06/08/2012 03:43 pm ET

Afghan Women Stories: The Girl Who Was Raised Like A Boy

The following is an excerpt from "Dear Zari: The Secret Lives of the Women of Afghanistan" [Sourcebooks, $15.99] by Zarghuna Kargar:

As Bakhtawara strode along the road, her steps created a trail of dust in her wake. It was starting to get dark, and people were hurrying home. Bakhtawara took long strides, her gun slung over her shoulder, as she hurried home as quickly as possible. Along the way, a few male villagers waved to her, shouting that they wouldn’t be late for tomorrow’s meeting of the village elders.

Bakhtawara lived in Gurbuz in Khost Province, in southeastern Afghanistan. It’s a harsh place to live: the winters are freezing cold and the summers scorching hot. The Khosties are known to be tall, broad-shouldered, and good-looking. They are renowned for being hardworking people who enjoy dancing and music. A Khosti friend of mine, who loves his dancing and drumming, once told me that even the Taliban couldn’t prevent Khosties from celebrating by dance and dohl (drum). Every special occasion in a Khosti family is marked with their local dance called attan, where the men in the family dance, dressed in their local shalwar kamiz and a turban with a high shamla (the part of the turban which fans out like a peacock’s tail). The women dance together in circles, sweeping their long embroidered dresses along the floor. The Khosties also have a reputation for being particularly wealthy compared to other tribes in Afghanistan. And they speak Pashtu with a strong dialect difficult for someone like me, who speaks Pashtu from eastern Afghanistan, to understand.

Afghans are, in general, very hospitable but Pashtuns are considered the most generous and welcoming to strangers. If you find yourself in a village in Afghanistan late at night you will almost certainly be offered somewhere to stay. Your hosts will share whatever food they have with you—they will tear a piece of bread they have for themselves and offer it to you. Pashtuns believe in respecting guests and honoring the person who chooses to take shelter in their home. My mother used to tell me tales of growing up in Kunar Province and how they would often have more than ten guests to stay every night. Most of them were people who’d met my grandfather in the fields and were on their way to Pakistan, but needed to break their journey and rest. My grandfather, a farmer, would bring all the guests home and tell the women in the family to cook for them. My mother said it didn’t matter to him if those people remembered him or not; he was just happy to have helped them. My grandmother used to complain that these strangers were eating all their food and leaving her children hungry, but my grandfather would just shrug his shoulders and say he was a Pashtun man and it was part of the code. Like many thousands of Pashtun village men, he believed that a guest is a friend of God and must be treated well.

Pashtuns are mainly farmers, which means most of their disputes are over water or land. Throughout history there have been bitter fights. People have been killed and families have been divided because of these disputes. In this mountainous province people solve their daily problems by calling a jirgah, or meeting, of the local elders. If a family has a money quarrel or a family argument over land, they won’t go to the government but instead will summon the jirgah.

Gurbuz, Bakhtawara’s birthplace, is one of the twelve districts of Khost Province and is located in an area near South Waziristan on the border with Pakistan. Gurbuz is made up of many small villages, and the tribal culture and traditions have strong roots there; but the land is dry and mountainous, which makes it difficult to cultivate for farming. Many young men travel to Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, or Saudi Arabia in search of work, not just from Gurbuz but from all over Khost province. Most of these men are illiterate, from very poor families, and the trend of going abroad has come into Afghanistan from neighboring Pakistan. It is why many families are wealthy, because their men are working abroad. Their wives and children are often left behind for long periods of time. Some of these women have said that they would prefer to be poor rather than live apart from their husbands and sons for so long, but the lure of big money is too much for some men to resist. As a result, many women have a great deal of responsibility within the family. They do everything that the man of the family would usually do. They take care of the farm work and provide for the remaining family—almost treated as if they were men.

Bakhtawara was one such woman. Her story was brought to us by Fawzia Khosti, an Afghan Woman’s Hour reporter who was herself from Khost province. Fawzia was a medical student and had attended one of the training workshops we run for women at the BBC’s Kabul office. She grabbed our attention on the first day of training with descriptions of life in her province. She told us about the women in her village, their wedding outfits, and about fascinating local characters like Bakhtawara. Fawzia was a regular listener to the program and knew her compelling stories would appeal to us. Although I had heard about women from Pashtun villages who had been forced to act like men, we had never had a woman like this on our radio program, so Bakhtawara’s story was particularly special.

As part of her training, Fawzia spent two weeks learning how to collect and record stories. We lent her some recording equipment and she promised us reports on child mortality, the traditions and culture of Khosties, and, of course, Bakhtawara’s life story. I wanted to go to Khost and meet Bakhtawara for myself but the security situation there was too dangerous at the time. Instead, I had to be content with hearing Bakhtawara’s voice through my headphones back in London. I asked Fawzia for a fuller picture of Bakhtawara: what she wore, how she walked, what she ate. As I listened to Bakhtawara speak, she struck me as a woman whose feelings had been stolen from her long ago, and then imprisoned in a place even she couldn’t access. The society she lives in has taken away her right to live as a woman; yet on the other hand she has gained a kind of freedom no other Afghan woman could ever hope to attain.