lynsey addario, photographer

Veiled Rebellion

Afghan women suffer under the constraints of tribalism, poverty, and war. Now they are starting to fight for a just life.

  
Presidential Dr. Abdullah Abdullah is surrounded by supporters at a rally in Kabul, Afghanistan, August 3, 2009.  The elders came to Dr. Abdullah to announce their support of his campaign for Presidency. As Afghans gear up to vote in presidential elections slated for August 20, the candidates are on the campaign trail.
  
In Herat the shrine to Shahzada Qasim, a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, is more than a thousand years old. One day of each week a section is partitioned so women can come to worship. Cordoned off to create a sanctuary for women, these prayer sections seem to me like some of the safest, most intimate places in the country. The women at the shrine in Herat are enveloped in chadors that cover them from head to foot, influenced by the style favored in neighboring Iran. In this shrine and in shrines throughout Afghanistan, some of the women weep uncontrollably. I always wonder why they are crying. Perhaps because of the deeply emotional nature of public prayer and the holiness of the place?
     
  
It's very delicate to photograph an Afghan wedding. The women are unveiled and often wear revealing dresses and heavy makeup. They are reluctant to share these images with the outside world. At this Kabul wedding the bride is Fershta, 18. She wears a green dress for the ceremony—a color associated with prosperity and paradise in Islamic tradition. The groom is Amin Shaheen, son of film director Salim Shaheen. The sober expression on his wife's face reflects the fact that marriage is an enormous milestone in an Afghan woman's life, not just a celebratory event.
  
Bibi Aisha was 19 when I met her in Kabul's Women for Afghan Women shelter in November 2009. Her husband beat her from the day she was married, at age 12. When he beat her so badly she thought she might die, she escaped to seek a neighbor's help. To punish her for leaving without permission, her husband, who is a Taliban fighter, took her to a remote spot in the mountains. Several men held her while he cut off her nose, ears, and hair. She screamed—to no avail.
  
On-air disc jockey Rokhsar Azamee, idolized by young Afghan girls, works a TV call-in show featuring song requests. Banned under the Taliban, television now has a huge audience, and Azamee's show is one of the reasons. Several popular programs currently feature women.
     
  
A male Ethiopian surgeon (wearing a green cap, at center left) shows the female staff at Malalai Maternity Hospital in Kabul how to repair a fistula—an abnormal hole between the vagina and bladder or rectum that can lead to infection and incontinence. The condition often occurs during childbirth in young mothers whose pelvises are not fully developed. If the problem isn't corrected with surgery, a woman is typically seen as bringing shame upon the family and is shunned by her husband.
  
An Afghan holds her sick daughter before Dr. Zubeida, a midwife from the mobile health unit funded by UNFPA , as she inquires about her daughter's condition as Zubeida offers pre-natal and anti-natal care, and are given counseling by  in Charmas Village, a remote area of Badakshan, Afghanistan, August 9, 2009.  Afghanistan, a country with little infrastructure, few clinics or hospitals, and dismal roads leading to many villages, has one of the highest rates of maternal mortality in the world.  Restricted access, coupled with a culture that keeps women at home, and subsequently often out of hospitals, leads to a staggering number of maternal deaths per year.
  
After traveling in remote areas where most women give birth at home, without even a midwife, I was relieved to visit the hospital in Faizabad, a provincial capital. The hospital's women doctors, nurses, and midwives work around the clock. These Afghan women, who trained both in Russia and Kabul, have the skills and equipment to deal with complications in childbirth, even though they barely have enough funds for rubber gloves and gowns. I photographed Kokogol, 25, delivering twins, with her mother by her side.
     
  
All village women are invited to come to health and hygiene classes taught by a traveling midwife—wearing a white hijab and glasses in this photograph. She works for a mobile clinic sponsored by the United Nations Population Fund and the international medical relief group Merlin, which brings pre- and postnatal care to women in isolated villages like this one in northeastern Badakhshan Province. She travels with a male nurse, who gives routine checkups to the kids.
  
This mother walked five hours to see a midwife at a mobile outreach clinic in the village of Koreh-e Bala. She waits outside a family compound for medical advice about her ten-month-old baby, who has been sick since birth.
  
Afghan policewomen handle AMD-65 rifles at a dusty firing range outside Kabul. They are trained by carabinieri, Italian military police from the local NATO troops. Joining the police force is a bold decision for an Afghan woman. Insurgents often attack the police. Very few women get permission to sign up from their husband and male relatives. Of 100,000 officers, only about 700 are female. Yet women are welcome recruits. They can take on tasks that men cannot because of Islamic custom: frisking other women, searching homes where female family members are present. Many who take the job are widows of fallen officers cast in the role of breadwinner. The pay is about $165 a month.
     
