Latifa is a pseudonym adopted by a young woman who grew up in Afghanistan when she travelled to Paris to talk about life in her country under the rule of the Taliban.

Latifa was born in 1980 and led a life of relative freedom and independence until the Taliban seized power in 1996. At that point, her life became ruled by fear and oppression the like of which you could not believe if you did not hear it from such a witness. The new rulers spewed forth orders and rules that had little to do with the Koran or with true Sharia law, and everything to do with revulsion for and hatred of women.

She tells how she and her sister did not go out of the house, partly out of unwillingness to comply with new requirements such as full covering under a heavy burqa (including a face covering) and partly out of fear of the consequences of some accidental infringement. She tells, for example, of women badly beaten with whips because they wore coloured shoes outside.

She tells how the Taliban prohibit women from working, and prohibit male doctors from treating women patients, thereby denying women any access whatever to healthcare. Latifa’s mother bravely runs a clandestine medical practice, treating women as best she can and obtaining drugs and equipment secretly from Pakistan. She treats women who have been beaten and raped and mutilated by their new woman-hating rulers. When she herself falls ill, her family must travel to Pakistan for treatment.

She tells how girls are denied any formal education whatever, while boys are taught only a Taliban-twisted version of religion and are given no secular studies at all. Latifa and her friends, bravely again, run a secret school for the children of the neighbourhood, teaching them secular subjects as best they can with what education they themselves had got. They also do what they can to run an underground newspaper to resist the Taliban propaganda machine.

When the family are asked to travel to Paris to speak to the outside world about Afghanistan, they take their lives in their hands and accept. They must pretend that they are travelling for health reasons and maintain strict anonymity when they reach France. However, this does not stop the Taliban from issuing a fatwa and from taking over the family home in Kabul and thus Latifa and her family are compelled to stay abroad as exiles, praying for the day when the Taliban leave and they can return to their home.

This is a seriously powerful story, the more so because it is truthfully and simply told. If you have ever thought that the systematic oppression of women in other countries might be “just a different culture”, read this book.

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