The Afghans by Asne Seierstad

Reviewed by E.B. Heath

Asne Seierstad, the bestselling author of The Bookseller of Kabul, returned to Afghanistan in 2022 with the goal of understanding more about the Taliban’s regime.  As an investigative journalist, she wanted to report what had changed now they were in power, what had stayed the same and what did they wish to achieve.  Her latest non-fiction work, The Afghans, continues with recurring themes of Afghan women struggling with patriarchal customs that prohibit education for girls.  As a female reporter, she was allowed access to the women in their homes thus able to give readers an intimate picture of domestic life.

Seierstad relates the personal stories of three Afghans: Jamila, a women’s rights activist; Bashir, a Taliban commander; and Ariana, a law student.  Each subject’s formative years span differing periods of Afghanistan’s turbulent history, so revealing how complex political and social issues were experienced, particularly by women and girls.  Seierstad suspends judgement, focusing only on the perspective of the subject’s story.

Jamila was born in 1976 amid all the turbulence of that era.  The pro-Soviet General Mohammed Daoud Khan advocates for a new constitution with the idea of modernizing the communist state, in which he grants women’s rights along with the ability to participate in the workforce.  He paid for this ambition with his life at the hands of the Afghan Communist Party who took control although the infighting between the communist leaders continued.  Added to this maelstrom of discontent, the Mujahadeen came into being to oust the Soviet-backed government.  In 1979, the USSR invades Afghanistan and the waring tribes unite against the Russian invaders. By the 1980s the Mujahadeen control rural areas while Soviet troops hold urban areas. Jamila’s family lived in an urbane area so education was possible, although unusual for a girl. But Jamila had badgered her father until he relented and allowed her to attend school along with her brothers.  In her early years, she had the misfortune being infected by polio, which turned out to be her good luck as it was not expected she could attract a husband, so an alternative life was planned.  Jamila achieved so much, founding an organisation promoting education for women and girls. Then the Taliban came into power.  Fearing for their lives, her family left, but her fight for women’s freedom did not end there.  As Seierstad relates Jamila’s life history, readers appreciate the extent of her continuing bravery and persistence.

Bashir, born in 1987, was the youngest and favourite son of Hala.  As a supporter of the Mujahideen, his father had been killed by the Russian occupying forces.  Hala had no intention of marrying again, she made her own decisions raising her children strictly by the ancient ancestral code of Pashtunwali. Bashir was indoctrinated in its tenets of honour and hospitality, courage and loyalty, justice and revenge.  Revenge playing the larger and seemingly more satisfying role.  Bashir’s happiness along with jihad was central to Hala’s family.  By the time Bashir was a teenager he was planting roadside bombs, in his twenties he was a Taliban guerrilla commander attacking American convoys.  When Seierstad interviewed Bashir he was a respected member within the Taliban regime, living in a gated villa with his mother, two wives, and engaged to a sixteen-year-old, soon to be his third wife.  The conversations with Bashir’s family give the reader an insight to traditional life, placing the happiness of the husband above all other considerations. The goals and purpose of jihad had been so central to their lives a restlessness seemed to pervade in peace time. This section gave insight to the perspective of those who accept culture norms in contrast to Jamila’s story. Jamila imagines a different vision for Afghanistan, where educated women play an equal role in running the county, as does Seierstad’s third subject – Ariana.

Ariana’s story is heartbreaking, born in 2001, she straddles two regimes. Under the American and NATO peacekeeping operation she was encouraged to be educated and in the last term of a law degree when the regime changed.  Since that time there has been nothing but disappointment and sadness.  Unable to complete her degree, with her family living in perpetual fear, they can only see marriage as her possible future.  Seierstad relates this section with such empathy.  Young women who desire education, a career, are now confined to live behind closed doors.  All the while the Taliban continue to make false promises about future change.  Jamila, who studied The Quran in Arabic, makes it clear The Quran declares that everyone should be able to read, including women, and that women are to be an integral part of society.  The Taliban’s insistence that women are the property of husbands, valued only as producers of males, is a cultural requirement springing from rural areas, not a religious one.  Seierstad leaves it to readers to draw their own conclusions regarding the motivations of the Taliban.

Her initial goal, to investigate what had changed since the Taliban took power, and what had stayed the same, is made clear.  Nothing had stayed the same regarding advancement of women’s rights forged under NATO peace keeping.  And nothing had changed regarding the Taliban’s desire for everything to stay the same in line with ancient cultural norms, but it is not clear what they want to achieve other than that.

Whereas culture is a framework, some might say a cage, that directs how the world is seen and organised within a particular society, there are differing contexts within that culture that drastically influence personal experience.  Seierstad provides an empathetic nuanced view of three subjects’ lives in a fraught Afghanistan.

Highly recommended.

The Afghans

by Asne Seierstad


Hachette Australia


ISBN: 978 140871 794 3

$34.99; 428pp


ISBN:  978 140871 793 6



ISBN: 978 140871 792 9


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