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The Inner Lives of Young Afghan Women

In 2009, I began working with the Afghan Women’s Writing Project.  Founded and directed by writer/journalist Masha Hamilton, the online project connects young Afghan women with writing mentors overseas.  For three weeks, I ran a small online classroom, sending participants prompts and poem ideas and then reviewing their responses.

They wrote of fathers and mothers.  Of love, exile, and life in the war zone.  In some of the most powerful pieces, they wrote of what it was like to be a young woman, especially one who is under a burqa.

For this month’s “Gender” issue, Lee Lee suggested I share some of their work.

If any of their words move you, a wonderful thing you can do is click through to the AWWP website and leave a comment.  You can tell them which lines or images impressed you.  You can offer constructive criticism.  Or, you can simply leave words of encouragement.  These women risk so much in order to tell their stories.  For many of our students, their families would feel deeply shamed if they knew their daughters expressed themselves—so eloquently, beautifully, truthfully—on this site.  This is a frightening fact of life in a country where shame can have brutal consequences. Yet I recently heard that one of the writers walked four hours through Taliban-controlled country just to post her poems.

So please, if you have a moment, comment!

The first piece is “Remembering Fifteen” by Roya.  I’m proud to say that it was my friend Suzanne Scarfone who mentored Roya at the time this was written.  She offered the prompt and later guidance.  The result: one of my favorite poems, period.

Remembering Fifteen

And I feel so young
Pains start growing inside of me
I begin to hear
You have to
have to
have to
I have to live with “have to.”

I have to buy a burqa and
hide the world under it
I have to forget the sun
To talk  about the moon is a risk
I have to wear clothes
people choose
The colors they dictate
I have to live with negative imperatives:
Don’t laugh!
Don’t speak loudly!
Don’t look at men!
Shut up!
I am bored hearing: “Don’t, Don’t, Don’t”

I am fifteen and
the boy I cannot forget
waits on the street
to see me with my burqa
on the way to Lala’s bakery
and gives me postcards
of birds flying in a sky
filled with freedom
he knows my smell
love is blind for him
he lives with the smell of a woman.

And Mama always says, be like other people,
be like other people
I wonder If I agree.

I have to learn how to bear
the pain of being human
the pain of being a woman
the pain if Dad discovers
the postcards hidden between the bricks of the wall
the pain if the neighbor’s naughty son steals the postcards
the pain if Dad says, never ever go to the bakery
the pain if the rain washes the mud off the wall
where his letters are hidden
The rain does wash the mud away along with his words on the letter
“I love you and I love your blue burqa.”

But the rain can’t wash his love from my heart
the rain can’t wash the pain from my heart
still I keep my blue burqa
in the museum of memos
still I paint the birds
with blue wings.

and Mama still says, be like other people, be like other people
and Mama still says, be like other people,
and Mama…

By Roya

The second piece involves the burqa as well.

Under Burqa

Editor’s note: The chader namaz is a large prayer scarf that covers the entire body. The burqa is not required under the present Afghan regime, but due to political instability as well as family and tribal custom, it is almost universally worn in the more conservative parts of the country, and women who might not otherwise be inclined to don it sometimes must do so for personal safety.

My face hidden, I smile,
unseen. It is I,
Afghan woman, under burqa.
I try to be brave, show my presence.
See me; don’t see me, but I am here.
I don’t care how hot it is under burqa.
I am invisible.
I am part of my community.
I am here, Afghan woman
under Taliban burqa.

I cannot use chader namaz
for I will be recognized,
my life threatened if they know
what I do under burqa.
They will make me stop working,
take my job, my life.
But I am an Afghan woman who wants
to stay safe, continue my fight.

Yes, I am brave under burqa,
enslaved in my generation of war.
Banned from education, my illiterate
sisters cannot work.
Some hide, learn in home-based classes,
work today, still at risk.

Foreign women come to see us,
under burqa, take our picture—
we are interesting, novel for them.
They don’t understand
our burqas are jail and safety made of fabric.
We are hidden beneath blue cloth,
confined, yet secure.

I am Afghan woman, working
under burqa. We are many
and if there is one, we are all
Afghan women.
Insha’Allah, we will one day
remove the burqa.

Yes, it is I, Afghan woman, under burqa—
Remember me.

By Seeta

If you think you’ll remember Seeta, take a moment and leave a comment on her piece.  Click around, too, because there are many more writers, writing on different themes, yet all doing the same singularly risky act: writing while female in Afghanistan.  They appreciate our readership. They deserve our support.

24 responses to “The Inner Lives of Young Afghan Women”

  1. Avatar bluedelakanluran says:

    I get the feeling of a smouldering powder keg.

  2. Owen Owen says:

    Those are two amazing poems!
    Sometimes I feel like I'm being courageous by sharing my writing with others. It can be difficult, but let's be honest, the only thing at stake for me is my pride. I can only begin to understand what it's like when expressing yourself is actually, truly dangerous.
    Roya and Seeta, keep up the great work. Keep telling your stories!

  3. Owen Owen says:

    And Stacy, thanks for sharing!

