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A Portrait Of Female Incarceration (and Dispossession) in Chil Mahtab, Afghanistan

"A House Without Windows" by Nadia Hashimi.


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A House Without Windows [Amazon | Book Depository]

Written by Nadia Hashimi
Published by William Morrow (2016)
ISBN: 0062449680 (ISBN13: 9780062449689). Bought a copy of the book. Book quote layout via Typorama and Pixlr.

I learned about this novel from one of our PhD students (and fellow bibliophile) in the university. Since it has been awhile since I have read anything from Afghanistan, I immediately hunted it down and read it during International Women’s Month (March).

The premise of the book suggested that it will be a fast-paced novel with a man dead, hatchet buried at the back of his skull, and the wife, Zeba, found bloodied beside him in their home. The narrative became even more interesting for me as I noticed several story threads being expertly woven by the author: (1) that of the idealistic, well-intentioned Afghani-American lawyer named Yusuf who went back to Afghanistan from New York to serve disadvantaged women from his country of birth, (2) Zeba who was detained (but more like imprisoned) for the murder of her husband, and awaiting a conviction, (3) the story of Zeba’s mother, the green-eyed jadu, who wielded power through sorcery and enchantment, (4) the harrowing tales of all the women imprisoned along with Zeba.

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Given our current theme on migration, I thought that Yusuf’s decision to return to Afghanistan for a period of time clearly demonstrated the challenges third-culture individuals usually face: he is not really Afghani (as can be seen in the quote above) as regarded by people from his country of birth, nor will he ever be fully perceived as American in his country of citizenship. As I was writing this review, I started thinking how different it would have been if perhaps Yusuf was an Afghani-American woman – but perhaps, this was also intentional in the part of the author, but it does bear thinking about.

I was especially riveted by the narratives of the other women who were imprisoned in Chil Mahtab – located outside of Kabul. Zeba seemed to be the only one who was imprisoned for murder – mainly because other women suspected of doing such an act would have been killed outright by a mob of angry, righteous people – before even being arrested by the police.

All the other incarcerated women committed the crime of fighting back against abusive husbands or fathers or family members or accused of having sex outside of marriage – called zina or crimes of immoralityeven just a mere suspicion is enough to dishonor a woman and her family. Other women were imprisoned as they were paying for the sins of male family members who escaped punishment from the authorities. This quote below from the book felt especially poignant to me.

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While I initially struggled with the writing – finding it to be overwritten in the first few parts – the story picked up for me towards the middle and the latter part, and the twists while reminiscent of a telenovela – still felt infinitely gratifying.

In the Acknowledgments page, the author, Afghani-American Nadia Hashimi (born and raised in the US), wrote about Heather Barr’s Human Rights Watch report “I Had To Run Away”: The Imprisonment Of Women and Girls for ‘Moral Crimes’ in Afghanistan as her main inspiration and primary resource for writing this fictional story. It made me interested to find out even more about the real-life narratives of women from Afghanistan – thoroughly dispossessed of any future whatsoever when summarily judged for a moral crime.

This was an illuminating read – and a fairly good selection – for women’s month, although of course it left me feeling depressed. It simply goes to show that there is still much work that needs to be done.


#SurvivalStories2021 Update: 38 out of target 100

Myra is a Teacher Educator and a registered clinical psychologist based in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates. Prior to moving to the Middle East, she lived for eleven years in Singapore serving as a teacher educator. She has edited five books on rediscovering children’s literature in Asia (with a focus on the Philippines, Malaysia, India, China, Japan) as part of the proceedings for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content where she served as the Chair of the Programme Committee for the Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference from 2011 until 2019. While she is an academic by day, she is a closet poet and a book hunter at heart. When she is not reading or writing about books or planning her next reads, she is hoping desperately to smash that shuttlecock to smithereens because Badminton Is Life (still looking for badminton courts here at UAE - suggestions are most welcome).

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