By Masha Hamilton
I woke up one day this week to an email from my colleague in Kabul. Many of the women who write for the Afghan Women’s Writing Project blog, he said, would probably not be participating for a few days. Typically once or twice a week, the AWWP writers send in essays, poems, and news reports from computers at offices where they work, or Kabul University, or an Internet café — which they can visit only in the company of a male relative.
But now, as Afghans head to the polls, a campaign by the Taliban to discredit the current Afghan government has led to a sharp rise in the number of suicide bombings. “Rumors of more are rife,” wrote my colleague, an American who has spent the last five years living in Afghanistan. Central Kabul is thought to be a likely target, so offices have rolled down their shutters and people have hunkered down, at least until the voting is over.
Fear of suicide bombings is not the only problem our writers have faced. Many keep their participation in the project secret from family members. Others have coped with taunts and accusations from those who do know. One may have to leave us because her family insists she must marry, against her will, a man who would forbid her online activities. As the Afghan government considers negotiating with the Taliban in order to strengthen and stabilize its rule, many fear their tenuous freedoms will soon evaporate.
And still, courageously and against all odds, they keep writing.
In the days of Taliban rule in Afghanistan, from 1996 to 2001, the voices of Afghan women were virtually never heard. I became interested in their plight after I saw a portion of a smuggled out videotape showing a woman in a burqa being executed in Kabul’s football stadium, where the Taliban held weekly public trials and meted out punishments, sometimes providing popcorn to those who came to observe the spectacle.
When I first visited after the U.S. had toppled the Taliban, I heard some of the stories of those years as I spoke with matriarchs of opium-growing families, child brides, women imprisoned in Kabul and Kandahar, female physicians and politicians who had braved the hard years and, often, had been jailed for their quiet defiance. The women were inspiring and, at the time, mostly hopeful.
However, during my most recent visit to Afghanistan last November it was clear that conservative and radical influences in the country were becoming stronger. Women needed a place where their stories could be collected and protected. And from that sprang the idea of the Afghan Women’s Writing Project. I began alone, teaching an online workshop to a group of Afghan women, but understood nearly immediately that the demand would outstrip my ability to meet it.
So I reached out to fellow acclaimed and talented authors and teachers, who have generously donated their time to mentor, guide and teach on a rotating basis. Since we began in late spring, we’ve flourished. We now have a volunteer blog-master, a volunteer technical director, a liaison in Afghanistan, a project director, three interns, three workshops, and at full capacity, 30 Afghan women writers. It’s a good start.
Our goal: allowing their voices to be heard directly, not filtered through male family members or the media. As part of the effort, we’ve begun raising funds for Afghanistan’s first women’s-only Internet café which will provide, in addition to computers and desks, full-time security.
Masha Hamilton is the founder of the Afghan Women’s Writing Project. She is also a journalist and a novelist. Her latest novel, 31 Hours, will be published in the United States this September by Unbridled Books.
CONTACT: Masha Hamilton directly
READ: More about the Afghan Women’s Writing Project at its Web site