Something was seriously wrong when I woke up. The elation of our taking over Afghanistan leaked away. Even yesterday, a feeling of euphoria had washed over me as I remembered how I’d swaggered into the Presidential Palace. Daylight streaked through my bedroom window, and a bird chirped a happy song, mocking me. Other than the bird, there was stillness, a quietness. Ziya, my wife, wasn’t on her side of the bed, but she generally rose earlier than me. I scratched my face, feeling that something wasn’t right. My moustache and my beard were missing, and my skin was soft and smooth like my wife’s. I’d sprouted breasts overnight. Had all the women in Afghanistan cursed me? Was I trapped in a nightmare? I pinched my arm to wake up and yelped with pain.
I smiled, guessing Ziya was playing a prank on me as a form of revenge. She’d drugged me, shaved off my beard and moustache, and attached clothballs to my chest. I’d teach her a lesson by taking a second wife, someone who understood who was the head of the house and revered him for it.
She sauntered into the room wearing my uniform. Her fake moustache and beard looked convincing. As I jumped out of bed, I realized I was a woman because only a female body would move the way mine did. This wasn’t a joke. Ziya looked happy that I’d metamorphosized into a woman. “A miracle has occurred!” she exclaimed. Her eyes flew heavenward and her hands rushed toward each other in a grateful clasp.
“Miracle? You call this a miracle. You slut,” I shouted. I was about to hit her smiling face, but she moved too quickly for me. She slapped my cheeks, first the right side, then the left. Now Ziya was stronger than me.
“I’ve become a man,” she screamed, hitting my head just like I used to strike her. I couldn’t even defend myself. I was lower than an animal. I was a woman. This was Afghanistan. We, the Taliban, had taken charge of our country, but now I wouldn’t be a minister anymore. I would be the laughing stock of our ruling brothers if I said I’d become a woman. My wife a man. No one would believe us.
“We need doctors,” I said.
Ziya laughed. She held a mirror to my smooth face, then to my newly contoured body. “This is Allah’s doing. Understand? Now be a modest woman and cover up.” She tossed the mirror onto our bed. Ziya placed her hands on her hips, reproducing my old belligerent stance. She threw her burqa at me.
“I don’t need it in the house,” I said, in the defensive tone she’d used with me.
“There’s something you should know.” Ziya’s lips twitched. Then she tilted her head up and laughed and laughed like a mad woman.
“What is it?” I asked deferentially.
“The change is happening to everyone in our country. Not just us. Men are becoming women and women are becoming men. Girls are turning into boys. Boys are turning into girls. This is not some kind of bacha posh.”
Some families that didn’t have any sons adopted the custom of bacha posh. They would allow one of their young daughters to dress and act like a boy until puberty. A few bacha posh girls continued the practice even in their late teen years. These girls traversed the streets as freely as boys, attended school, played sports, and enjoyed other privileges. My youngest cousin had been a bacha posh. After puberty, she’d had a hard time adjusting to life as a girl again. Not only did she miss her freedom, but she had to do household chores. She drowned herself in a lake. Selfish girl. She should have been happy with the good years she’d had. Instead she’d sullied our family name.
“I can’t believe what you’re saying,” I said.
“If our gender changed overnight, why do you find it so hard to believe that everyone else’s gender also changed in our country? I’m going to work in your place. I’ll be a better minister than you were. Do all the household chores by the time I get back,” Ziya said, wagging a finger at me. “If I spot a cobweb or if the food tastes bad you know what to expect.” Three hits to my body — the same kind of punishment I’d meted out to her when I was dissatisfied.
Ziya had spoken the truth about the gender changes. Over the next few days, the Western world gloated at what had happened in Afghanistan. Women all over the world cheered. “Karma,” they chanted. We, the former men, were powerless, and we’d done it to ourselves. We were confined to our home, denied fresh air, sunshine, and the liberty to wander outside our compound.
After some time, we expected international opinion to swing in our favor. Now that we had become bona fide women, the leaders of other countries would surely shower us with sympathy, demand that we have rights. We arranged protests like the women had done when we’d been men, but the Taliban tear-gassed us, clubbed us, and imprisoned us. We tried to interpret the Quran to show our new government we deserved respect. The former women and girls were relentless in their bullying. We cowered. We were less than women because we hadn’t spent our lives as females.
