Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Masha Hamilton's Guest Post: Afghan Women's Writing Project

Curiosity about the lives of women is what initially sparked my interest in Afghanistan. I remember seeing that infamous footage, surreptitiously shot during Taliban times, which showed a woman in the blue burqa who’d been accused of adultery and was shot in the head in a Kabul football stadium during the weekly public punishments as a watching crowd cheered. That, coupled with the knowledge that Afghan women were not allowed to attend school, work, or even leave home unless fully covered and accompanied by a male relative, convinced me Afghanistan was arguably one of the most difficult places to be a woman.

When I first visited the country in 2004, I focused on interviewing women. I spoke to a 12-year-old imprisoned in Kandahar for objecting to marrying the 35-year-old man to whom her father had essentially sold her. In a dusty courtyard, I spoke to the matriarch of a large family of opium farmers, a grandmother who kept a small trunk of precious belongings (including an air-dropped food package) to display in a room of her own if she ever in her life had one. I talked to a young girl slated to be married in a week to her much older cousin, who told me she was afraid about what would happen when the lights went out, and then, finally freed from my questions, ran with her friend to the playground. I gave shiatsu to women in Wardak who had never been touched in that way before.

The situation remained difficult for women, but there was a sense of optimism. Some were attending school, some were receiving microloans to start small businesses. And the women themselves were inspiring. They were often funny, and unfailingly full of grace.

When I returned in November of last year, the mood had changed. Because of kidnapping concerns, I was unable to visit Kandahar or Logar or Wardak. The Taliban held much of the south of the country. I went north, over the Hindu Kush, and stayed in Kabul. The government was talking of opening negotiations with Taliban leaders, and some women expressed fears about a possible return of misogynistic policies.

It was from this trip that the idea of the Afghan Women’s Writing Project sprang. The project is aimed at allowing Afghan women to have a direct voice in the world, not filtered through male relatives or the media. The project engages generous, talented women author/teachers here in the United States who volunteer, on a rotating basis, to teach Afghan women online from Afghanistan. Volunteer designers set up our blog, a volunteer blogmaster keeps it running, a volunteer technical specialist set up our online classrooms. Due to security concerns, we use the Afghan women writers’ first names only on the blog, editing out all names of family and friends and removing locators.

Please consider reading some of the essays highlighted below, and adding comment, which means a lot to the women writing in Afghanistan.

In "Narrow Escape," Freshta writes about being spotted by the Taliban while on her way to a secret school. “My heart was shaking. My clothes were moist with sweat, which fell from my body like rain. Suddenly one of them jumped from the car with his gun and appeared in front of me. “Where you are going?”

Zaralasht talks about the end of her idyllic childhood, which coincided with the start of war: “Our parents carried us in their arms and ran barefoot from our home. We were not the only family running away without knowing where we were going. The street was filled with people just like us who were trying to flee the fighting and killing….Our parents tried to not let us see the dead people who were lying along our path.”

Fattema tells the story of Sara, sold in wedlock to an Afghan man living in Iran. “When I first saw him, I couldn’t believe my eyes. My husband was Afghan but he had an Iranian wife with four children. His oldest child was twenty years old, older than me.”

Marzia writes about a girl she knew who, at age 14, fell in love with the 16-year-old boy next door and got pregnant. “The girl’s mother became very sad and angry... The mother came home, took a big stone and put it on her daughter’s belly and killed her.”

These stories are compelling. Please don’t miss them.

Masha Hamilton (Photography by David Orr)

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