03/08/2012 03:32 pm ET Updated May 08, 2012

Seeing Past the Burqa on International Women's Day

The burqa is a blue stop sign. We're told that it exists to stop the gaze of a strange male from landing on a woman's skin. But sometimes, it stops us others, us women and men who want to know these women, stops us from recognizing their strength, their individuality, for the cloth covers so much. If we can't see their faces, too often we fail to imagine them.

Or maybe we read an Afghan woman's story in the New York Times, and often the story is so sad, so brutal, about a stoning, or a girl given to another family to pay off a debt, that the hopelessness feels so daunting that the biggest urge is to turn the page, for what can we do to save her, when we're here and they're there, and we are strangers to her culture?

Yet, because of the work of the Afghan Women's Writing Project, an American nonprofit that connects American female writers with Afghan female writers via online workshops, those of us involved get to witness the power of these women when they share their stories on the page. Some of these women, like the medical student in Norwan's essay I Remember, have the love and support of their parents. Some women, like Frozan in Seeta's She is Gone Now, could not bear living as the forced wife of a drunk and heroin abuser, and takes her own life with a gun. We cannot save the deceased, but we can support the young writer who is bearing witness, and is sharing this story will all of us, via the AWWP blog.

I have served for two rotations as an online mentor, and it ranks as one of the most special teaching experiences I have known. These women fight invisibility every day. They have been told that their stories don't matter. Luckily, some have supportive relatives, like the beautiful women in Farida's Heroines of the Hearth. But too many must hide their writings from their family for fear of shame and punishment. Some must walk for hours through dangerous territory just to get to an internet café to post their work.
By going to the AWWP website, reading a piece, and leaving comments, you too will bear witness, and you will give precious support to these young women. On International Women's Day, please take a few moments to not just look beyond the burqa, but to look into the hearts and minds of these special women. You'll be reminded of what you knew all along: that these women are our sisters. And they have something to say.