Afghanistan’s Freedom Writers


Robert Leleux

A version of this story ran in the June 2012 issue.

In 2009, American novelist and journalist Masha Hamilton founded the Afghan Women’s Writing Project (AWWP), a nonprofit that recently published its first collection of poems and essays, The Sky Is a Nest of Swallows. Written by 25 of the nearly 100 Afghan women who have participated in the AWWP’s writing workshops online and in Kabul, this slender volume is an act of defiance by a community that has refused to be silenced. The determination of these women to express their memories, opinions and intimate desires is—Hamilton reminds us in her introduction to the book—both heroic and risky. “Some came from families,” she writes, “that believed a woman who used a cellphone was a whore.”

Throughout this collection, the everyday perils faced by Afghan women are chronicled in tragic detail. In an attempt to protect the women, the project publishes only their last names. In the prose poem “Childhood Memory: Zainab’s Death,” Marzia writes about a mother who murders her unmarried pregnant teenage daughter out of shame and fear. In “A Pretty Toy in My Family’s Hands,” an anonymous woman writes about being sold into marriage by her father for $6,000. “My fiancé was uneducated,” she writes, “and forbade me to go to school.” And in “The Voice of Sahar Gul,” Norwan describes the suffering of a woman who resisted her in-laws’ efforts to prostitute her. “They beat [Sahar Gul] wildly,” she writes, “and ripped her fingernails out, tortured her with hot irons, and broke her fingers. … [She] is one of thousands of women who share the same destiny.”

In addition to domestic abuse and exploitation, the AWWP authors have endured and documented the dangers of living in a war zone. A recent posting on the organization’s blog announces the death of Tabasom Hasal, one of the AWWP’s first poets, who perished in a suicide bombing. Hasal once wrote about walking four hours through her Taliban-dominated province to send the writing project a poem: “4 hour walk, isn’t it long? Not for my interests of writing, it is not far.”

The horror of Afghan women’s circumstances makes their bravery, and the beauty of their writings, all the more life-affirming. In “The Garden of My Homeland (Clothed in Blood and Fear),” poet Sabira writes lyrically, “My teacher said: ‘You are the future. / You are the gardeners of your homeland.’ / Remembering that, I made myself a garden.”

In “Read My Poems on the Reddish Stream of My Blood,” Emaan promises to “take revenge, but not like men / by gun and sword and aggression, / Instead I will write.”

Throughout this collection, the act of writing emerges as a vital theme of self-declaration, a means, not merely of creative expression, but also of combatting and transforming experience. In Roya’s poem “If I Don’t Write,” she declares, “With my writings I write about / things I can’t talk about. / When I write / I feel fresh / I wear my favorite dress of my desires, / sit under the tree of my thoughts.”

Proceeds from The Sky Is a Nest of Swallows (the title comes from a poem in the book) benefit the AWWP, which receives the bulk of its funding from small, individual donations. Masha Hamilton was inspired to found the nonprofit after a visit to Afghanistan in 2008. At the time, “the Taliban, never fully banished, was regaining strength, and women were concerned,” she writes on the organization’s website. The project has had a rapid and profound impact on its participants and Afghani culture. In a few short years, Hamilton writes, the organization’s volunteers have seen their students “gather strength, courage, and self-confidence.” Some students have used their AWWP essays as part of job or school applications, and gone on to become lawyers, journalists or members of Parliament.

Years spent as a foreign correspondent, Hamilton writes, have convinced her that “telling our own stories is as important to a certain kind of survival as food and shelter.” The success of the AWWP testifies to the power of this sentiment.

“Who would trust an online class to change a destiny and a faith?” an Afghan woman writes in the book, describing the impact the program has had on her. “I learned if I stand, everyone will stand, other women in my country will stand.” Reading these poems and essays, one realizes the reductive power of the burqa (a frequent, and much loathed, topic of the women’s writings) to limit women’s freedom of movement and expression. The work of the AWWP, as represented in The Sky Is a Nest of Swallows, enables women to transform themselves from faceless chattel in burqas into members of Parliament.

In the poem “Dear Women of the World,” Pakiza writes, “We are living in our hopes. We have the international laws protecting us. We are the Afghan women.”