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.
And I feel so young
Pains start growing inside of me
I begin to hear
You 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
The colors they dictate
I have to live with negative imperatives:
Don’t speak loudly!
Don’t look at men!
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,
The second piece involves the burqa as well.
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
Insha’Allah, we will one day
remove the burqa.
Yes, it is I, Afghan woman, under burqa—
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.