Discovering Rabia Balkhi

Mother and child in Afghanistan

CURE’s work in Afghanistan faces many challenges as we attempt to navigate through the considerable cultural divide between the West and this unique area of the world. The importance of family honor over individual rights continues to baffle me as I learn more and more about life in Kabul.

For example, as part of a joint venture with the United States Health and Human Services Department, CURE provided healthcare management expertise to a maternity hospital in Kabul. The Rabia Balkhi Women’s Hospital is named in memory of the daughter of a famous Persian poet from the 10th century AD. I found it ironic that the hospital carries this name after reading the story of Rabia Balkhi, which is prominently written in both English and Arabic on a 20-foot high wall at the entrance of this hospital.

The story begins with her father, who was a famous poet and whose poems are still read in Afghanistan to this day. Rabia, too, had a talent for writing poetry. The dilemma was that Rabia had fallen in love with a young man that she had seen but had never talked with. It was (and still is today) taboo for an unmarried Afghan Muslim woman to interact with or show any interest in a man outside her family. Breaking cultural rules, Rabia wrote a love poem about her love for this young man. Her father discovered Rabia’s poem and became very upset. To his chagrin, she had shamed the family honor with her writings. Her father, abiding by cultural norm and expectations, arranged for Rabia’s brother, Hareth, to kill her in order to avenge the family honor. Shortly thereafter, she died by the hand of her own brother.

So as I stood there and read the fateful story of Rabia and how she brought shame to her family, I wondered why the hospital is named in her honor. I am perplexed. Clearly much more time and study of this mysterious land is required.

A stanza from the last verse of Rabia’s poem foresaw her ultimate fate. It reads:

A true lover should be faithful till the end
And face life’s reprobated trend.