In mainstream media, the images that depict women in Afghanistan are often bleak, miserable and sad. The stories that we outside of Afghanistan hear about Afghan women tell us about the dangerous, war-torn, tumultuous conditions that the women face. More than anything, we hear about how Afghan women are oppressed; Afghan women suffer under their burqas, at the hands of the men in their life, within their Taliban and tribal controlled culture. While we can consider some of this devastatingly true, the classic portrayal of the Afghan woman lacks one crucial thing: the Afghan woman.
It is not often that we are able to hear stories from Afghan women themselves in major news and media outlets. Instead, what we are left with is the shadow of one kind of truth. That is, what we learn about Afghan women is one-dimensional—it flattens and diminishes the reality and experiences of the women. Journalism should complicate and challenge our perceptions and pre-conceived notions of situations outside of our personal contexts. However, more often than not, media related to Afghan women is exploitative; it victimizes the women, represents them for outside consumption and hardly sheds light on the actual, diverse realities of women in the country. The Afghan Women’s Writing Project (AWWP) recognizes the hazards of this deficiency and seeks to change it.
In 2009, journalist and writer Masha Hamilton founded the Afghan Women’s Writing Project after her second visit to the country in 2008. At this time, Hamilton had heard from women about an increasing Taliban presence and the growing restrictive tribal environment. Hamilton, who believes telling personal stories can be “as important to a certain kind of survival as food and shelter”, saw in this moment an opportunity to help women in Afghanistan. Since its beginning, AWWP has grown to include multiple writers and volunteers from both inside and outside the United States to help organize and facilitate online writing workshops, in addition to gatherings in Kabul and Herat where participants can meet and share their stories.
Women who participate in the program face enormous, sometimes unimaginable risks. In addition to hiding laptops under their burqas while walking through Taliban controlled territory, many of the participants write under such secretive conditions that even their families do not know, and cannot know, of their art. While the women already demonstrate tremendous courage just by attending the workshops, Hamilton suggests that writing can be particularly empowering for them. According to Hamilton, writing is about finding one’s own solutions and approaching positive change from within. To this extent, the Afghan Women’s Writing Project is about supporting that change and ultimately, supporting the women’s voices, growth and confidence.
On January 21st and 22nd, 2012 the Afghan Women’s Writing Project held two events to honor and benefit the women who participate in the project. I was given the special opportunity to attend Sunday’s event in which women comedians, including Saturday Night Live’s Rachel Dratch, recited the poetry of Afghan women. The performance was organized as an installation. In an attempt to demonstrate the isolation of Afghan women, viewers as a group walked among the separated performers.
The pieces ranged in subject from deep friendship to the full and comprehensive role of women; from memories of moments colored with unreserved joy to memories of unrelenting loneliness, seclusion and fear. The poems spoke to themes of strife, sorrow, exhaustion, injustice and hopelessness as well as desire, spirituality, dreams, strength, connection, success and hopefulness. One of my favorite poems entitled “Prayer” described a writer’s relationship to her father. The author of this poem, a woman named Meena, recounts the story of her first prayer with her father as an offering of consolation after a recent death in the family. The poem is so utterly tender and gentle that the love felt between father and daughter is palpable, poignant and deeply moving. “If Life Repeats”, a poem that similarly resonated with me, is about uncertainty and the absence of past friendship and love. The final lines of the poem in particular are wonderfully emotive, accurate, stunning, and in general so beautifully and aptly articulated that they struck a profound chord within me. To this point, connecting readers to the work of the participants is just another aspect of the project. Perhaps we lead immeasurably different lives, but we can still feel and honor one another’s pain, joy and everything in between. As Hamilton noted, writing acts as a bridge between the participants and readers.
Of note was the space in which the event was held—an industrial, abandoned floor of a factory that still operates. The space was adopted by an experimental theater company in 2010 and has since been used in various productions. This bare and minimalist performance space lent a hand in further demonstrating how discreet, non-theatrical and desolate the experiences of Afghan women can be. Furthermore, I especially appreciated the point that was made in announcing the names of authors after each of the poems were read. This brief but important notice reminded the viewers that the poetry we were hearing were the true stories of women living thousands of miles away, who risk so much for the opportunity to deny silence and create such incredible art.
While there are donation-based ways to support and help the Afghan Women’s Writing Project (all proceeds go to securing internet access, laptops, rent for meeting locations, etc.), one of the best and simplest ways to contribute to the project is to visit the site and comment on the writing. According to Hamilton, the women writers read all the comments on their work and love it. You can learn more about AWWP and read the work of Afghan women writer’s at awwproject.org.