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Before I learned from anyone, my intuition taught me to understand gender violence and react against it.
I was nine years old when we were living in Herat province, in western Afghanistan. We lived away from the city center and my grandparents lived in the city. When we wanted to visit them, we took the bus to the city and then we would take a horse-cart to near my grandmother’s house. We did not have a car and a taxi was expensive, so the horse-cart was a better option for us.
One sunny, beautiful day we decided to go to my grandparents’ house. I was so happy and excited that I could breathe the joy in the air. My mom, my oldest sister, and I took the bus from my house to the center of the city. It was crowded with men with long beards and turbans and the women had burqas. The Taliban hadn’t come yet. They came a few months later. This was during the Mujahideen time.
I wore a modest dress with a floral scarf on my head and mom and sister were wearing the long black veil with ruband, which is the black cloth that covers the face. You can see through it, but with difficulty. It should be thick enough that men do not see your face, but delicate enough so you can see outside.
My family had come from Iran not long before and that was why my mother was wearing the black veil. Many other women had veils; the influence of Iranian culture was obvious in Herat, which is a city bordered with Mashhad in Iran.
We passed the vegetable sellers’ carts in the corner of city. We passed the shops until we arrived at Jade Lilami, a famous street in Herat. On this street many men were selling secondhand clothing.
The vendors would spread out sacks and throw the secondhand clothes—socks, jackets, boots, and T-shirts—on top. Each man was selling something and they would shout to attract buyers. The shops had new clothes but most people came to this famous street to buy secondhand cloth. New cloth for sewing dresses was only for special occasions like weddings or Eid.
Jade Lilami is one of the most crowded streets in Herat. Women are very careful to avoid harassment, but most of the time men use the crowdedness to grab or finger a woman’s backside, push themselves or hit their shoulders against a woman’s shoulder, then blame the crowd for their shameful acts.
In the response to this sometimes women take their shoes off and hit the man; others keep quiet because of their honor. Unfortunately, it is often women who get blamed: people say maybe she gave a hint that she wanted men to harass her.
In one corner of the street there was a row of horse-carts, all lined up, ready to load the passengers. The carts were colorful and decorated with flowers. I loved their beautiful designs and the horses. My mom went to one of the carts; the owner was an old man in his eighties. He had a long, white and gray bread and a turban covered his head. My mother bargained with him to take us to my grandparents’ address. Another woman joined the discussion and asked to ride with us. The old man, who seemed like a nice person, agreed to take us all, but with four of us, we couldn’t all fit in the back. The man said I could sit in the front. My mom, sister, and the other woman sat in the back.
An ominous start
I was scared of the cart. It was high and I could not climb on it without difficulty. But I secured a good place next to the old man. I was so excited. I thought of how kind he was to offer me a seat in the front. I could see everything better from the front and I would not get dizzy by sitting in the back. I held tightly to the iron bar on the side. My mother told me, “Make your hand tight; be careful to not fall,” and when she made sure I was fine, she told the man to go. The old man scourged the horse.
The horse started running. The cart was moving fast and I jumbled. I got scared; sitting in the front was different. I did not have my mom or sister to hold onto. The cart would jump every time it hit a hole in the road. The streets of Afghanistan bear many holes from the years of war. I convinced myself that it would be over soon and that I need to be a courageous girl, to bear this hard ride.
The old man saw my scared face and struggle. He took my hand and said, “Don’t worry; hold onto me, put your hand here,” and he placed my hand on his leg. I said, “No, I am fine.”
But he didn’t release my hand; he gripped my hand tighter and said, “Do not be scared; we will arrive soon.” Then he put my hand closer to his inner thigh. My heart started beating fast. The blood rushed into my veins. My head got heavy. I knew something was wrong. I thought I suddenly combusted and the fire’s rays were coming out from my cells. Something was going wrong.
My heart and intuition were telling me this old man had an ominous intention. I could hear ringing in my head, warning me. I could hear the horseshoes hitting the ground. All the people around us were busy with their work; they could not see his crime. My mother was busy talking to the woman in the back. The streets were busy; the cars, motorcycles, and bicycles were horning, surfing the crowd, rushing toward their business. I was trying to keep my balance, tried to sit tight and at the same time observe what was happening around me.
[The Horse Cart Driver will continue on Monday]
This post was written by Mahnaz and originally appeared on the Afghan Women’s Writing Project. Republished with permission.
The Afghan Women’s Writing Project was founded in 2009 in defense of the human right to voice one’s story. Poems & essays by Afghan women are published online at awwproject.org.