A garden where women grow

SUN JOURNAL

Afghanistan: In a nation torn by war and filled with desperation, a patch of ground in Kabul provides a haven for those who have often suffered the most.

October 01, 2003|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KABUL, Afghanistan - As far as gardens go, the one being tended in the center of the city is hurting, only a few flowers growing in one patch, a few others across the way, only dirt and stones between them.

Every day, though, Anis Gul takes a small spade in her rough hands and digs around the flowers to loosen the earth so that water can seep to their roots. This is a garden for women only.

"I was like a dead body before I began coming here," says Gul, describing the sort of depression that envelops many women in her country. Many have lost their husbands and children, their homes and sense of self-worth. "When I work in the garden," she says, "I am like a woman again."

In a country filled with desperation - its people without jobs and security - the women of Afghanistan have often suffered the most. Because of centuries of discrimination, and a ban on employment during the Taliban years, few Afghan women have jobs. Fewer than one in 10 can read or write.

The garden's value grows beyond the red roses that show brilliantly against the dirt. Called the National Women's Park of Afghanistan but better known simply as the Women's Garden, the six acres provide basic education classes and mental health assistance for women and a rare place for them to socialize.

Every woman who comes here has a different story, but Seema Osmani, the staff psychologist, says the tales are depressing in their sameness.

"With so many women, it's their house was destroyed, a husband has died, a child has died - not small problems," she says from an office in the garden. "This isn't just that someone has died. A lot of times their family members were killed in front of their eyes."

A lot of the work that is done here involves gathering women together so they can share their stories. Osmani tells of a woman who lost her husband and all four of her sons to the violence in Afghanistan, leaving her with two daughters. The brother of her dead husband had been beating her until she came to the garden, and staff members there had police pay him a visit.

"When women hear the stories of some of the other women, they realize they are not alone," Osmani says. "Sometimes they hear stories and say, `My problems are not as bad as those. I can cope.'"

Gul is 40, but her face, deeply creased, reflects all she has witnessed. When the mujahedeen - the Afghan fighters who resisted the Soviet occupation of the 1980s - showed up at her house in Kabul 23 years ago, they demanded that her husband, Muhammad, fight beside them.

"He said, `I have only a young son and my wife. I can't go,'" she recalls. "They pulled him out of the house and shot him in front of me and my son."

Under the Taliban, she could not work. She joined the legions of women begging on the streets under dirty, powder-blue burqas. Eight years ago, when her son, Qand Agha, was 19 and old enough to help her, a rocket struck their house, blinding him.

"The first shot in every war is over the heads of the women of Afghanistan," says Karima Salik, head of the economics and development department in the Ministry of Women, created by the government of Hamid Karzai. "They lost everything, including their youth. Especially under the Taliban, they were under such cruel conditions."

Under the Taliban, only a limited number of women could work, as doctors and nurses, and schools and universities were off limits, except for medical school.

In some ways, especially in Afghanistan's rural areas, where about 80 percent of the country's population lives, not much has changed for women. They remain largely third-class citizens, behind men and boys.

Except in the cities, rarely will a visitor see a woman in public, and even in places such as Kabul, many women remain shrouded under their burqas. In Herat, a western province of about 1.1 million people, women and girls are not permitted to attend classes with boys and men, and they are segregated in restaurants. Throughout Afghanistan, most women are still forbidden to venture out in public wherever there will be men who are not family members, which is about everywhere.

Except in the Women's Garden.

The government opened the garden on March 8, National Women's Day, and forbade men to enter its gates. The first day, about 300 women arrived, for many of them a rare opportunity to mingle with others outside their family. Most merely walked the paths, defined from the rest of the ground by small stones on each side, or they sat on benches and chatted.

"For some women, if they don't want the formal counseling, they can come here and talk to each other, and that helps a lot of them," says Nilab Sadat, the garden's administrator. On Fridays, Afghanistan's weekend, about 600 women visit.

About 350 women take advantage of formal courses, such as English, literacy and sewing, and another 150 or so come for counseling. The gardens also offer day care and tutoring for children up to age 12. About 500 children spend four hours a week in those programs.

"We wish we could take more," Sadat says.

For Gul, the help has been enough. She arrives in the morning, goes home in the evening, takes a short break in the middle of the day to speak with the psychologist, to tell her how she is coping.

In the garden she touches each flower with the gentleness of a mother, rubs the petals with her fingers, places her nose to them and closes her eyes, so the fragrance seems all the stronger. There are no trees to provide shade, so it is hot in the gardens, but that does not bother her.

"The garden saved me," she says.

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