It was while recording a story about the impossibility of divorce for women in Afghanistan that broadcaster and author Zarghuna Kargar decided she must find the strength to end her own arranged marriage. Brought up in Kabul and then Pakistan after her family fled from the Taliban, she was engaged at 16 to a distant relative she had never met and married in London after her family claimed asylum in Britain.
Trained by the BBC World Service’s charitable arm in Pakistan, in London she became the presenter of World Service’s Afghan Woman’s Hour, a weekly magazine program modeled on the UK’s domestic BBC radio’s Woman’s Hour that highlighted the terrible position of women in Afghan society. The show was a huge hit and was praised for its frank treatment of subjects including domestic violence and homosexuality.
But though her own family was educated and liberal, and her parents moved to the west partly for the benefit of their five daughters, an arranged marriage was expected and Zarghuna accepted that.
“I did have a lot of arguments with my parents during the engagement but it was something I had to do,” she says. “I had to either be a good Afghan girl, who accepted whatever decision was made for me, or be a bad girl and leave. Breaking an engagement was a big thing and I got scared. So I decided, I’m a good Afghan girl, I’m going to do it the Afghan way. And we got married. The whole time it was a horrible feeling.”
Now Zarghuna, who is 28 and known as Zari because some British people find the guttural “gh” sound difficult, has written about her miserable three-year marriage in her first book. Dear Zari is a heart-wrenching anthology of the personal stories broadcast on Afghan Woman’s Hour. It includes appalling stories of abuse — of girls given away as household slaves to settle family feuds, of widows shunned, of wives blamed for giving birth to daughters.
Interwoven are intimate details of the author’s life, including her wedding night. “God, please make sure I bleed; that’s the only wish I have. I don’t want money or a big house to live in — I just want this blood,” was Kargar’s prayer on the day of her marriage. Submitting to her husband, Javed, whom she did not like and hardly knew, and shaking uncontrollably, she spent the night weeping uncontrollably because the wished-for “proof” of her virginity did not materialize.
“As a result, my married life had begun with my husband failing to trust me,” she writes. “Whenever he spoke unkindly to me after that, I thought it was because he didn’t believe I’d been a virgin on my wedding night.”
Unlike many of the Afghan marriages she describes, Kargar’s relationship was not violent. She and Javed did not even argue that much, she says, because they were not that involved. “It was my destiny, but it wasn’t a good feeling. He was about 25 — a young man — but when I met him it didn’t really work for me in a girl way, or a woman way. I just didn’t have any feelings and I think it was the same from his side. We were just put together by two families.”
Kargar says that she tried to embrace her role as a wife, but they barely talked — she thinks partly because Javed envied her career. She hoped if he got a good job, the situation might improve, but instead she got lonelier and more convinced that their marriage was a disaster.