Writers of all kinds face a challenging environment in contemporary Afghanistan. Years of chronic instability and internal displacement; changes in rulers, monarchs, emirs, and presidents; and revolution, Soviet invasion, and Taliban rule have all led to clashing political ideologies and the imposition of widespread restrictions – not only on everyday life, but on freedom of expression, particularly for women.
“We are tired of Afghan men writing women’s stories. It’s time for Afghan women to write their own stories,” Zarghuna Kargar, translator and editor, Write Afghanistan.
Opportunities remain limited for women to express themselves through writing, to connect with other writers, and to publish new work.
The Write Afghanistan project works with Afghan women writers to develop their storytelling skills, share their stories with readers in their own languages, and reach new global audiences in translation. King’s Visiting Research Fellow (Centre for Life-Writing Research in the Arts and Humanities Research Institute), Lucy Hannah, leads an all-women team of experienced literary editors and translators who deliver online creative workshops to aspiring women fiction writers from across Afghanistan.
We invited ten of these writers to reflect on International Women’s Day. You can read their responses here. Batool Heydari speaks for the group in the opening line of her piece, “The only way I can paint a picture of how I feel is by writing,” and Zainab Atkhlaqi also stresses the importance of words for women in her country: “I think our pens are the only way out of this darkness.” But, most of all, these are notes of inspiration, as writer Freshta Ghani reminds women everywhere: “You haven’t lost hope. You have become an angel – you have wings, you can fly.”
These messages from Afghanistan were translated from Pashto and Dari by Zarghuna Kargar. Write Afghanistan is supported by the British Council, KfW Stiftung and the Bagri Foundation. You can read stories from the Write Afghanistan project on the Untold website.
We will be publishing 10 stories spread across three features in the Faculty news section and on social media: https://twitter.com/kingsartshums
See below for Part one.
The only way I can paint a picture of how I feel is by writing. My pen is the only tool I can use to express my exhausted voice – to express the screams of the women of my country who are stoned to death, sacrificed for crimes they haven’t committed. My pen is the wing of a bird; it will tell you about the pain of those girls who haven’t lived out their dreams, those girls who have been buried alive. My pen will tell you those thoughts we are not allowed to think, those dreams we are not allowed to dream.
I want to give those dreams a space, give them strength, overcome fear. I want to give life to women – to flowers that men would like to break before they bloom.
I do not forget that I am a writer trying to bring hope from long, dark nights. I am a writer trying to find hope in a patriarchal society. I am a writer writing about the days still to come. We put an end to our pain, this way. We clean our own tears with our swollen hands. We stand straight, side by side, and look at the radiance of the sun. Because tomorrow is on its way.
I praise woman
I praise mother
I praise sister
I praise daughter
My darling mother!
You have endured so much pain for me
You made sleepless nights your habit for me
You held my hand, you showed me how to walk
You taught me to speak
You showed me manners
You taught me respect.
You chose not to wear nice clothes,
Instead you give them to me
You chose not to sleep on the soft bed,
Instead you gave it to me
You were not a singer,
But you sang me sweet songs of kindness and love.
You went against the culture of our village
And chose to send me to school
For my education, you used all your savings
Savings you earned by keeping chickens and hard work.
You bore the burden of negativity from relatives and neighbours.
When they judged me
you stood by me
like a mountain.
Today I am a doctor
I am treating those who gave you a hard time
I serve those who said you were a bad mother who sent her daughter to the city.
I remember when those people would check if I was pregnant because in their minds I was doing bad things
But you would bear it all
You would just smile
Because you knew
What was right for me.
My sweet mother,
You give us a message
of a good life
Today the world wakes up to your radiance.
Happy women’s day!
My sweet and beautiful Freshta! I know life has taught you many things in its dark moments, but remember that you will not remain in darkness forever. You search for the light that will guide you. It’s not important in which country you were born, not important how many of your hopes have been crumpled by war, how much pain you have endured. Because all of this keeps you alive, makes you who you are.
You are writing. You pass your pain to the paper, and this is an achievement. You have been able to survive in a society that, sometimes, doesn’t consider you a human being. You are deprived of education because you are a girl; you are beaten and shunned because you are a woman. But you haven’t lost hope. You have become an angel – you have wings, you can fly.
When you were young, you didn’t have proper school uniform. You spent the summer in warm winter clothes, because you only had that one warm red dress. Then, your main wish was to have a new dress. But now everything has changed: you want to become an internationally known writer who speaks for all those girls whose childhood has been stolen by war and poverty.
You will become the voice for the woman whose crime is being a woman. You have faced discrimination continuously, and there have been many hurdles in the way of your success. But it is not time for shedding tears. Make your heart strong, take big, brave steps – the future is yours.