Cure International Hospital
Mastana was nervous as she entered through the doors of the hospital. No one could see of course for she was wearing her finest blue burqa, but to her it was as if she were naked and the whole world could feel her misery and trepidation. For three whole days after her father’s announcement she had locked herself in her room and cried. She knew that she had no choice, that he had no choice in making her for what is one life compared to so many? Yes, another Ahmadzay girl could have been chosen, her cousin Farrukh for example who was quite the traditional, religious girl and would have been far more suited, but if the Ahmadzay’s had not sent their most prominent virgin then the other tribes and the king himself would have seen it as a slight on their honour and once an Afghan’s honour is questioned, then… No, she had to marry him, that she knew but it was so unfair, so very unfair. Why her? She had always loved studying and was so close to achieving her MBA and she had dreams, plans, to travel the world, to set up in business, to marry the man of her choice… Now instead she was to become a co-wife of a king and…
Preparations. All queens go through particular “preparations” to ensure that they remain equal in the eyes of their lord and the nation. Preparations to ensure they remain pious and submissive and modest like a good queen should be. Examples to the Nation.
But what are these “preparations”? And why would no one tell her? Two days ago she had been taken to the hospital and her entire body scanned and measured. Then… then that was it, back home as if nothing had happened.
What exactly was in store for her?
She looked through the dense grille of the burqa at the room before her. It was a standard hospital room with a bed and a bedside table. A nurse in green scrubs stood by the side, her face hidden by her niqaab. “You may remove your burqa now, Miss Ahmadzay,” she said. Mastana was glad to remove her burqa; she hated the thing. She had never worn a burqa except for special occasions and in India not even then. Ever since she had been announced as a fiancée of the king though, there had been a surge of interest in her and it was now mandatory whenever she left the house. She took it off and shook her long black hair out. The nurse gestured for her to sit on the bed and said, “Now Miss, I’m afraid my first task is to shave off that lovely hair of yours…”
“Shave my hair! But why?”
“It is necessary for the ‘preparations’ Miss, but I agree, it seems such a shame. Still, it can be made into a nice wig and sold to help the poor. Please Miss, sit there and I shall begin.”
Tears fell from Mastana’s eyes as her beautiful waist-length locks were cut off and fell to the floor, and they continued to flow as the nurse got out a razor and shaved her head completely bald. ‘Why? Why? Why?’ she thought to herself. ‘What man wants a wife with no hair?’ She tried asking the nurse of course, but she would say nothing beyond that it was all part of the “preparations”.
“Excellent Miss,” remarked the nurse when she had finished. “Now you just sit back in bed and I shall get you a cup of tea. That’ll make you feel better.”
And when she reappeared a minute later carrying a steaming hot cup of tea and Mastana sipped it, she did feel better. It was comforting and relaxing. She lay down in the bed. “Don’t worry my dear, don’t worry,” the nurse said, stroking her head. Mastana’s eyes felt heavy and she realised that it was the tea but by then the darkness was taking over.
When Mastana woke up, something wasn’t right. Her head felt heavy and her vision somehow different. She couldn’t figure out and the thinking hurt as the drugs were still in her system. Within seconds she drifted off again.
When she came to for the second time, her head was clearer and she was more aware. Nonetheless, things did not feel the same, something was not right, something had changed. Her vision. She could see alright, it wasn’t blurred like when she put on her burqa, but it was limited. All she could view was what was straight in front of her which was the white ceiling of the room. She turned her head and the window with bright light streaming in through came into view. Yet turning her head was somehow strange. She resumed her original position and the niqaab-covered face of the nurse came into view. “You have awoken, Miss, how good!” she exclaimed.
Mastana tried to reply but she couldn’t. Then she realised why: her mouth was full of something, something solid pushing against her cheeks. She lifted her hands to feel what it was but when they came to her face all she could hear was the clunk of plastic and those hands felt nothing! She tried to wiggle her fingers but she couldn’t move them! What was happening? She held them up before her eyes and was confronted by a rigid pair of black plastic hands! What on earth did it mean? She started to struggle and the nurse came over and stroked her head. She didn’t feel a thing but felt soothed. “Don’t worry Miss,” she said softly, “you’re fine. I know it’s a big change, all the wives struggle at first with their ‘preparations’ but you’ll get used to them. Everything is fine.”
Mastana stopped moving but then asked, “What have they done to me?” But of course, no sound came out. The nurse however, seemed to understand. “I’ll get the doctor,” she said. “She can explain everything.”
