x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Zarghuna Kargar on taking part in Girl Rising

The Afghan journlist tells the story of a girl living in her home country as part of the much-talked-about film.

Zarghuna Kargar is the author of Dear Zari and the former host of the BBC's Afghan Woman's Hour. Courtesy Charlie Hopkinson
Zarghuna Kargar is the author of Dear Zari and the former host of the BBC's Afghan Woman's Hour. Courtesy Charlie Hopkinson

A frail Afghan girl wearing a faded headscarf stares into the camera. Her name is Amina. Married to her cousin when she was 11 in exchange for US$5,000 (Dh18,365), which her father spent on a car for her brother, Amina lives with her in-laws but is determined to learn and get an education. There is sadness in her gaze, but also strength.

Amina's story is part of Girl Rising, which follows nine girls across the developing world whose lives could be changed by education. Her portion of the film was written by the Afghan journalist Zarghuna Kargar, who grew up in a liberal family in Kabul and received an education. Her father was a politician; the family lived well. But when the Mujaheddin took control, Kargar's father lost his job and the family lived in fear. In 1994, they fled Afghanistan for Pakistan.

"Leaving Afghanistan changed the course of my life," says Kargar, now 30. "There was so much uncertainty about the future and what it held for me. We escaped and our only thought was of survival. I left behind my friends, my school, my home. I hoped we'd return, but we never did."

In Pakistan, Kargar's family settled in Peshawar. Years passed, and Kargar headed for university to study journalism and began recording radio stories about Afghan refugee women. In the late 1990s, her family moved to the UK, claiming asylum. Despite the upheaval, Kargar kept working. She began presenting the BBC's Afghan Woman's Hour, a groundbreaking programme that launched in 2005. Women trusted Kargar with their life stories, sharing the hardships they endured because of their gender.

When Kargar returned to Afghanistan for Woman's Hour, she had been away for more than a decade. "It was emotional," she says. "Kabul wasn't the same as when I left it. I started crying because I realised life had changed so much there. It doesn't feel like home at all now. As a woman, I don't feel safe there. I'm too free for there. People judge you on the way you walk, the way you talk. My entire way of life changes when I go back there."

With every trip, Kargar collected new stories: child brides married off to settle family disputes, widows scorned by the rest of society, in-laws forcing daughter-in-laws to sleep in cattle sheds - but also of these women's strength and will to survive. Many of the stories were published in Kargar's book, Dear Zari, an anthology of the lives of Afghan women, which came out in 2011.

"I cried every time I heard their stories, and I still cry now every time I read them. Hearing their pain makes me more motivated to share their stories and do whatever I can to help them. If my work can change just one girl's life, then I know I'm doing the right thing," she says.

Speaking to Amina (whose name was changed for safety) for Girl Rising was equally hard for Kargar. "I asked her what she thought her future would be and she started crying and asked me: 'What will it be? You will leave. But what will I do?'"

The stories in Dear Zari inspired Kargar in a personal way, too. When she was 16, she was engaged to a man her parents had chosen for her; at 21, she was married to him. She felt she had no choice, and was deeply unhappy in a loveless marriage.

"When I was presenting on Woman's Hour, it struck me that these women were trusting me so much and being so honest, but where was my honesty? I felt like a hypocrite. So I felt I had to do something about it." Kargar divorced in 2006.

Now Kargar is settled in London, where her immediate family lives. Even though Afghan Woman's Hour was shut down, she still reports on women's issues for the BBC's Afghan Service. Kargar is optimistic about the future, for herself, and for all the girls like Amina. "I'd love to marry and start a family and share a home with someone I love and who loves me. Who doesn't want that? And I really hope that Amina finds that, too."

Dear Zari is published by Vintage Books, Random House