Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

My Forbidden Face: Growing Up Under the Taliban: A Young Woman’s Story

Posted by nliakos on May 4, 2012

by Latifa (Hyperion 2001)

“Latifa” (not her real name) was sixteen years old when the Taliban took over Kabul, where she lived with her parents, her sister and brother (another sister and brother having already left home), their dog, Bingo, and their canary.  Her mother was a doctor; her sister worked as a flight attendant for the national airline. Both women were forced to give up their careers, although her mother continued to treat patients secretly until she ran out of medical supplies. Latifa had just begun her entrance exams for university, hoping to follow a career in journalism. Her dreams of furthering her education were crushed as the Taliban systematically imprisoned women in their homes and chadris, making it too dangerous for them to venture out for any reason. Those women who had no male family members to run errands for them or escort them either starved in their homes or risked savage beatings and rape if they went out. (An infraction of any of the many decrees governing their behavior gave men an excuse to punish them any way they wanted.) Sick or injured women had no access to medical care, because male doctors were not permitted to treat female patients, and female doctors (the majority, before the Taliban) were not permitted to practice medicine at all. It’s difficult to imagine how any person (let alone a whole group of people) could so oppress half of the population of a country.

The book is written like a journal, mostly in the present tense; if it were not for the fact that I think it unlikely that the author could have left Afghanistan with a diary in her luggage, I would assume that that it is her actual journal, kept over a span of years between the Taliban takeover and her leaving Afghanistan for Paris, along with her parents, in 2001, to publicize the situation of Afghan women in France. While they were in Paris, the Afghan authorities apparently discovered her identity and ransacked the family apartment, making the their return impossible.

The genius of the book is its ability to make the reader feel that such a thing could actually happen to any of us. Latifa does not come across as “foreign”. Although a devout Muslim, she enjoyed all the same things that American teens enjoy; she was a good student, with hopes of a bright future. Suddenly, all that was lost. She battled boredom and then depression, until she courageously began to teach some of the children in her building in one of what must have been many clandestine “schools” set up under the noses of the Taliban. This was why she was invited to go to Paris to speak on behalf of Afghan women. At the end of the book, she is pessimistic about the response: “…I don’t think anything will change. My father, ever the optimist, keeps telling me that … a word is never lost in the desert. One day it will burst into bloom…. Women listen to other women, and what you’ve told them will make people here understand what the Taliban are doing to you. A woman is not nothing. If a talib tells a woman she is nothing and he is everything, he is ignorant. Man is born of woman, the saint has a mother, the whole world was born in the body of a woman….” (pp. 196-197) But after the news that a fatwa has been issued against them and their apartment gutted, even her father is demoralized.

The book ends in 2001, after Al Qaeda’s attack on America but before the escalation of the American war in Afghanistan. A quick Google search does not bring up updated information on whether Latifa and her parents were ever able to return to their country or whether they were ever reunited with her brothers and sisters in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the United States. In any case, as I write, the Taliban are still in control of parts of Afghanistan and are still presumably waging war on the women and girls of Afghanistan.

The book is simply written and would be accessible to upper-intermediate and advanced English language learners.

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