When Feroza Mushtari was barely a teenager, she draped a blanket over her shoulders, donned her father's woolen hat over her high forehead, and disguised herself as a boy to rush a neighbor suffering from agonizing labor pains to the hospital.
Though her mother cried and pleaded with her not to risk the journey, Mushtari told her she had no choice: Without a mahram, or male chaperone, the Taliban would never allow the women to travel from their Kabul neighborhood to the Malalai Hospital. And if they didn't get help quickly, both the pregnant woman and her baby would die.
Mushtari's heartbeat thudded in her ears as the women's taxi cleared one and then another checkpoint in the dark winter night. If Mushtari's disguise was uncovered, the women would be sent back home—or worse. Sitting in the front seat like a proper mahram, the girl silently practiced speaking Pashto in a boy's voice in case the Taliban stopped them. In the back of the car, her neighbor shouted and writhed in pain.
War had made gathering statistics impossible, but after years of conflict and destruction, Afghanistan was known to be among the world's deadliest places to be an expectant mother. The country counted fewer than 500 midwives nationwide, with no national standards to guide their training, and very few women had access to skilled birth attendants. The lucky few mothers-to-be who lived near city centers rushed to dilapidated hospitals to which they had to bring their own medicine and supplies. But most women simply delivered at home, on their own.
That night, after their car reached the hospital without attracting unwanted notice and a midwife had helped Mushtari's neighbor deliver a healthy baby, Mushtari vowed to dedicate herself to helping women give birth safely.