As the months passed, I developed powers I didn’t have before. I learned to be patient, resilient, and, instead of giving way to despair, I tolerated what had happened to us former men in order to survive. Why hadn’t I known that women had superhuman strength?
What was appalling was that the new government was supported by many nations around the world. At home, I vented my feelings in a poem, though I’d detested poetry before.
You won’t notice us in public anymore.
We are shooed away,
as if the streets don’t belong to us too,
as if nature doesn’t embrace us.
We are the heart of our homes,
even if our husbands don’t love us,
even if our children take us for granted.
We do all the household chores uncomplainingly,
but welts and bruises are our rewards.
We dream of careers for ourselves
and education for girls,
aware we have the strength
and wings of compassion to right wrongs.
Our freedom has flown away
like the planes that swept into the sky
carrying fleeing Americans.
Searing plumes, like those that shot
out of the twin towers, now burn inside us.
We’ve done this to ourselves.
We regret, we repent,
but no one hears us.
The truth rises out of the ashes of our suffering —
women are better than men.
They are our mothers,
bringing us into the world.
They are our sisters,
lavishing love on us.
They are our daughters,
who will lead the next generation.
Women and girls are the flowers of the earth,
an unforgettable fragrance
that can get rid of the odor permeating
the spinning out-of-control world.
Every time we trample on women,
we dishonor the prophet’s words.
The hadith states,
Paradise lies at the feet of the mother.
Do we need to say anything more?
My knees became wobbly when Ziya, who now went by the moniker Zafar, discovered my poem hidden under a brick. “Did I give you permission to write?” she shouted in my left ear. I covered my ear, but she pushed my hand away. I regretted I hadn’t been a kind husband. Most of the good married men who’d turned into women were treated well by their spouses. Ziya’s lips twitched when she read my poem. She patted my head like I was a dog, which was what I used to do to her when I was in a good mood.
Later, Ziya posted my poem online and it went viral. That was why she’d suppressed a smile – she’d planned to share it. I, who’d hated poetry, had become a poet or should I say poetess? The enraged Taliban leaders ordered Ziya to break my fingers if I was audacious enough to write a poem again. “No more poetry,” she barked, coming home with that piece of depressing news.
Whenever I had a chance I continued to compose poems. I was amazed I possessed a well of inspiration that never dried up and that my poetry constantly improved. Most of my pieces exposed the atrocities of our government, and they were in the form of missives packed with the potential of unerring missiles. I hid my poetry in an old tattered burqa. In 2024, I succeeded in getting two hundred of my poems smuggled out of Afghanistan, and they were subsequently published under a pseudonym in America. Women around the world forgot their old chant of karma, raised up my book, We Only Had Ourselves to Blame, and demanded the Taliban give us the same rights men enjoyed. A few presidents and prime ministers began to speak out on our behalf. Jacinda Ardern, the blessed former prime minister of New Zealand, read my titular poem on TV, and a tear rolled down her cheek.
The Taliban leaders were convinced I’d written the book We Only Had Ourselves to Blame. Ziya was furious I’d indulged in poetry again and that my collection had been published abroad. “Serves you right,” she said, hands on her hips, when I was dragged to jail.
I was tortured in my windowless cell. I was convinced I’d never get out of jail, though a woman under the Taliban is like a bird in a cage regardless of where she is. Fortunately, I’d committed fifty of my poems to memory, along with the poetry of Rumi that was in a book a good friend had stealthily passed on to me. Now the poet’s anthology, buried under a patch of tulips, was concealed from the world and deprived of hands that would have caressed its pages. I preserved my sanity by reciting his verses and mine in my head.
Much to my amazement, after two monotonous years I was released. I’d lost fifty pounds in confinement and I had acquired a permanent limp. As I returned home, I thought of Ziya with a bit of warmth because the guard who’d let me out had said, “Go home and be an obedient wife. Your spouse bought your freedom by bribing some officials.” When I reached my house, I saw a pretty young second wife on Ziya’s lap, batting her eyes coquettishly until she stared at me with pity.
Tara Menon is an Indian-American writer based in Lexington, Massachusetts. Her latest fiction has appeared in The Hong Kong Review, Litro, The Bookends Review, Rio Grande Review, and The Evening Street Review. Her most recent poems have been published in Arlington Literary Journal (forthcoming), Global South (forthcoming), San Pedro River Review, The Loch Raven Review, and The Tiger Moth Review. She is also a book reviewer and essayist whose pieces have appeared in many journals.