Dr. Rastagar was also wearing the green niqaab scrubs but her difference in rank was clear from the confidence with which she spoke. The words that came out however, were not ones that Mastana wanted to hear.
“Right Miss Ahmadzay, you have now undergone the first and most traumatic part of the preparations for becoming a Queen of Afghanistan, a great honour indeed although so sad to think of the tragedy of the late king. Now I need to explain to you what has been done and why. The first thing that you are probably worrying about is your head. It feels enclosed, am I right? And also you cannot speak? That is because it has been sealed into a rigid plastic hood. That is why you were shaved first and after you were knocked out, measures were taken to ensure that no hair ever grows back. The hood was made in two parts, cast specifically to match your facial contours which is why you were scanned earlier. The back was fitted first and then the front sealed onto it using heat sealing. As I said it is totally rigid and it is also permanent. The only openings are some small holes at your ears to facilitate hearing – although that will probably be much reduced – and of course the two pinholes over your eyes which you are now looking through and of course holes at the mouth and nose. I think it is of interest to you to explain just what has been done with both of those orifices. In your nose, tubes have been inserted for a centimetre or so and these have an air-filtering device which will prevent you breathing in germs and thus getting ill. As for the mouth, in your mouth was filled with a gel-like substance with a tube running through it. That solidified so that it now entirely fills your mouth but the tube allows for liquid intake and breathing. I am sorry to say that consuming solids will be impossible for you from now on, but you can still eat and drink with ease.”
Hearing all this made Mastana shudder and want to weep behind the black plastic of her hood. Why had this been done to her? One minute she was a promising MBA student and the next she wakes up in hospital, her head entombed within a prison of plastic!
“The reason that this has been done dates back to King Muhammad Nadir Khan. When he came to power he needed to ensure that not one tribe – and as such, not one wife – gained prominence over the others, otherwise the whole enterprise would fail. So what he did is have his wives wear leather masks, apparently inspired by Bedouin masks that he saw whilst in Oman, which obscured their features. This was an excellent solution except that before long the wives were taking them off, so he then had them modified to become full hoods which could be locked on. But even this was still not ideal as they had to be removed regularly to cut the queens’ hair and besides, as you will know well, much of the allure of a lady comes from other sources as well as her looks. When they spoke to him, he burned with longing and began to have his favourites, with some having sweeter voices and others more gravelly, some having a good way with words and others somewhat uncouth. So they were all gagged and that way he could love them all and treat them all equally, plus there was the added advantage of them not getting jealous of one another due to looks or getting into arguments over petty matters such as we women often do.”
“When King Muhammad Nadir Khan passed away and his son took over, he continued the practice and when his son, the late martyr King Mir Ahmad Khan ascended to the throne he not only held onto the tradition but had it enshrined in law and modified it. There were many problems associated with the leather hoods, the hair growth being one and skin complaints another and so he decided to employ modern technological means to improve matters. He contacted the Islamic Centre for Technology in Cairo for ideas and they provided the present-day solution. The plastic that your hood is made from is a revolutionary new material, lightweight yet extremely strong and, this is most important, your skin can breath through it. The permanent hair removal technique they also perfected and the result is ideal. Using the old leather hoods some features, a larger nose or the shapes of lips for example, could still be made out but with these hoods all four wives appear entirely identical. The fact is, your husband will not know which of you is which and so he will of course be treating all four tribes fairly.”
‘Astaghfirullah!’ thought Mastana, ‘I no longer exist, I am just a blank, anonymous wife!’
“The head casing is not all however, Miss Ahmadzay,” continued the doctor. “Whilst you were asleep similar casings were also placed around your hands which is why you cannot move your fingers at all. This has been done for a different reason than the hood. Whilst it must be admitted that some of the queens tried to remove their hoods before, impossible I may add with these new plastic models, your husband-to-be Muhammad Akbar Khan also insisted on the covering of the hands. Apparently he had a problem with his former wives in that, with them only enjoying congress with him every fourth night, they became very sexually frustrated and so used to commit grievous sin by fondling themselves. This is something that you will not be able to do now with your hands protected so. It is good that your future husband thinks of your honour so much.”
Strangely, Mastana did not feel grateful.
“And so that is what has happened to you. Today you may rest for an hour or so more and then we shall embark upon the second stage of the preparations. These are also an innovation of Muhammad Akbar Khan, and I think you shall prefer them to the first phase.”
And with those words she left and Mastana lay there trying to come to terms with it all.