Don't expect victims. This is not to say that writers in the Afghan Women's Writing Project have never been abused by the men in their lives. But if you read their words, you will never imagine these writers as passive objects of male cruelty. You will envision women who see clearly, who feel deeply, and who are brave and strong enough to share their experiences with each other and with us, their global audience.
They sign their poems and essays by first name only. They are Seeta, Maryam, and Mahnaz. Norwan, Friba, and Yalda. Mariam, Farahnaz, and many, many more who work with primarily American women writers and professors in AWWP's secure online workshops. For the last few weeks, the women writers have worked on pieces for the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence campaign.
We all struggle to be safe. Every time I walk down my New York streets I am acutely aware that I am female, that I can be easily overpowered. If I see the cover picture of a tabloid, I am reminded, almost daily, of how easy it is to be battered or murdered by loved ones or strangers. Gender violence has never been one of those problems "over there." But we American women, as a whole, enjoy protection under the law and opportunities in our personal and professional lives that can feel unfathomable in Afghanistan. Read these excerpts, however, and that rumble you feel is the shudder of violent patriarchal norms questioned and resisted.
An excerpt from "Mark My Words--Spread My Word" by Seeta:
The governor comes to the stage/
and announces his support/
for the elimination of violence against women./
Ask him, Where is your wife?/
He does not let her participate./
Obama is the American president./
His wife is known to many countries./
But where is ours?
Here is an excerpt from "Legitimizing Inequality" by Mahnaz:
They use our love for others as an
excuse to tell us we are
weak in faith, too emotional for
a prophet, imam, judge, or leader. They
betray us by twisting our nature to use against us,
then call us Najis. Nasty. Unclean.
They make a hammer from religion,
pound us in the head,
fool us with hell. We question
injustice and they tell us we
breach the quality of life so we are
infidel. We ask for equality and they
call us impious, deviant.
Sometimes, I read the writers' words, and my heart hurts, knowing how much is stacked against these women, wondering how I would cope if neither my father nor my mother supported by education, wondering how I would stomach a life where I had to serve my brothers -- not even going into the more terrible darkness: the stories of stonings and beheadings, the stories of endless war.
I read the words of a poet like Mahnaz, and I struck by the fact that despite growing up in America, I have had to fight off similar poisonous, viral ideas of what it means to be a woman. Who among us women has never, at some point, or at many points, been made to feel unclean, and less than, because of her sex?
But one poet, Norwan, let's us know that despite our kinship, there are still differences between us. That we women of the west still have privilege and significant power, whether we choose to see it or not. From "A World of Difference":
There is a world of difference/
Between me and you/
My western sister/
Not only because I have black hair/
And you have yellow/
You smell like roses/
I have the smell of bread/
I compare you and me while I am in the kitchen/
And see you with your laptop
Who can blame Norwan for resentment? I don't have blonde hair, but I am sitting here on my laptop, typing this, free to write because I choose to write. The only reason I don't lapse into despair is because I know that Norwan is a hardworking, eloquent writer, one who has the power to topple down barriers and make her way in this world. She is already doing this. Just as her other Afghan sisters are doing so, too, even if the doing so is simply speaking up. If you have any doubt, read this portion of Yalda's prescription for progress, from "Orange Day Every Day":
We need to increase the awareness of girls and women living in rural areas.
We need to encourage girls and women to get an education.
Our efforts can help to make them strong people, who have the courage to speak out and who refuse to tolerate violence against them.
We should fight for the rights of women and girls, beginning with ourselves, our families, and our friends.
I encourage you to take ten minutes and visit the Afghan Women's Writing Project website and read the full versions of these poems and essays. If you have time, leave a comment. Then read other poems, essays, and stories. Let the women writers of Afghanistan know that we here do mark their word, that we spread their word, that through this miraculous backchannel that is the internet, we listen, and we let each other know that we're not alone.