A couple of years ago, I stumbled upon an article in the New York Times Magazine, entitled “Why Afghan Women Risk Death to Write Poetry.” The article was actually four years old when I found it, but because women in Afghanistan still lack person freedom, I don’t feel like the stories it tells are dated.
The article tells how these women write poems in secret and only share them with other women they trust, using pen names because no one dare risk being associated with their words, using poetry to gently “shout” their pain. We are painted an opening scene in which Ogai Amail waits in her cold, unheated home in Kabul for another poet, Meena Muska, to call her. Unlike other young women, these young Afghan women are calling to read their poetry to each other. They belong to a group called Mirman Baheer and most of these Afghan poets go by pen names, as it would most likely mean a death sentence were they caught writing.
These poets write about sex, love, war, anger, and death. For the most part, they write two-line landays , which are traditional to Afghanistan. In Pashto, a similar word, landai, means “short, poisonous snake.” Considering the women of Mirman Baheer are risking their lives to write poetry representative of their lives, I think the Afghan meaning is more than appropriate.
You can find examples of landays in the Guardian article, “Love, poetry and war: the Afghan women risking all for verse.” Since these landays have been translated into English, they don’t follow the traditional syllabic form, which they did when first written.
May God destroy the Taliban and end their wars.
They’ve made Afghan women into widows and whores.
You sold me to an old man, father
May god destroy your home; I was your daughter
Making love to an old man
Is like fucking a shriveled cornstalk black with mold
When sisters sit together, they always praise their brothers.
When brothers sit together, they sell their sisters to others.
Your eyes aren’t eyes. They’re bees.
I can find no cure for their sting.
I’ll kiss you in the pomegranate garden. Hush!
People will think there’s a goat in the underbrush.
In the Times article, Meena discusses how she lost her fiancée a year prior and now, because of Pashtun law, she must marry one of her fiancée’s bothers. Meena was pulled out of school by her father and now spends her days cooking and cleaning, and in private, writing poems. She divides her conversation between the interviewer and her poet friend, Amail, who is now on the phone with Meena.
Meena says, “I can’t say any poems in front of my brothers,” she said. Love poems would be seen by them as proof of an illicit relationship, for which Meena could be beaten or even killed. “I wish I had the opportunities that girls do in Kabul,” she went on. “I want to write about what’s wrong in my country.”
Both girls are now crying as they read their poems to each other and copy them on whatever paper they can find. Meena reads her poem:
I am the new Rahila.
Record my voice so that when I get killed at least you’ll have something of me.
Amail becomes upset and asks Meena if she wants to also die. She asks this because Rahila was the pen name of a poet named Zarmina. When Zarmina’s poems were discovered, her family assumed she was illicitly involved with a boy, and her brothers beat her and destroyed her poetry. The brothers did not kill Zarmina; she committed suicide. In doing so, “Rahila” became a hero to other Afghan women.
Because Mirman Baheer operates in Kabul, this women’s group has a bit more freedom than those secret group in rural areas, like the Golden Needle. This group formed in Herat, in opposition to the Taliban’s belief that girls/women do not need an education. While sewing, the women of Golden Needle used this secluded time to discuss literature. Their children played outside and would alert the women if some man or a member of the Taliban approached. The women would then begin to sew in silence.
In the Guardian article, the found of Mirman Baheer, Saheera Sharif, says that “literature is a more effective battle for women’s rights than shouting political rallies.”
Sharif, who is not a poet, but a member of the government, says that Mirman Baheer is growing and becoming stronger. However, the group fears that the Taliban becoming stronger, this group might be harmed.
Wanting to know whether Mirman Baheer is still going strong, I did some research. I found a Facebook page that hasn’t been updated since 2011. However, since you have to become friends with the group, it’s possible that I can only see what Mirman Baheer wants me to see.
I found mention of the group on the online magazine, Powered By Girl, but the most recent date of this site’s content is 2014. However, I did find an article written in 2016 on the Dawn website. This article discusses how women in Afghan are still writing in secret. Are they still writing about love, war, sex, and death as we near 2019?