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Afghan women write their stories through The Shoe Project


The January snow-laden trees outside my Toronto window were far away from the empty concrete walls of a room somewhere in Pakistan. I reached out with my voice to close the distance. I had just begun working with a group of young Afghan women who fled their country after the fall of Kabul on Aug. 15, 2021.

Through The Shoe Project, which I founded, a group of writers and artists, including distinguished Canadian novelist Caroline Adderson and brilliant Banff soprano Nan Hughes, coaches women immigrants and refugees using a pair of shoes as a metaphor to express their journey.

We’ve been making stories with newcomer women, refugees, for eleven years. Usually they were already in Canada, their hoped-for destination. This time, they hadn’t yet arrived, and so this was new. We would be beamed via Zoom to their secret location near Islamabad, where they are staying until they can, one day soon, make it here. They were in the process of applying. New, too, because they were a migrant group, representatives of a unique generation, born at the turn of the twenty-first century when the West was attempting reform in Afghanistan; they were raised and educated and already changing their country. Until what happened that day.

As mentors we first met a gaggle of shy “girls” (as Afghans call all unmarried females). Their English was good. Shyness soon gave way to eloquence lashed by grief and fear, optimism and sheer grit. In Pakistan, they contended with insecure housing, several moves to what they hoped were safer locations, and lousy internet. Class might be at 6 a.m. Toronto time, or at 8.30 p.m. Vancouver. They had little freedom. They were lonely and feared for families left behind. When they didn’t show up, we worried. Mostly we signed on, listened, and watched how quickly they became their own best editors.

Maliha Kazimi had worked as journalist. The title of the book we’ve created from this project, “Waterlilies” is hers. “Waterlilies grow in the mud, nevertheless they blossom beautifully. Although the terrorist and extremist groups, discrimination, corruption, violence and insecurity, the dreadful explosions all … joined hands to terrorize us, we grew. We carried on (with) bloody books, broken pens, and pieces of fabric from the bloody bodies of our dear ones. We were hopeful … we believed in better days.”

She talked about her Kabul, the one she lived in before Aug. 15, 2021; I could picture it. She spoke of her generation: “Democratic values were in their infancy in Kabul Province; however my Democracy Generation had battled for them for 20 years. Our struggle between tradition and modernity was ongoing.

“Pole e Sorkh, near my neighbourhood, was one of the gathering places for the Democracy Generation. Streets were crowded with girls and boys, men and women on their way home from jobs, groups of friends shopping. You could see hope in the steps of all. Cafes, some owned by women, sprang up like mushrooms. In these, mixed groups of women and men, colleagues and artists gathered. Girls wore colourful clothes, laughing loudly, dreaming about their bright futures.”

These particular members of the Democracy Generation that we are coming to know are Hazara, a persecuted minority. Exceptionally well educated about human rights, they worked and studied, were activists and supported their parents, who perhaps could not read and write. They and their families are resilient. “In Afghanistan most people enjoyed such small happiness’s (sic),” wrote Maryam, thinking of her own happiness with the new shoes she bought with her first paycheck. “When it was Eid they were happy, when it was snowing they were happy and giving thanks to God, when there was no bomb explosion for some days they were happy, when it was Mother’s Day they were happy.”

Setara was a banker, Fahima a black belt in tae kwan do. “I saw lots of street harassment in Kabul,” she wrote. “I faced very bad looks and heard very bad things from men. One morning when I was walking to school a bicycle came and hit me on the buttocks. After that, I did not dare go through empty alleys or to crowded places, in case I would be harassed.” She spent five years training while in high school, then taught “self-defence and kicks up to ninth grade, to both boys and girls.”

As our classes stretched from February through March and were extended to April, the writers relived what they had been doing, ‘that night’ — Aug. 15, 2021, the night Kabul fell. Marwa was baking a fragrant spiced meat and vegetable dish, aykhanum, with her extended family of twenty. Farzana, already a public speaker in second year university, ran home when she heard: her father was out of country working and her mother was terrified. “That was not just a simple night like many others. It was a nightmare. A big reality nightmare with Taliban. People were running away. Women were shouting and crying in the streets. On that night birds were not flying. Dogs were not barking. As darkness fell, the silence of the devil took Kabul.” Faradis was in her scrubs in a hospital operating theatre when the Taliban burst in. “While leaving, I took one of my medical gowns and the stethoscope which were awarded to me for earning the top score at the Kabul University of Medical Science, also the red pen awarded for the completion of my research.”

As the months went on and the snow outside my Toronto window reluctantly gave way to lime-green leaf buds, they began to swelter. I learned about “load shedding” — in Pakistan, when the weather warms up, all electricity is shut off, for hours each day. I learned about their decisions to leave their homes. In late August and through to October, they quietly disappeared. Shekiba celebrated her father’s heroism in supporting her decision. “He said, ‘I don’t want you to have the same destiny that other girls have in Afghanistan.’ [He] accepted that we should come on this journey to continue our way. Many Afghans have had the experience of living as refugees in other countries and now we would join them.”

Najia described her farewell drive through Kabul, disguised in burqa and niqab. “Observing my city through mesh fabric was not comfortable, however, no freedom of choice was left for me. I wanted (to) shout loudly so that our male-dominant society and the Taliban would know that I am against oppression. LET ME BREATHE at least, for God’s sake! I was overwhelmed with feelings of guilt, loneliness and helplessness. I desperately wished I could do something for the people who would be left behind.”

Travelling east and south from Kabul and trying several land borders to Pakistan, they met face-to-face with the frightening Talib militants. With counterfeit documents — and guts and guile — they found their way out of the country. Sumi talked her way past armed guards, speaking to them in their own language, Urdu, which she picked up by watching TV serials. Fatima defiantly wore the forbidden white shoes: “Because the Taliban’s flag is white, they believe that wearing white shoes is disrespectful. I wore them to demonstrate my dissatisfaction with their system … As an Afghani girl, there were so many things that I wasn’t allowed to say. But my shoes could say them. I grabbed my long skirt and, lifting it, walked through to brightness with those white sneakers protesting with every step.”

They taught us. About their world, and how they built it, about how it ended overnight. They wrote powerfully. As we can’t hold a reading or performance yet, for safety issues, we have collected their stories into a chapbook entitled “Waterlilies.”

On this one-year anniversary, I think of the beauty and purifying power of the waterlilies. When our edits were done I did not say goodbye; we will meet again, IRL in a Canadian airport soon. I know Geti will become the politician she was born to be. “We will fight [the Taliban] not by gun but by education,” she says. “I and my friends who are with me will be back — with unlimited power.” Their stories do not stop here. Because an educated young woman — they are not girls, have they not earned the word? — who knows her rights will not be stopped.

To receive a copy of “Waterlilies” go to theshoeproject.online and donate.

Katherine Govier is the founder of The Shoe Project

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