Can Writing Help Afghan Women Find Their Freedom?
At the age of seven, Jeena realized her father no longer loved her mother. He was gone for months at a time, leaving Jeena and her family with her maternal grandparents. One day, Jeena’s mother heard that her husband was having a secret engagement party. She tried to talk him out of it to no avail. Jeena’s father married his second wife.
Her mother, however, wanted to start a new life and so accepted an offer to stay with her husband and his new bride. However, they took all authority away from her and treated the children very poorly, locking them up and not allowing them to attend school. Fortunately, Jeena’s grandparents were eventually able to take the family back to Pakistan, where Jeena enrolled in school.
After the Taliban regime ended, they relocated back to Afghanistan where Jeena learned English and started teaching young children. She was also accepted into a study abroad program, and was able to spend a year in the United States. Now, she hopes to provide for her mother and give her family a better life, one that her father was unable – or unwilling – to give her.
If you are a woman in Afghanistan, stories like this are all too familiar, and most of them do not end as happily as this one. These women not only do not experience the same rights as the men around them, but they often don’t get to share their stories with the world. Storytelling is important for a certain kind of survival, at least it is according to Masha Hamilton, American journalist and founder of the Afghan Women’s Writing Project (AWWP). The AWWP is a virtual space for Afghan women to share their stories and poetry. They can write whenever they want about whatever they want, and they receive coaching from a team of volunteer mentors and authors.
According to the AWWP website, the project was first inspired by a disturbing video of a woman executed for allegedly killing her husband. Hamilton thought that she could find out about this woman in order to honor her memory, but came up short of information. She writes, “Through this process, I became further convinced that the voices of women were primarily available only through the media or their men; we heard little from them directly.” This prompted a visit to prisons in Kabul and Kandahar, where she interviewed many women and heard their stories. Shortly after her visit, she started AWWP. Of the project’s importance, she says:
But why should we care about an essay by a woman from Kandahar, or a poem by a woman from Logar? Because in telling their own stories, we’ve seen these women gather strength, courage, and self-confidence. They become empowered to make change within their homes, their communities, and eventually their country. They also gain computer literacy and skills of language and critical thinking, which increases their job-related skills. A number have used as part of their job or school applications work written for AWWP, shepherded through by our award-winning mentors and editors, and put up on a site updated constantly by our volunteer webmaster. They have become lawyers, journalists, parliament members.
The project now has over 100 writers, some writing secretly because of a lack of family support. The growth of the program has prompted them to open a building in Kabul where the women can come to use the Internet and to talk with each other.
One of the writers, Humira, is from a Taliban stronghold, the northern province of Kunduz. During the war, her family left for Pakistan. She believes “education will solve Afghanistan’s problems. She has been teaching children since she was in sixth grade and she would like to complete her higher education degree.” In her essay, “Birth of a Girl,” she describes the shame of a family who kept having daughters until, one day, they decided to raise a daughter as a boy because they couldn’t stand it any longer. She writes:
At twelve, she played with boys, wore boys’ clothes, and could only look on as the girls in the family wore beautiful clothes, adorned their arms with bangles, and colored their lips and nails.
Khalid cried with jealousy at not being able to enjoy such girlish pleasures.
One day she became very sick. Her parents decided to allow her to wear girls’ clothing and accessories, but only after 10 p.m. when she would not be seen.
This was welcome news for Khalid. She wore colorful clothes and painted her nails. She sat in front of the mirror and talked to herself for hours because the other children were asleep. She wore a wig because she loved having long hair. Her mother suffered over the lie every second of her daughter’s life.
But this story of an unwelcome girl is not unique. It repeats itself every day in Afghanistan, where the women are mothers, sisters, and devoted wives—but also unwelcome, unwanted, and born in shame.
I remember when I was eleven. I wished I could be an astronaut when I grew up. I heard there had never been a woman on the moon and I wanted to be the first woman.
One night I told my father about my wish. As I was telling him what made my head fly, he smiled, wondering if I would reach my goal or if I was dreaming. We had a guest visiting that night, a relative who came from far away, and when he heard us talking, he said to my father: “Would you stop your children from imagining all these impossible things?”
Suddenly all the pictures in my mind disappeared—the moon, space, Fatima in an astronaut suit. They were replaced by a question: “Is being an astronaut impossible?” After that, I stopped wishing my big wish.
These stories are vitally important for us to read and share. These women are risking everything for their voices to be heard, and we owe it to them to hear what they have to say. Take some time to look through the stories on the AWWP website. They are beautiful, eye-opening, and inspiring.
Photo Credit: isafmedia