Zheela was a lovely girl. She was tall, beautiful, fair, intelligent, caring and a good cook. She came from an influential, decent and rich Afghan family and the family was widely respected. She was a good Muslim, prayed frequently and took the Islamic customs serious. She was the ideal bride for every afghan mother-in-law.
Only if she hadn’t had one flaw: Being too educated and too modern. Being grown up in Europe and financially having all the possibilities for the best life, she was a delicate brunette girl who had access to private schools and universities and lived a modern life with a up to date lifestyle.
I know Zheela since ten years. Never have I met a more caring and kind-hearted girl. Being the eldest in our friend circle of teenage girls, Zheela always took responsibility and set our boundaries straight, when we tried to cross them. She lived a life according to the modern-Afghan future we had ahead of us.
And yet she was still unmarried. For most afghan families Zheela was too modern to be a good wife for their sons. “What if she makes troubles for us, with her crazy beliefs and ideas”? The one or another interested mother would think and give up the thought of proposing her for her son. “How will I keep up with a girl with a Masters and a good job? What if she already had a boyfriend?” her son would ask himself and rather find a younger, not so educated girl.
The curse of being unmarried
If an afghan woman is unmarried, it’s like a curse having haunted her. The haunt, make the woman look like a miserable person. Even far away from our home country, in Europe. “Look at her”, the aunties will say. “Still no husband? – poor girl”
I remember when we used to dream about our future husbands. “He should be an Afghan of course and handsome and educated”, we used to say and giggle about the thought. But always were we perplexed about how to find an Afghan prince, when there were not many afghan boys around us in Europe and the ones we knew were “Savage Idiots”, as we called them.
Once both of us sat with our mothers in the living room of my home and had green Chai. We hadn’t crossed our eighteenth birthdays yet, when we had our random discussions about girl problems and future life plans, when we started talking about how Zheela and I wanted to get married by the time we were 24 and have children before 30, our mothers laughed at us saying “there still is a lot of time for you girls. Why would you waste your youth with a husband, when you spend the rest of your life with him anyway?” Zheela looked at me surprised. “They’re right”, she whispered. “Why should we?”
Both of our parents were liberal and never talked about getting us married or not to mention even arranging a marriage. We never talked about marrying young again. Instead, life carried us on and away and we started going to separate universities and eventually working in different fields. In these years me and Zheela hardly met, but we always kept in touch once a month, or posting a random “Missing you” on each others’ Facebook walls.
I met her again a few weeks back, being away from each other for months and rarely talking during that time. “I’m coming tomorrow”, I texted her. “Can’t wait. My mum is bringing me to the Mullah”, she replied. I thought she was making a joke and didn’t bother her unusual reply. I just thought about what a good time we’ll have, because no matter how much time we spent apart we always felt the closest. On my way to her city, I kept reminiscing about the good old times. “Why a mullah”? It would still cross my mind a few times over and over again while I was looking outside the car window on the long drive.
Fear of being left on the shelf
The day she had turned 26, everything changed for Zheela. Suddenly her parents began thinking about what would happen to Zheela – the unmarried girl.
Back in the days, Zheela was just 15; a few relatives came to their house to ask for her eldest daughter’s hand. Her parents dismissed the “Khaastgaarha” of course. “We’re not giving our daughters away that young and without a finished education”, they told them in the past. Now – her mother feared the spurned suitors had cursed Zheela.
She was going to take her to a Mullah, an Islamic cleric, to break the curse, so she could finally get a husband, Zheela told me. Mixing religion with superstitions is common among Afghans and apparently, in Zheela’s case, even among the very liberal and educated Afghans as well.
“My Mum is crazy”, she laughed nervously. “Suddenly my liberal parents are behaving like the Taliban. You know what my Grandmother said the other day? I shouldn’t tell anyone about my age, I should tell them I’m 21”. She laughed again, trying to make it look funny. I looked at her worried. Her dark, big eyes tried to laugh – but in real they were empty and tired. Zheela paused. “You know what the worst thing about that is?” She asked me after a while. “I actually believe this myself. I feel so pressurized to marry and can’t stop thinking about who might be suitable”.
I asked her if she really wanted to marry or it was her mother who hassled. “No!” She almost yelled at me. Even Zheela is surprised by the intensiveness of her usually soft voice. “I don’t want to marry! Why should I marry now, when I have a whole life to spend with my husband anyway?”…