Afghan Women's Writing Project: Words that could change the world
Published: August 10, 2010
After returning from a visit to Afghanistan in 2008, Masha Hamilton realized something should be done to provide a forum for the voices of Afghan women. A novelist and former international correspondent for the Associated Press, Hamilton had naturally developed a professional network. That network would be invaluable as she brought together volunteers and others to work on creating the Afghan Women’s Writing Project.
Kay B. Day
“When we started the website back in May 2009,” she said, “our goal was to give the women an outlet to tell their stories, to instill pride in their own voices. I didn’t fully anticipate the strength of the responses that we’ve had from readers. Now the site not only offers the women a platform, but also offers readers of the site deep and moving insights into the experiences, normally hidden, of Afghan women.”
In most developed countries, a writer’s greatest challenge is getting the words on paper. In a country like Afghanistan, the greatest challenge may be finding tools for getting the words on paper. Furthermore, publication without a project like AWWP would be impossible.
Jordan Schneider, online magazine coordinating editor, explains. “In
Afghanistan the challenge is that the Internet is limited. For some of
our writers, they access it at work. But for others they must walk four
or five hours in a burqa with a male guardian to get to it. Electricity
goes off and on in Kabul. The mail system to Afghanistan is a big
challenge and expensive…The fact we are working with women in a war
zone is of course a challenge…None of this would have happened without
Masha and the energy she pulls in.”
Photo by Photo by Ellaha; used with permission of the Afghan Women's Writing Project
That’s not the only challenge. The other critical challenge, said Schneider, is “Money, money, money.”
“energy” enabled Hamilton to bring together volunteers and staff like
Schneider, blogmaster/webmaster Stefan Cooke, creative director Jeff
Lyons, director Christina Asquith and poetry editor Rachel de Baer.
Tahmina Popal, said Schneider, “is irreplaceable as a liaison in Kabul.”
are a few of the many who make AWWP a reality. Guest writers work
online with the women who post on the site, and it confers a whole new
perspective for professionals. “They come in with a sort of
trepidation,” said Schneider, “of not being exactly sure how it is
going to work—the process—and they leave feeling that they have been
The result of all this energy and effort is a
viable model for any advocacy group hoping to establish a means of
bringing emerging voices to light.
The website features essays,
poetry and photographs. The works are mesmerizing. One essay was so
poignant in capturing the resilience of the human spirit that Hamilton
wove parts of it into an opinion column for the Los Angeles Times.
her essay, Hamilton explained how AWWP works before moving on to the
story of a young woman whose culture seems completely alien to
Westerners: “Working in three secure online classrooms, the project
pairs Afghan women with American women novelists, poets, memoirists,
screenwriters and journalists. Through writing assignments and a
revision process, the women tell their stories, which then go on a blog
using first names only for security reasons. Sometimes, even that much
identification is too precarious. This is one of those cases.”
young woman’s essay was published without a byline—“I am for sale, who
will buy me?” She described studying “in secret,” and her sense of loss
after the death of her father, who supported her goals to be educated.
Her family then decided she should marry because the dowry money would
help them survive. But the likely groom in the arranged marriage was
“about 40 years old and uneducated.”
The human spirit, however,
will often refuse to be extinguished, and this young woman took matters
into her own hands. Her story is riveting—a reality that disturbs the
heart and the mind. She managed to avoid the marriage, but her victory
was bittersweet. “Only my pen tolerates my choices. I bought my
freedom, but violence still follows me, and I can’t escape, and I still
wish I was not a woman,” she wrote.
AWWP also organizes, with help from volunteers, dramatic readings of the works the women post on the site.
The project draws interest from media and government agencies. Besides Hamilton’s L.A. Times essay, the U.S. Department of State published a feature in the agency e-zine. Coincidentally Time published an unflinching look at women in Afghanistan in a July feature.
the AWWP website, readers from around the world comment on the works,
creating direct communications among sharply different cultures.
manages to bring Afghan women’s stories to light by providing a vital
forum for voices that might be otherwise silent. Throughout that
country’s turbulent history, women have had little opportunity to speak
beyond their own families and tribes. Now that AWWP exists, it is
possible the words of these women may one day change the world.
points out one way everyone can help. “When people respond to the
writers’ work,” she said, “that really encourages them.”
Florida journalist Kay B. Day has won awards for poetry, nonfiction and fiction. The author of two books, she has written for
The Christian Science Monitor, United Press International,
The Florida Times-Union and Sky News. To learn more about Kay Day, see www.kayday.com. To read Kay's other Web Savvy columns about writing for the Web, click here.