  4. Avatar Rachel says:

    Stacy, not only do I appreciate what you have written here but I'm so touched to see, again, how these women's words travel the world and evoke such intimate feelings in readers – men and women – we are all the same in our timidness about sharing our writing and then to be inspired by a young woman who risks her life is so empowering to all of us as well! I remember the day Seeta's burqa poem came to me (when I was the poetry editor for AWWP). Her power, beauty and bravery entered me forever.

  5. Avatar disperse says:

    Welcome back Stacy, we missed you! Hope you and the wee one are well.
    This piece is so important. When discussing gender it is easy to forget the parts of the world where woman are living in fear because of their sex and the culture they were born into.
    These pieces are both well written and moving. Do the woman write in English or are the pieces translated for the AWWP site?

    • Thank you for writing this!
      The wee one is excellent, thank you. 8 months old last week. I love being a mom but right now, that means very very little writing is happening now. A season for everything, right?
      I will piggy back on what Laura wrote below. Yes, they write in English. A point that Masha (the founder) made at that event is that you'll find English speakers/writers in all parts of their society–you can't peg a person at a certain socio-economic status just because she knows English. For example, one of the AWWP writers learned English in a refugee camp…

  6. Avatar Laura Newman says:

    I went to a living room event last week where Stacy shared her experience mentoring these Afghan women writers. My understanding from Stacy and others is that these women are trying to learn English. Learning English and writing are extremely helpful for upward mobility. But these women must do the writing and learning, often with little support, and threats. The Afghan Women's Writing Project is a wonderful project. The website has beautiful work. Sending gratitude wishes to Stacy and the other mentors, joy reading the women's work.

  7. Avatar Laura says:

    Dear Roya and Seeta,
    your words bring tears to my eyes and great warmth. I am moved by the love and courage expressed; and the sense of confinement and freedom that you experience under the burqa. I wonder what it is like for you to send out your words into the world to be heard? I am also a writer and a storyteller. It is powerful to share feelings and thoughts like this. We are your brick walls with cracks that hold secrets of love and longing. I hope that our listening brings some solace. How do we bring you some relief? What more can we do? You also offer inspiration and a much deeper sense of courage and faith to me. Thank you. I do believe that words have power and your sending your poems out can have profound effect.

  8. Avatar Maria T. says:

    These woman are so brave. I can hear in these poems how frightening it is to live in such a world. I can't help but wonder if I would be so brave for the sake of my own voice to be heard, if our lives were switched, and I was the one suffering to express myself, but couldn't.
    I related a great deal to the passion I heard in these poems. I related to the great wish to be their own person. I could only hope that if our lives were switched that I could only be so brave. That bravery is so inspirational to me (not just as someone who loves to write, but just as someone who is part of this complicated human race).
    I realize a lot of people probably live with the pain of not being able to show who they really are, because of how dangerous it is.

  9. Avatar Maria T. says:

    I admire that living as who they are merits the risk they took, and even more because what they wrote was truly beautiful, and I am very grateful they took that risk so someone like me, from so far away, can read those words, and enjoy them.
    I hope they continue to stay true to who they are. I hope the world around them can change, so they wont need to hide or be afraid anymore.
    I hope their bravery inspires others, like it inspired me.

  10. Avatar SusanJBigelow says:

    These are wonderful and deeply moving, truly. I'm so glad these voices can still be heard. I'm going over to the site now.

  11. Avatar shay youngblood says:

    The words of these poets are brave, beautiful and moving. I can feel the weight and the safety of the burqa and remember the have to's of my own teenage years. Thank you for sharing their voices with us. Stacy you are amazing. So glad you are doing the work you do. Thank you. Shay

  12. Avatar Lorraine Adams says:

    One of the things I admire the most in these poems is their incantatory nature. It is almost as if we are listening in on the inner song of these women. They both reminded me of my time as one of the "foreign women" in Afghanistan. I always longed to know what they thought, how they lived. Their writing is a crucial window.

  13. "Incantatory"–what a wonderful way to describe. Thank you for reading, Lorraine.

  14. Avatar The Tailor says:


  15. Avatar The writer says:

    Beautiful, moving, wonderful. KEEP WRITING!

  16. Avatar Serena says:

    Wonderful. Thanks so much for sharing these stories.

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Stacy Parker Le Melle About Stacy Parker Le Melle

Stacy Parker Le Melle is the author of Government Girl: Young and Female in the White House (HarperCollins/Ecco), was the lead contributor to Voices from the Storm: The People of New Orleans on Hurricane Katrina and Its Aftermath (McSweeney’s), and chronicles stories for The Katrina Experience: An Oral History Project. She is a 2020 NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow for Nonfiction Literature. Her recent narrative nonfiction has been published in Callaloo, Apogee Journal, The Atlas Review, Callaloo, Cura, Kweli Journal, Nat. Brut, The Nervous Breakdown, The Offing, Phoebe, Silk Road and The Florida Review where the essay was a finalist for the 2014 Editors’ Prize for nonfiction. Originally from Detroit, Le Melle lives in Harlem where she curates the First Person Plural Reading Series. Follow her on Twitter at @stacylemelle.

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