive sweets during separate gatherings. They take different approaches: The blind man speaks of divine mercy and kindness towards chosen servants of God; meanwhile, the self-proclaimed knowledgeable relative speaks of divine punishment on Judgment Day and throws the girl’s drawings of animals into the fire because he believes that drawing living beings is a sinful act. Similarly, while narrating the Genesis creation story, he considers the existence of women to be the cause of humanity’s slip and expulsion from paradise. He also warns the teenage girl’s mother about neglecting her religious upbringing. He even criticizes the way the girl sits due to the prominence of her chest, which, while he believes is immodest even though her figure is hidden beneath her clothing. 

Simone de Beauvoir, the renowned French writer and philosopher, writes in her famous book, The Second Sex:  

“Legislators, priests, philosophers, writers, and scientists have tried persistently to show that the subordinate status of woman is willed by heaven and beneficial to the earth. Man-made religions and customs reflect this will to dominate: men have drawn their weapons from the myths of Eve and Pandora. Men have put philosophy and divine wisdom in their service.”[i] 

It’s widely observed that families and religious communities use the guise of modesty and chastity to have their girls conceal feminine beauty, starting from adolescence, that those restrictions have detrimental effects not only on their psyche and personality but also on the physical posture of newly matured girls. Sitting in a curved posture during one’s growth years damages the spinal column, causing a curvature of the back and often results in drooping shoulders.  

“Women experience the concept of the religious veil, and the most significant part of this experience is the feeling of being an object, a sexual commodity, shamefulness of their bodies, hiding a body that is a source of shame and disgrace, and a feeling of lack of confidence and alienation from the body as a woman. This negative feeling has led to the erosion of self-confidence in half of society. It has led many women, even competent in a certain field, to feel uncertain and unable to speak confidently, hesitating when asked, Are you sure?”[ii].  

In Zaryab’s story Mualem-e Mashq-e Ma (Our Dictation Teacher), adolescent female students are under pressure due to strict rules regarding their dress and behaviour at school while also facing limitations in how they can interact with members of the opposite gender. In their encounters with the only male teacher at school, an ordinary middle-aged man with a cold and dry demeanour, they exhibit unconventional behaviours:  

“We wore black clothes, which gave us a mourning appearance, and the white veils we wrapped around our heads made us look older than we were. Many girls in our class were young and mature. They seemed more indifferent than us. They slowly blinked their eyelashes, and the obligatory chastity of several thousand years lingered in the circle of their sleepless blue eyes … We anxiously waited for the dictation teacher, and when he approached, there was excitement in our class. When the bell rang, it was as if we just remembered that we had bodies, eyes, hair, and clothes. We all rushed to the windows, examining our faces in their dirty glass. We pulled our veils further down to expose more of our hair. We pulled our stockings tighter to appear thinner. We cleaned our boots with the back of our skirts …” (p. 151) 

The story Shikar-e Freshta (The Hunt for Angel) narrates the story of a young mother and her infant daughter trapped in the grip of religious superstitions and false beliefs of a traditional family. The unaware mother, who spends most of her time either in the kitchen or doing household chores, employs the same method of upbringing for her daughter as she herself experienced. The result is that the little girl must deal with fear, anxiety, and a sense of guilt at the age of four:  

“I removed the blanket from her face; she stirred. She hadn’t fallen asleep. She looked at me. An anxiety was sleeping in her drowsy eyes … Maybe she thought fearfully of the angel on her left shoulder, thinking about her actions, lest the angel on her left shoulder write something unwarranted or out of revenge.” (p. 132) 

Ultimately, it can be said that Spozmai Zaryab critiques the misogynistic laws (with religious or cultural justifications) in traditional and religious society and condemns the oppressive behaviours that have been aimed at women and girls throughout history and continue to be passed down from generation to generation. She also warns about society’s ignorance and lack of knowledge that leads to incorrect culturalization and legislation.  

Rayhana Bayani is a fiction writer and a literary and cultural critic. 

[i] De Beauvoir, Simone, The Second Sex, translated by Qasim Sanawi, Vol. 1, p. 27 

[ii] Darakhshan, Azar, 2011, Women in Year Zero: a collection of articles and speeches, Publisher: March 8 Women’s Organization (Iran-Afghanistan) 

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