The Afghan Women's Writing Project

“I was never ready to share my personal life, but now life has brought me in a crossroad with no option and no hope,” writes the anonymous author of a posting to the Afghan Women’s Writing Project. “I don’t want anyone to know this is me. If anybody knows, it means that will be my last day of life. My family and uncles will kill me. It is not just a word that comes out of my mouth. They would surely kill me.”

The idea that simply writing about your day and then sharing those thoughts might literally cost your life is, for us, unthinkable. But for many of the women in Afghanistan, it is a brutal truth. But thanks to the efforts of the extraordinary Afghan Women’s Writing Project, the essays, poems and stories written by these courageous women are now being read by people around the world.

An online magazine dedicated to empowering and nurturing the voices of Afghan women, the AWWP pairs volunteer women novelists, teachers, poets, journalists and screenwriters here in the United States with young women in Afghanistan. Writing workshops are taught in three secure online classrooms and the women’s work is then posted on the AWWP web site -- allowing them to have a direct voice in the world, not one filtered through male relatives. The AWWP was founded by journalist and novelist Masha Hamilton, herself no stranger to life in dangerous places. Hamilton worked as a correspondent for the Associated Press in the Middle East, where she covered the intefadeh, the peace process and the partial Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon. She then spent five years in Moscow and covered the collapse of Communism as a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and NBC/Mutual Radio. Now living with her family in New York City, Hamilton’s novels have won wide critical acclaim. Her most recent, 31 Hours, was selected by the Washington Post as one of the Best Books of 2009.

Masha, how did you move from a journalist reporting from Afghanistan to the creation of the AWWP
?
When I first visited Afghanistan in 2004, I was able to talk to women in prison in Kabul and Kandahar, child brides, the matriarchs of families that grow opium. Returning in November of 2008, I found a changed country. Due to kidnapping concerns, I was not able to travel as I had before. A lot of the optimism was gone from Kabul and as the women discussed the Afghan government’s plan to open negotiations with the Taliban, there were sharp fears. Few ruled out the possibility of a return to conservative Islam and I began to fear we could lose access to the voices of Afghan women if we didn’t act soon. I’d been wanting for some time to teach an online writing class to women in Afghanistan and it seemed imperative to set it up immediately. I began by teaching an online workshop myself, but quickly understood the demand would outstrip my ability to meet it and reached out to set up the AWWP. Today, we have more than seventy gifted volunteer mentors who teach on rotating basis.

In so many instances, it requires an act of extraordinary courage for a woman to simply send her work to the AWWP. I’ll always remember the story you shared with me of a woman who walked four hours through Taliban controlled territory to post a single poem. How do you protect the safety of your writers?
Most of the writers participate in the project partially or entirely in secret from friends and family, so we use their first names only and cut out identifying details, such as names of other family members or specific locators. On very rare occasions, we also publish a piece anonymously because we feel the security concerns are so high -- that the woman's life might actually be in danger if a relative or neighbor were to discover what she had written. This October, the AWWP opened the Women's Writing Hut. It’s located in a small apartment building in one of Kabul’s safer neighborhoods, unmarked from the outside, and a building guard lives on the premises. It has laptops and books as well as Internet service and offers the women who come an opportunity to not only post their work but to spend time with other writers. We hope it will be the prototype for what will eventually be Afghanistan’s first women-only Internet café.

Are there any limitations on what contributors may write?
We encourage the women to write about their deepest concerns, but also their history, what makes them laugh, what they believe in or feel passionately about. These are average women and they have a variety of viewpoints. They share sad hard stories about life in a Taliban held province, but also stories that are funny and poignant. We believe that once a woman begins to write about her life, she begins to gather the intention and will to change her life where needed. I also firmly believe that change to Afghanistan is going to come from within, not from outside pressures, and that women are going to be crucial to that change.

Comments

Thank you for this, Lucinda! I LOVE this. It really makes us value the freedoms we have, doesn't it?
Colleen said…
This is so exciting! What a worthy project. Would love to read some of these writings. Thanks for sharing, and welcome to the blog, Lucinda!
Joni Rodgers said…
Amazing. Thanks Lucinda and Masha.

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