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Through Writing, Afghan Women Find Freedom

January 16th 2013

Afgan Women in Burka

In the virtual space created by The Afghan Women’s Writing Project ( AWWP), women have the freedom to write about whatever they want and they can receive mentoring by a volunteer team of teachers and authors.

Zahra A., who is in her 20s, is excited about telling her story through the project’s web site. “She’s a daughter of uneducated farmers who place a high value on education for their children in the face of community and extended family disapproval,” says American novelist Naomi Benaron, who is Zahra’s mentor. “She puts despair on the page, but she’s eternally hopeful.”

Zahra teaches English at an orphanage and writes about Afghan girls’ life experiences and aspirations. Masha Hamilton, an American journalist and novelist, founded The Afghan Women’s Writing Project in 2009, ten years after her first visit to Kabul. She was inspired, she says, by all the strong, smart Afghan women she encountered, who are eager to learn and express themselves.

“It’s important for a certain kind of survival to tell your own story, to tell it out loud. When you tell your story, you see it in different ways, and then you make changes that are right for you,” Hamilton says. “We don’t teach English. They write in English as the best they can. We fix it up. We work with them on their creative story-telling abilities.”

Over the past three years, the number of women taking part in the project has grown steadily, as the women share their experiences with their friends and family. “We have about 100 writers now," says journalist Susan Postlewaite, who edits their stories and poetry. "We’re adding more writers. Our oldest writer is 45, our youngest writer is about 14.”

These women often face enormous risks to write their stories. Postlewaite says some of them hide laptops under their burqas while walking through Taliban-controlled territory.

“They do write in secret to some extent. Their families may not necessarily be supportive of them expressing their opinions to the world," she says. "We had one writer who did write in secret. She had to walk four hours to get to an Internet [cafe], she was accompanied by a young male relative.”

Recently, AWWP moved out of cyberspace into an actual building in the capital city, Kabul, where women can come, use the Internet and inspire one another. “I feel I’m not alone and there’s a need for change,” says Mahnaz, 20, who joined the group three years ago.

In her poem “Legitimizing Inequality,” she explores how women become victims of cultural and religious beliefs. Mahnaz wants to continue writing and dreams of becoming a novelist. She says The Afghan Women’s Writing Project opened the door for her and other writers to have a voice and be a force for change.

Faiza Elmasry writes for VOA, from where this article is adapted.


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