By Ashley Sheehy, WAC-DC Emerging Global Leaders Intern
On February 10, 2016 the World Affairs Council-Washington, DC co-hosted the author Rod Nordland at the National Press Club to discuss his book, THE LOVERS: Afghanistan’s Romeo and Juliet: The True Story of How They Defied Their Families and Escaped an Honor Killing. Nordland is a National Press Club member and an international correspondent at large for The New York Times. He has worked as a reporter in more than 150 countries.
The President of the National Press Club, Thomas Burr opened the program by briefly summarizing the book, which tells the story of Zakia and Ali -- two forbidden lovers in Afghanistan -- and the challenges they face to be together in a cultural and societal environment which disapproves of their relationship. The compelling tale of the two Afghan lovers also offers commentary on human rights violations and women's rights restrictions in the country.
Norland explained that the foundation of the story grew from his hope to publicize the brutal custom of “honor killings,” which are when women are killed if they defy the arranged marriages set up by their families. Zakia and Ali were from different tribes, but they grew up on neighboring farms. Defying their families, sectarian differences, cultural conventions, and Afghan civil and Islamic law, they ran away together only to live under constant threat from Zakia’s vengeful family, who have vowed to kill her to restore the family’s honor. They are still in hiding.
Zakia and Ali have become somewhat of a celebrity couple as a result of the publicity of Nordland’s book. The couple is even talking to an entertainment lawyer about a potential movie describing their struggle for love and freedom. This stardom poses both problems and benefits to them back home in Afghanistan. Norland believes that Zakia and Ali would not be alive today if not for the safety & awareness that his publicity has brought them; and Nordland said that he feels it leaves him with a moral obligation to see the couple’s story through until they are safely out of Afghanistan. On the other hand, however, also acknowledges that the publicity has left Zakia and Ali in a state of constant uncertainty and danger as their whereabouts are unknown. To this day no Western nation has accepted their pleas for asylum, much to Norland’s chagrin, but they have hope that their notoriety will help them in leaving Afghanistan for safety in a new country.
During the question and answer session which followed Nordland’s remarks, several members from the audience – who were from Afghanistan – posed questions and doubts regarding whether the laws and enforcement of “honor killings” were really as prevalent as Norland claims. Nordland responded by explaining that he believes marriage for love is very uncommon in Afghan families because there are judges in the country - some of which have been trained in western law practices – that willfully ignore laws that are in place to protect women’s rights. Regardless, most everyone agreed with Norland when he said that many women's rights organizations are making progressive changes in the country.