Report from the field: ‘Investigating trauma therapeutic interventions using traditional story-telling in Afghanistan’

Report from the field: ‘Investigating trauma therapeutic interventions using traditional story-telling in Afghanistan’

By Dr. Ayesha Ahmad of The UCL Centre for Gender and Global Health

Afghan rapper, Sonita Alizadeh, writes in the beginning of her song “Brides for Sale” that;

“My voice shouldn’t be heard as it is against sharia. Women must remain silent. This is this city’s tradition”.

Against this backdrop, I travelled to Afghanistan with the purpose of collecting stories of women who have lived lives of gender-based violence and have been silenced in their stories of suffering.

Stories in Afghanistan form a landscape of travelling tales that have been shared through traditions and tribes. Bearing witness to war, though, fragments narratives and words carrying trauma burden the scriptures of the story-tellers and the prism through which stories are told is magnified.

The colours of fire represent good health and ripeness and are celebrated during festivities for the Persian New Year. As the flames burn, they light the story of a new cycle of life. Yet just before this occasion on March 19th 2015, 27 year old Farkhunda was murdered in an act of gender-based violence under the shadows of one of Kabul’s’ central mosques.

Farkhunda was burnt; a symbolic act of extinguishing life as well as beaten, dragged, lynched, drowned in the short distance between the shrine where she worked as a religious teacher and a non-descript spot further down the street where her mutilated lifeless body was abandoned.

I walked in silence tracing her final path in life; for an Afghan woman there is very little space between life and death. As I reached the point of her death, I spent some moments reflecting on the memorial that has now been situated to remember the injustices that Farkhunda suffered.

The legacy of Farkhunda is her voice. Her words were the precipitator for her death. When Farkhunda challenged a mullah in the shrine about his preparing of talisman, she was falsely accused of burning the Qur’an. She defended herself and she defended justice. The power of her words were her only weapons, but her life was taken away to silence her.

In Afghanistan, I was surrounded by stories. And silence. The silence was a silenced act rather than a silence of a space in time and self. It was a nullification of truth. To share a story in this context is an act of resistance but the sharing of the story is also the most powerful way to die. Words are a woman’s weapon and the stories—the silenced stories—are the vessels for a war threading through the narratives of all language tongues that speak of suffering.

As a researcher, I was formatting and analysing the interviews of the women who had participated in our project on ‘Investigating Trauma Therapeutic Interventions for Gender Based Violence in Afghanistan Using Traditional Story-Telling”. At the same time, the stories and the silencing betrayed the legacy of a culture rich in story-telling of creation and shared-ness.

Bearing witness to suffering has meant I have returned to London with the weight of words that were given as a gift in the hope that stories will change situations, and when situations change, stories will change. War and violence has changed a culture of story-telling to a culture of story-silencing. Culture is the forgotten element of conflict. Now I work to honouring and remembering the stories of childhoods, of traumas, of memories, of violence, of war, and of the hope of the stories that women want to be able to tell where they can write, and read, their own story.

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