Zahra is around 12 years of age and she moved with her mother, father and three siblings to the house next door to us last year. She goes to school, she cleans her house, and she is the eldest daughter of the family. She is a fine little girl, but she cries at least five times in a week. She cries for long periods of time and her sobs can be heard from around the neighborhood.
She cries because her mother beats her. When her father is home, he beats her too. At the same time, she is learning that domestic violence is a normal, acceptable part of everyday life.
Usually, her mother beats her for small faults. At first, she runs away from her mother as far as she can run, until her mother catches her and starts to beat her. If her mother can’t find a stick or piece of wood to hit Zahra with, it would be Zahra’s lucky day.
They both move to the kitchen which is far from the yard and their voices cannot be heard as loudly. Afterward, Zahra’s mother comes out, but not Zahra. She stays inside for a while. Later, she walks slowly and starts working with her mother like nothing has happened.
Zahra’s father’s beatings are less frequent than her mother’s. He only beats her once or twice a week because most of the time he is working outside the family compound. But when he beats her, he beats her more severely than her mother. His working-class, brutal hand overpowers her small face. Heart wrenching cries erupt from the bottom of Zahra’s heart and tears wash her beaten face. She runs to the bathroom and cries louder in privacy. When she is composed, she washes her face, stops crying and comes out to prepare tea for her father.
Zahra’s abuse is not only physical. The words hurled at this innocent young girl are as hurtful as the beatings. She spends much time with her mother and her mother does not tolerate any doubts, questions or disobedience from Zahra. Frequently I hear her mother snap angrily, “Are you my mother or am I your mother?!” She continues shouting, “You are full of shit. Look daughter, if I don’t defend you against your father, he will force you to marry a boy as soon as possible.”
The threat of a forced marriage is not the only form of verbal abuse Zahra’s mother does. She looks for worse words to condemn, blame, and oppress her. As if trying to erase Zahra into nothingness, another favorite verbal attack is, “You are nothing!”
But Zahra is not always the victim. When the parents are away from the house, Zahra is alone with her young siblings. She cannot keep them locked at home because they run outside of the house. Zahra is faster than them and catches them. “Where are you going?” she asks. Mimicking the behavior she has learned from her parents, she finds a large stick and starts to beat her siblings. She holds the hand of her 5-year-old brother and beats it with the stick.
Weeks pass and the same story is replayed over and over again. Although Zahra is the main victim, it’s important to remember that she is learning how to beat, how to talk and how to behave from her parents. The same situation is happening in many other neighborhoods, cities and all of Afghanistan.
One day, I spoke to Zahra while she was beating her younger brother. I asked her, “Do you enjoy it when your mother beats you? How do you feel when your mother beats you?” She said nothing. Our silence is what keeps the endless cycle of violence moving. We need to do something to stop the cycle. If your mother beats your younger sibling, stop her and explain that what she does is wrong. If your neighbor’s mother is beating her children, teach her about breaking the cycle of violence. Help people to understand the permanent damage caused by domestic violence and encourage them to end the cycle.
A version of this articles appears on Interstellar Bulletin.