  
These young Afghan women are part of a team that will compete at the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London, where women's boxing will debut as an official sport. The athletes triumphed just by getting their families to sign on to the idea of their daughters participating in sports. During matches in public venues, the members of the Oxfam-supported team, now competing in South Asia, cover their hair with hijab worn beneath their head guards. That's not a problem for the International Boxing Association, as long as the boxer's face is clearly visible. Here, practicing indoors in Kabul, they can go bareheaded.
  
These two girls have been dressed up and made up for a relative's wedding in Kabul. Many Afghan women and girls put on makeup and spend hours at the hair salon for such an occasion. Young girls are able to show off their makeovers. But once a girl arrives at the age of puberty, she masks herself from men with a burka or hijab.
  
With face, hair, and arms in full view, actress Trena Amiri chauffeurs a friend around Kabul on a Friday. She blasts her favorite songs off a cassette and shimmies and sings along, tapping the steering wheel as she dances in the driver's seat. Even in relatively progressive Kabul, men and women glare, honk, and scream at her. It provokes men in Afghanistan to see strong women. It symbolizes a freedom they just aren't comfortable with. Amiri fled her husband of seven years, who, she says, kept her home and beat her. She left her three sons behind. She doesn't plan to remarry but knows she might have to in order to survive in Afghanistan, where women are dependent on men for so many things. When I ask about her current boyfriend, whose name is on the gold bracelet around her wrist, she says she couldn't marry him:
     
  
A female inmate at a Mazar-e Sharif prison has just been released, prompting Maida-Khal, 22, to cry out because she is still trapped in her cell. When Maida-Khal was 12, she was married to a man of about 70 who was paralyzed.
  
Bibi, about 60 years old, sits with empty pods of opium as she scrounges for drugs to smoke at home in Shortepa district outside of Mazar e Sharif, in Afghanistan. As a child, she used to collect the opium harvest, and became addicted when she was about 12 years old. she has been smoking and eating opium for about fifty years, and her neighbors take care of her. She says 'I have no children to take care of me now that I am old. Opium is my son, is my daughter. All winter, I didn't have food. Opium was my food.'
  
     
  
In Esteqlal Hospital in Kabul, doctors tried to save 15-year-old Zahra, who had doused herself with petrol and set herself on fire after she was accused of stealing from her neighbors. The teenager, from Mazar-e Sharif, suffered burns over 95 percent of her body. She died three days after I took this picture.
  
Gulam Farouq, a soldier in the Afghan National Army, hands out bread to Afghan widows and other women outside the shrine to Sufi poet and philosopher Kwaja Abdullah Ansari in Herat. In a country with 35 percent unemployment and 36 percent of people living below the poverty line, Afghan soldiers and police officers typically collect donations from visitors in the area around the shrine and pass them on to the poor and the disabled.
  
Lance Cpl. Elisabeth Reyes of the U.S. Marine Corps chats with Afghan women and their children at a clinic in Helmand Province, located in the south and considered one of the country's most dangerous areas. She is a member of the relatively new female engagement teams that accompany all-male foot patrols. These teams communicate with, and try to gain the trust of, Afghan women, who are not allowed to speak to men outside of their family in this conservative region. Reyes and other team members helped cordon off part of a clinic in the district of Now Zad to provide separate treatment areas for the sexes.
     
  
Habiba Sarabi of Bamian Province, the only female governor in Afghanistan, takes her morning walk in the hills, security officer in tow. Bamian Province, famous for the giant Buddha statues destroyed by the Taliban, is one of the most open-minded provinces for women, who are able to drive and work outside the home. Still, Sarabi's appointment to the governorship by President Hamid Karzai in 2005 was considered a bold move.
  
Young women, many of them studying to become teachers, relax in the Women's Garden of a park intended for families outside the city of Bamian. Established by the province's female governor, Habiba Sarabi, the garden provides a place for Afghan women to enjoy the outdoors. These picnickers gather for a typical Afghan feast of flatbread, goat, lamb, and fruit—with a hint of Western flavor in their choice of soda.
  
Many girls in Afghanistan get no education at all. Even those who do enroll in a school typically study for just four years. So these members of Kabul University's class of 2010 are definitely in the minority. Wearing hijab under their mortarboards and seated in separate rows from their male peers, the women pictured are graduates of the department of language and literature. The Taliban had banned the education of women, but classes resumed after the regime fell in 2001. This graduation was held under tight security at a hotel in Kabul because of an upsurge in terrorist attacks.