Afghan Women's Writing Project: How the most oppressed women on earth are changing their lives through the power of storytelling
On November 16th 1999 the Taliban publicly executed a woman in Ghazi stadium, Kabul. Her name was Zarmeena and she was mother to seven small children. The Taliban alleged that she had killed her husband and shot her in the head in the football stadium where thousands of onlookers had gathered to watch the sport. This video was smuggled out of the country by a member of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. Masha Hamilton, a human rights activist and journalist saw the video of the kneeling woman being shot repeatedly in the head and resolved to do something to give these women a voice. In her own words the reason behind this was: “Our mission is to support the voices of women with the belief that to tell one’s story is a human right. Though it sounds simple, I cannot say how important I think this is in a country where women have been told their stories do not matter, and urged to be silent, and warned against honesty.”
With NATO forces set to withdraw this year from Afghanistan, much speculation has been devoted to whether Taliban will return to power and what the newly independent country will look like. Starting with the Soviet Union Invasion in the 1970’s, the surreally beautiful country has been desolated by being the epicentre of power clashes between cold war enemies. Then came terrorism. Its women have paid, and continue to pay, the heaviest price.
Looking at preliminary drafts of the upcoming constitution, it looks like their lot is only going to get worse. What kind of bleak lives must these creatures live, imprisoned in inhuman conditions in modern times, with no recourse for escape or improvement? They do not want your pity, they want freedom. History is witness that when every type of human dignity has been stripped from individuals that is when the power of their pen is the mightiest. Afghan women need to voice their anguish now and we need to hear them. With this sentiment in mind, the Afghan Women’s Writing Project (AWWP) was set up.
Over the years the Project has drawn strength from the trials and tribulations of a thousand Zarmeenas. Once they took up the pen, the women felt a quiver of something they had long forgotten– Hope. “I took my pen to write and at first I was afraid: what to write? About what? But this was a project to write about everything, and I took the pen; I didn’t write from outside of my heart, I began to write about whatever was in my heart… The writing project gave me a voice, the project gave me courage to appear as a woman, to tell about my life, to share my pains and experiences. I wonder how big the change in my destiny is because of your work and this project. Who would trust an online class, a writing project, to change a destiny and a faith? AWWP gave me the power to feel I am not only a woman; it gave me a title, an Afghan woman “writer. I took the pen and I wrote and everything changed. I learned if I stand, everyone will stand, other women in my country will stand,” said AWWP writer Roya.
On why should we care about such literatures, Masha Hamilton 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.”
Kabul. That beautiful capital of the tragic country where people gather to watch executions in football stadiums. That is their only entertainment because any form of dance, music, art or cinema has been banned. Severe military bases, constant armed Taliban patrols and furtive looking men and imprisoned caged women go about their daily lives. The impossibly stark natural beauty of the land, almost savage to a stranger, is a forgotten reality. Afghanistan is the sum of its women, straddling the weight of unshed tears and untold stories. It is priceless in its tragedy.
Included here are two pieces of writing from the AWWP website. Basira recalls a terrifying tale that sounds far too true to be a rumour. Hila tells us what she would do if she met god. For many more such tales, go here.
In 2007 there was a rumor in Kabul that a girl in Daikondi province of Afghanistan had been ignited by her family. For such a violent event, I could not quite believe it. I wondered how can a family be so cruel?
This story remained only as a rumor. No voice was raised about it; no hearth to miss her and she was forgotten as if it had never happened—until we went on vacation in Daikondi province. At my uncle’s house, we were playing in the yard when I saw an old dirty and destroyed house nearby. It was a really different house from any other and it confused me. I asked my uncle’s wife, “Whose is this?”
No one was ready to tell me the whole story, so I asked different people and heard different parts of the story. Finally I found out what had happened. It was the house where Tahera lived. A 24-year-old beautiful and strong girl of the mountains, Tahera was a girl who had won every game. She was the strongest girl in the village. She had been set afire because she went with a boy on a motorcycle.
One day when school finished, she and the boy rode around on a motorcycle for about a half an hour in the neighborhood around her house. Tahera’s uncle had seen them and he told Tahera’s mother. When she got home, her mother asked her, “Why are you late?” Tahera dared not say the truth and lied. Her mother already knew everything and asked her brother for advice. The brother told her, “Why don’t you want to ignite your daughter?”
When Tahera’s mother came home she decided to give Tahera poison when she was asleep. She did this, but Tahera woke up and threw the glass away. Her mother had to make another plan. She locked her in a room for three days, not giving her food or water so she would be too weak to challenge anyone. Then they beat her until her body become black, and tied her hands and feet to the columns of the house, threw oil on her, and ignited her. Before they burned her she asked for a glass of water, but her mother did not give her daughter the water.
This was Tahera’s story. This story cannot remain a rumor.
(Photo by Ahmad Massoud)
If I Meet God
I heard life is beautiful
Everything in this world is beautiful
But that was only what I heard in my childhood
When I got older I got to know the real world thinking
About the god who created me
If I meet God, I will ask him
Why am I in this world?
Why should every pain be mine?
I cannot keep fighting against people
Or even with myself anymore
Sometimes I sit in the corner
Of my room like a prisoner
Incapable of going out
Crying hidden under the blanket
Waiting for the moment to be free.
I find it difficult to walk in the street,
Stoned by harsh voices, judged
For how I walk
The clothes I wear
Or because I wear glasses
My relatives divide us up between the sons
Ask the men which one of us they want
Like they are choosing a sheep from a flock.
Why am I a girl?
Why am I a girl?
If I meet God, I will ask him.