I picked up “The Lovers” by Rod Nordland because it caught my eye, and I decided to read it with almost no idea of what it was about. All I had to go on was the cover: “The Lovers Afghanistan’s Romeo and Juliet The True Story of How They Defied Their Families and Escaped an Honor Killing.” (Though I did read the back cover before I started the book.)
Nordland is a New York Times journalist working in Kabul, Afghanistan. He wrote this book from interviews and research he did for the Times as the story was unfolding.
It follows Ali and Zakia, two young adults who found themselves in love, despite ethnic differences (Hazara vs. Tajik). Her family does not approve of the match, and when the couple elopes, her family vows to kill them. Honor killings such as this is often seen to be the only way to right certain wrongs that shame the family.
The book details the life the couple leads, constantly in the run, meeting challenge after challenge, trying to find a safe place to live and start a family.
But this book is also a detailed look at certain aspects of life in Afghanistan, specifically the oppression toward women.
Men–whether father, brothers, uncles or cousins– take ownership of the women in their families. Women are property. A good match may bring benefit to the family. A bad match, disobedience, or even crimes against a woman being shame to the family, and frequently the responsibility is laid on the woman, she should not have put herself in to a position that led to the shameful act.
Ali and Zakia’s story is a case study, wherein Nordland explores the history and current state of women’s rights in Afghanistan, as well as looking at the challenges of balancing religious law with government law, and a growing desire among many young people to do away with traditional arranged marriages and allow young adults to choose their own spouses.
Nordland does a good job of weaving these threads together and highlighting them throughout the story. He also presents several moments especially interesting to me, as a journalist, where he discusses his ethical dilemma of wanting to help the fugitives, but also recognizing his professional obligation to remain objective and detached. He also poses the question that journalists often have to consider in sensitive stories: does the publicity help or hinder?
Nordland does not offers answers to these questions, but as a fellow journalist, I appreciated his transparency in bringing it up in a book where he could easily have overlooked them; not everyone understands the journalistic demand to be detached from even heart-wrenching situations.
After he concludes Ali and Zakia’s story (the story so far), Nordland includes a (semi) lengthy history of the fight for women’s rights in Afghanistan, dating back to post-World War II and communist Russia’s involvement in Afghanistan, which includes many attempts at promoting rights for women. Despite continued affords by European nations and the U.S., however, a 2013 study of 187 countries ranked Afghanistan as the 169th-worst country to be a woman in.
Nordland offers no call to action nor any solutions, but simply draws attention to the ongoing struggle in a country where America has invested billions of dollars (according to Nordland). Yet when a situation came to attention that was not in keeping with American values and ideals, government was seen to be dragging its feet and abstaining from action, wary of appearing to have wasted money on a government that proved contrary and largely unchanged.
The book offers a striking look at what it is like to live as a woman in Afghanistan– or at least to live as a woman who refuses to be property.
Whether the hope behind the book was to renew a fading interest in women’s rights in Afghanistan or not, it serves as a stark reminder of all that many of us take for granted.