08/08/2011 12:17 pm ET Updated Oct 08, 2011

Land of the Unconquerable : A Textured Portrait of Afghan Women

Afghanistan is constantly in the news. The rights and lives of women and girls are at the forefront of many stories, and there is tremendous concern about how women's lives could become even more difficult if the Taliban returns to power.

It is worth reading Land of the Unconquerable: The Lives of Contemporary Afghan Women, edited by Jennifer Heath & Ashraf Zahedi, to inform that discussion. Land of the Unconquerable is a collection of essays that brings the history, status and challenges facing Afghan women into sharp focus, and the essays are written by scholars, aid workers, politicians, journalists and others with vast experience living and working in Afghanistan. The essays cover a broad range of topics -- politics, the economy, health, marriage and family, the role of the media and the history of women in Afghanistan.

I must admit that I was hesitant to open up Land of the Unconquerable and start reading. I wondered if this book of essays would be just horribly depressing, and reinforce my sense that the future for women in Afghanistan is bleak and increasingly difficult.

And to some extent, it did just that. But, more importantly, the essays painted a textured picture of the lives of both Afghan women and men, and made some points that I hadn't really thought about before reading the book, particularly around how war and societal upheaval has affected the lives of the social fabric and everyone's social roles and lives.

I found Land of the Unconquerable to be a good companion piece to The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, another non-fiction book about women making their way under the Taliban's rule. These two books, and others, reflect the impact of war on non-combatants, and reject the often one-dimensional view that is portrayed in the media of Afghan women as weak. These two books, Land of the Unconquerable and The Dressmaker, don't sugar coat the experiences of Afghan women and girls, but provide them with texture and nuance, and reflect their strength.

The chapters about women and politics reinforced the difficulty women have in being taken seriously in the process and in acting as a bloc to raise issues important to women. But they were juxtaposed with some short essays written by four Afghan women parliamentarians, who were very straightforward about their challenges and their victories. The chapter on forced marriage made good points about how men also describe their marriages as forced, and how the practices of forced marriage and bride price has increased violence against women. I personally found the chapter on the role of media and journalists opening up public space for discussion of tough issues to be a beacon of hope for giving women a stronger voice.

But the voices of young Afghans and women -- whether woven into the essays -- or in the standalone final essay -- are the most interesting to me. They reflect the reality of what faces them as a country and the determination to make changes than benefit all Afghans. As we continue to debate our role in Afghanistan and think about the future there, it's those young people that I hear, and this book strengthens their voice.