In Their Own Words:

04 July 2012

by Tina L. Singleton

An online writing project helps Afghan women strengthen their voices

They meet in secret, their identities concealed to protect them from possible retribution.

Some have gone to great lengths to hide their activities from their families.

But these Afghan women have done nothing wrong.

All they want is to be allowed to write freely about their lives as Afghan females.  That’s a lofty ambition in a male-dominated society where women’s voices still struggle to be heard.

For two years I worked with the Afghan Women’s Writing Project (AWWP) in Kabul, which provides online creative writing workshops for Afghan women.  The project links Afghan writers with professional female authors abroad who serve as online mentors.  An online magazine showcases their work, and in the past, AWWP has provided laptops and internet service to writers, particularly those in the provinces.

Openair discussion groupFounded by New York journalist Masha Hamilton in 2009, AWWP now involves more than 80 women from across Afghanistan. In Kabul, I held monthly creative writing workshops and reading salons.  Our meetings, held at a secret location, brought together AWWP writers from all backgrounds and writing levels; schoolgirls, university students, community activists, NGO workers, journalists.  The oldest writer was in her forties; the youngest was fourteen.

Some, like Mahbooba, a teenager with a disability, attended with their families’ blessing.

When Mahbooba first joined AWWP and was provided with a laptop and internet service in order to facilitate her participation, I explained that she must submit at least one piece a month to her online workshop.  Her father looked at me and smiled. “She will write two.”

Mahbooba refuses to be held back by her disability, which was caused by a faulty injection when she was a child.  She gets around on crutches; her father ferries her to and from the workshops on his motorbike.  She told me, “My father has goals for me. He wants me to become a doctor. My mother wants me to be famous!”  Like many of the writers, Mahbooba is dedicated to her writing.  She stays up until one or two in the morning to pack her writing into her busy school and home schedule.  When I suggested she temporarily reduce the amount of pieces she was sending in so she could free up some time, she was surprised I would suggest such a thing. “Oh no, I like writing too much!”

Others are less fortunate; they have to hide their activities from their families.  One of AWWP’s first writers, a young woman named Tabasom, once walked four hours to reach internet access so she could submit a poem.  Living in a very conservative province, she emailed, “No one knows I am writing except one of my brothers, who encourages me to write, whether or not it is good.  Thanks for my computer, it works. I am happy. I think I am a mother and the laptop is my child whom I love very much.”

Tabasom was tragically killed in a suicide bombing at a hospital in April 2011.

AWWP writers are free to write about anything they like, and online mentors provide writing prompts to elicit topics to write about.  Some describe everyday experiences or cultural traditions.  But many focus on the issues that hold so many Afghan women back: the need for an education, violence against women, or the prospect of forced marriage.

One young girl, writing anonymously, described how the death of her beloved father left her ambitions for a university career in tatters.  She was forced to study secretly secret in her room while her brothers, brought up in the time of the Taliban, plotted to marry her off to a man much older than herself.  Her piece concluded: “What I write here are the wounded and torn pieces of my heart and the secrets an Afghan girl suffers. I am like a piece of cloth. I cost little. Who will buy me?”

Project member reading

Despite the fact that many write about the difficulties and challenges they face being Afghan and female, AWWP brings them confidence, fellowship and hope.  I have watched the writers read their work aloud for the first time and witnessed their pride when they realise their words have the power to elicit laughter, tears and rich discussion.  With each word, each essay, poem or short story, their confidence and self-esteem grows.  They explore their own identities and tell their own stories, in their own words, without the filter of family, society or the media.

These writers humble and inspire me.  They are proud, courageous and ambitious.  They do not see themselves as helpless victims, as the rest of the world might. In some ways, their tough situation makes them stronger.  According to AWWP writer Masooma, “ If we had not had these difficulties, we would not know how to live.”

Tina L. Singleton is a writer, human rights advocate, and founder of Chorus for Humanity, a consulting company focused on creating and supporting projects that support women’s voices and meaningful participation in society. She worked with the Afghan Women’s Writing Project in Kabul from 2010 - April 2012. For more information about the Afghan Women’s Writing Project, visit http://www.awwproject.org.