Zoya was just a year old when Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan in December 1979. By age 4, she made a Russian woman soldier cry when she refused to accept her proffered chocolate. She was raised mostly by her devout grandmother, while both parents worked to free their homeland. When Zoya was 8, her mother finally revealed her work: “to help women and to bring peace to her country” through RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan.
After the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, the local warlords moved in, bringing more violence than ever before: “… my people were exhausted after suffering war for so many years. They had thrown out the Russians, but they no longer had the strength to rise up against the fundamentalists.”
In 1992, both Zoya’s parents disappeared in quick succession. With RAWA’s help, Zoya’s grandmother took Zoya and fled Kabul for Pakistan, to finally give Zoya a “proper education.” Just two years later, at 16, Zoya committed her life to RAWA. Putting her own safety and comfort aside, she joins a growing legion of committed, brave women – and a few men – to empower Afghan women and girls, to voice their struggles, and to work ceaselessly to reclaim their country from the suffocating Taliban. By just 23, Zoya is an international presence, fighting for the basic human rights for every Afghan woman and child.
Zoya is not her real name. Ironically, while she adamantly refused the chocolate from the Russian soldier, years later, she unhesitatingly accepted a Russian writer’s parting request that she take her dead daughter’s name: ”I did not even think of the Russians who had invaded Afghanistan – I knew there was a huge difference between a country’s government and its people.” Her chilling, unembellished memoir, as told to two award-winning journalists, is a mixture of utter horror (how do human beings even imagine such heinous tortures, much less actually commit them??!!) and unflagging courage. The book’s back cover of the original hardcover simply lists just some of the “restrictions and mistreatment of women under the Taliban,” including bans against medical treatment of women by male doctors, bans against laughing loudly, wearing brightly colored clothes, washing clothes next to rivers or public places, and wearing flared wide-leg pants even under a burqa. That burqa-wearing woman, Zoya observes, “is more like a live body locked in a coffin.”
Again and again, the clearest message is the need for education, especially of women and girls: “the children of Afghanistan were allowed to carry a Kalashnikov but not their homework,” she wryly observes. Education saved Zoya, and she works tirelessly to educate other girls and women, knowing that only true knowledge will bring lasting power.