Malalai sponged her daughter’s forehead. Two restless days had transformed her from a lively 11 year-old into a sunken-eyed husk. Malalai knew she dared delay no longer.
‘Amina,’ she whispered, ‘Amina.’
Pale eyelids flickered.
‘Amina, we must get you to hospital. You must get up and let me dress you. I will help.’
‘Can’t.’ The words were mouthed, not spoken. ‘Can’t move. Can’t go out.’
‘We must.’ Cold fear was settling in Malalai’s heart. ‘Amina, sit up.’ She took the child’s hand and hauled. Desperation lent her roughness.
Amina shrieked with pain. ‘You’re hurting me! Mother, leave me to die.’
Malalai shook her head. ‘I will not. Now lift your arms. Here’s your burqa.’
She pulled the voluminous blue garment over her daughter’s rigid frame, straightening it around her shoulders and adjusting the mesh over her eyes before quickly pulling on her own. Then she pulled Amina to her feet, slipping her arm around the slim waist, and feeling the reflex tightening of the abdominal muscles as she did so.
‘Now, Amina, lean on my shoulders. I’ll take your weight.’
They staggered to the door. Bracing herself, Malalai opened it and they shuffled into the Afghan sun.
The street was almost empty. Once they saw the blue ghost of a woman scurrying behind her husband. Later a bearded man passed them, appraising them from hooded eyes. Women unaccompanied by a male relative were breaking the law and outside its protection. If amro bil mahroof, the religious police, didn’t pick them up, any man with evil intent might do so with complete immunity. Malalai shuddered, and they hobbled on.
A few minutes later they came to a familiar house.
‘Mother, Janan lives here. He will help. Please let’s stop.’
Malalai put her head down and continued her limping progress. ‘Be quiet, Amina. You know the penalty for being found with a man you’re not married to. Have you forgotten Safia?’
‘But she deserved what happened to her. She committed adultery.’
‘Did she?’ Malalai’s voice was angry. ‘She was found drinking coffee in her cousin’s house. That was the sum of the evidence against her. Amro bil mahroof stoned her to death. Now use your breath to walk.’
The hospital was an unnerving three quarters of a mile from home. Amina flinched at every step. After half the distance, it was plain to Malalai that her daughter would never complete the journey. They subsided to a gasping halt at the roadside.
Malalai surveyed the road in desperation. The sun was at its height, and even those who were permitted to travel were now sheltering indoors. She looked down at her daughter. Amina’s breathing was shallow and ragged; her skin bluish. Malalai made up her mind. Bending down, she took the child in her arms and rose unsteadily to her feet. Driven solely by love and desperation, she stumbled on.
The hospital was old and scruffy, with peeling paint and empty windows. To Malalai it was a sweet haven. She placed Amina tenderly on the steps and pushed open the ancient doors a crack.
Two men bore down upon her.
‘Who are you?’
‘What business do you have?’
‘You’ll have to leave.’
She turned from one to the other, her head spinning, shivering despite the heat of the day. ‘Please, my daughter. She’s very sick.’
‘A woman.’ He spat the words out. ‘We don’t treat women here.’
‘Find a woman doctor.’ The other grinned through gap teeth.
‘There are no women doctors! Women aren’t allowed to work,’ she spat.
‘Don’t speak to me like that, whore!’ He clouted her face with the back of his hand.
‘What’s the problem?’ A door opened, and a young man in a white coat put his head round the corner. He raised his eyebrows at the sight of a woman, but approached gently.
‘Please sir, my daughter. She’s sick. I think she’ll die.’
He looked at her gravely. ‘Let me see.’
Malalai laid Amina gently on the examination couch. The doctor approached hesitantly and examined her through her burqa as if she were an unexploded bomb. She lay, semi-conscious, moaning.
‘Appendicitis. I’m so sorry. There’s nothing I can do.’ He rose and backed away hurriedly.
‘But she needs an operation!’
The doctor nodded. ‘Yes, she does. But not here. Amro bil mahroof would never permit a male doctor to operate on a woman.’ He glanced towards the door shiftily. ‘I’m sorry, but you must take her away now.’
Although the fall of the Taliban in 2001 lessened the suffering of women in Afghanistan, they still remain without many of the privileges we take for granted. This story is dedicated to all who live under an unjust regime, especially women oppressed within a police state.
The opinions expressed by authors may not necessarily reflect the opinion of FaithWriters.com.
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