One of the most iconic pictures from Afghanistan taken after the Taliban were deposed in November 2001 was the smiling face of a woman who had just removed the heavy veil of her burqa. Peggy Kelsey’s book “Gathering Strength” lifts the veils from all of Afghanistan’s female population through conversations with a cross-section of Afghan women from her visits to the country in 2003 and 2010.
Although Afghan women are looked upon from the outside world as second-class citizens with no apparent liberties, Kelsey’s conversations reveal women who excel in every conceivable field from painting and singing to law and medicine. These are women who understand their country’s problems and are determined to make a difference in putting Afghanistan back together even as their country continues to come apart.
Kelsey offers examples of how women have asserted themselves in the Afghan Parliament and how an emphasis on education and sports have made younger women and girls more self-assured, suggesting a sisterhood capable of fighting for not only themselves but for all of Afghanistan.
Kelsey sets up the narrative describing how her own interest in the Islamic world led her to visit the Middle East and South Asia as a student, and how her travels led her to get involved with Afghanistan and bringing the stories of these women to the world. She wisely lets Afghan women do most of the talking, adding commentary only to put their observations in historical and cultural context. (The opening text summarizes how the modern Afghan state formed and how it got to where it is.)
Kelsey masterfully weaves the comments of Afghan women from different backgrounds and fields into a narrative comparable to Studs Terkel’s oral histories. She leaves the reader aware of the grave situation in Afghanistan and the odds against a lasting stability once NATO soldiers leave in 2014, but the progressive outlook of the women in the book offer a good deal of hope for their country’s future.
The book is flawlessly edited, but Kelsey makes two mistakes regarding the former Soviet Union. She writes that “USSR” stood for the “United Soviet Socialist Republic” – it actually stood for the “Union of Soviet Republics” – and mentions Russia and the other “fifteen” republics of the Soviet Union when there were in fact only fourteen republics other than Russia. This is the only quibble with the book.
Reviewed by Steven Maginnis for IndieReader