Credit: Farial Tokhi.
(WOMENSENEWS)–Roya Hamid sat cross-legged on the velvet mat, a cup of green tea next to her. In her hand was a hand-blown blue glass vase. She took a paintbrush and drew meticulous golden lines on it. Her slender fingers drew miniatures around the curves, painstaking brushstrokes.
I watched her quietly with my laptop on my legs, admiring her talent. It was 2003, a hot, windy summer in our birthplace Herat, Afghanistan. Herat province borders Iran and boasts a 5,000-year history known for art and scholarship. Hand blowing blue glass is one of Herat’s original crafts.
I left Afghanistan as a 9-year-old in 1982 with my family, joining the 6 million Afghan refugees who escaped the Soviet invasion. We settled in the San Francisco Bay Area and I first returned in 2000 to Herat to report and to reconnect with my homeland.
Roya’s father Sayed Naim Hamid is my mother’s paternal first cousin and they owned a sprawling orchard home in a posh area of the city. On my frequent trips to Afghanistan, when I wasn’t in the field reporting, I was sitting with Roya on her family’s Persian carpets chatting about life and eating the sumptuous meals of rice with saffron, lamb stew and yogurt that she and her sisters prepared. I wrote about the lives of the Afghan women I met, but inside this home were the women I looked up to–Roya, her sisters and her mother.
The Hamid family included the parents and their seven daughters. Three daughters lived abroad with their families and four remained in Herat. Of the women in Herat, all were either in school or were educated professionals who had equal authority and respect in the house.
Two of the daughters in Herat were married when I first met them, and two, including Roya, were single. When suitors came to ask for Roya’s and Paimana’s hand, their parents told the suitors it was their daughters’ choice. If my aunt and uncle wanted to spend money or have a dinner party, the girls were consulted. My aunt and uncle were exceptionally open-minded in a country where 60 percent of girls are forced into marriage.
When Roya and I first met, I immediately liked her careful candor. We were very different personalities. I can be loud and verbose; she was quiet and pondered before every word she uttered. When she did speak, she could be brutally honest.
Roya got accepted to medical school but she did the unheard of — she chose art school. In her second year of university, the Taliban seized Herat and shut down all education and work for females. My cousins were devastated. Their parents hired private tutors but they were trapped at home. Roya showed me how she turned to religion when the Taliban hijacked Islam. She painted oil on canvas, the image of a woman behind bars with her tears dropping on to the kabbah, believed to be the house of God in Mecca. She was pious – prayed five times a day, fasted regularly — but by no means was she submissive. She finished art school and got a job with a telephone company. It paid the bills. She knew her passion, art, would not make her a living.
She and I formed a deep friendship through the years as I traveled back and forth to Herat between 2000 and 2007. She was my confidante, we had a kinetic connection. Sometimes when I sat deep in thought, she knew what was on my mind. “Are you upset because of the girls burning themselves?” she asked. The night before we had watched a report on Herat TV about the increasing number of women self-immolating to escape forced marriages.
“Yeah, it’s horrifying. And the worst part is . . . “
“People blame the girl for her misery,” she finished my sentence.
I asked her one starry night on the orchard patio, “What’s your ultimate wish in life?” She let out a soft laugh.
“I live in Afghanistan. I’m a woman without a foreign passport. I’m not allowed to wish. But I don’t mind,” she muttered. “Een donya faaneest (This world is temporary).”
We both waited until a later age to marry and when we did, our ceremonies were in Herat only months apart. I moved to the U.S. with my husband after I became pregnant with my first daughter and it was no longer safe to stay in Kabul. Roya did not have the choice to leave with her partner. She became pregnant five years later in 2011, and I was ecstatic for her. I didn’t call. I just wished her congratulations on Facebook.
It is the biggest regret of my life so far. I should’ve picked up the phone and listened to her tranquil voice.
On Feb. 3, 2012, after a fundraising event for Afghanistan in Fremont, Calif., my husband Naeem informed me that Roya had died. He received a message from another one of my cousins on Facebook. Social media now sends us death messages.
I looked at him in disbelief, then broke down in the parking lot of the banquet hall, refusing to accept the news.
Afghanistan has one of the highest rates of maternal mortality in the world. One in 11 women die in childbirth in the country, partly because only 14 percent of pregnant women deliver in the care of a skilled attendant. Some families in rural areas do not allow women to be treated by male doctors and female midwives are outnumbered.
Not Improved Enough
Conditions and maternal mortality have improved in Afghanistan over the last 10 years, but not enough to save Roya. She died of a lung embolism in Herat hospital after her daughter was delivered stillborn. She was seven months pregnant. She was in her 30s.
Her sister Dr. Lina stood by her side when she said she could not breathe after the delivery. Roya’s amniotic fluid mixed with the blood in her lungs, suffocating her. Doctors tell me it’s a painless and quick death. They tell me even in the U.S. or other developed countries women die of embolisms during childbirth. It’s rare and hard to treat because it kills so fast. But that doesn’t give me much solace.
Roya, which means dream in Farsi, was the daughter of Afghanistan, the symbol of a perennial struggle, of lost dreams. She wanted to be a painter, wanted to show in her pieces the many challenges of Afghan women who can be jailed for falling in love, killed for running away, beaten for being wives.
In my living room are two reminders of Roya. One is the blue vase she surprised me with as a going-away gift on one of my trips to the United States. The delicate artwork displays famous Afghan landmarks set in a miniature golden background. But my favorite is her last present for me–a simple watercolor of two girls peeking curiously through their compound door. It represents the resilience of Afghan women to continue searching, to continue the fight for basic rights, to seek freedom. It’s framed high on the wall and imprinted in my heart.
Fariba Nawa is a journalist and author of “Opium Nation: Child Brides, Drug Lords and One Woman’s Journey through Afghanistan.”
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