Zahra Yaganah was married off to a violent man at 13. Now an author, her book is shining a light on abuse in Afghanistan
When Zahra Yaganah was a child, her mother beat her three times. Once for dropping a tray of glasses. Twice for allowing the food to burn because she was so absorbed reading Victor Hugos Les Misrables.
Yaganah was 11, and already bookish. Growing up as an Afghan refugee in Iran, she learned from her mother how to cook, a skill befitting hardworking women. But her real love was the printed page. Later, when her life had become a purgatory of violence and abuse, both cooking and literature helped save her.
In what has become one of the fastest-selling books in Afghanistan, Yaganah chronicles her traumatic life. Light of Ashes, released in March, is part fiction, part gut-wrenching memoir tainted by the oppression she says almost all Afghan women suffer.
The book, she hopes, will help women break free. It is impossible for Afghan women to read this book and not find an issue that reflects their life story, she says. Women can find their path, despite all the problems they have.
To help break the oppression, Yaganah breaks taboos. She writes explicitly about topics such as marital rape, menstruation and the lifelong damage caused by child marriages.
Two people appear in the book with real names. One is Zahra, the teenage protagonist based on the author who was married at 13 to a man twice her age.
The characters husband beats her violently as Yaganahs did in real life and takes the salary she earns at a brick kiln to sustain his drug habit. It is in telling the story of her marriage that Yaganahs writing is most disturbing, and groundbreaking.
Yaganahs own wedding night was a tremendously painful ordeal. I thought I had to serve my husband like a king, she says. Barely a teenager, she had no concept of what penetrative sex meant. The morning after, she woke up in hospital.
In the book, she writes: I hated marriage, the wedding night, the concept of husband and wife and all things that ended with pain. Hate was a dress that fit snug around my body. At night when we were brought to the bedroom, without any exchange of words between us, I found Sultan by my side. Immediately afterwards a severe pain pierced my body. I could not remember anything after it. When I opened my eyes, I found myself in a hospital bed.
To Yaganah, female empowerment is inextricably tied to the sexual enlightenment of both sexes. Marital sex in Afghanistan is often tantamount to rape, and is something many women suffer, she says.
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