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‘Noqra, the Kabul River Girl’: A feminist critique of patriarchy

The novel “Noqra, the Kabul River Girl” by Homeira Qaderi is one of the prominent novels published before the Taliban returned to power in 2021. Published in 2009 by Rozgar Publications in Tehran, it takes a female perspective as it focuses on the roles of women in addressing social, cultural, and political issues in Afghanistan. As well, the novel provides insights into the sensitive and tumultuous events spanning five decades of Afghanistan’s political history (1929 to 1978).  

This novel is women-centred, reducing male characters to faint and peripheral roles. The narrator, Eqlima, is one of seven women in the book who are compelled by poverty and helplessness to work in the royal palace kitchen during the reign of King Nadir Shah. Eqlima is the daughter of Noqra, from her illegitimate relationship with a young soldier named Izmarai. Noqra had been expelled by her family due to the scandal of her romantic relationship with Izmarai and her pregnancy and finds refuge among the women of the palace kitchen who each have their own bitter and tragic past experiences.  

Although the women work within the closed environment of the royal kitchen, they are aware of the world beyond the palace walls and the turbulent political conditions of Afghanistan. Bibiku, a middle-aged woman who is more informed and courageous than her colleagues, endeavours to keep them informed by teaching them to read Persian texts – previously they’d only read the Quran – and secretly bringing newspapers into the kitchen. “I’ve burnt my life under the pots. Every minute of it … Knowing the news, I think I have another job besides burning my life,” says Bibiku.  

The seven women in “Noqra” have either been abandoned by their husbands or lost them due to their political activities, including Noqra’s mother, who is ridiculed for not having a son, and Aunt Rogul, whose husband remarries because of her infertility.   

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Qaderi has written the personal stories of women in the novel from two feminist perspectives: she questions the role of governments in restricting women’s presence and activities in society and sustaining patriarchy and she sees oppression, injustice, suppression, and ongoing tyranny in the government’s policies as factors leading to poverty, rebellion, and, consequently, the execution of freedom fighters and the widowing of women, who often become single parents (socialist feminism).  

In the intertwined lives of each kitchen woman, the injustices of family men and society are evident. Along with enduring their personal pain, they mourn for the troubled times of their homeland and the dark days of their compatriots, blaming themselves for their passivity and acceptance of oppression. They also marvel at the bravery of freedom fighters. In the aftermath of Nadir Shah’s assassination, they rejoice in his death and the rescue of his oppressed people; then, they mourn the execution of the young man who killed the tyrant king.   

In conclusion, “Noqra, the Kabul River Girl,” as a social novel written by a female writer and centred on female characters, has managed to depict essential parts of the collective destinies of the Afghan alongside the stories of the seven kitchen women, each of which represents a part of society. 

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

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