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Afghanistan's Female Poets Secretly Share Forbidden Words

Safe from the disapproving eyes of their families, women writers gather secretly in Jalalabad to immerse themselves in poetry.

Writing in Afghanistan
Writing in Afghanistan
Mudassar Shah

JALALABAD — Mursal, 22, reads her poetry. It's a patriotic verse, dedicated to young people who have made sacrifices in war for Afghanistan. But even with that subject, she is taking a risk: As a woman in Afghanistan, writing is dangerous.

"I never share my poetry with my family because they disapprove," says Mursal, clutching her notebook as if she's holding something stolen and dangerous, her eyes furtive and fearful.

Mursal — whose name means "messenger" — has been writing poetry for four years, but it's a closely guarded secret. And she says some subjects are completely off-limits. "I avoid writing romantic poetry because society does not encourage women to express love, even in the form of poetry," she explains. "Some female poets have been tortured for writing romantic poetry."

When Afghan women write about love, they are often accused of adultery, and of compromising the honor of the entire family. In 2005, Afghan poet Nadia Anjuman was killed by her husband after a book of her romantic poetry was published. Mention of her death still strikes fear among women. But it hasn't stopped them from putting pen to paper.

I never share my poetry with my family because they disapprove.

Najiba Paktiani is another female poet in the eastern city of Jalalabad. The 51-year-old has been writing for more than a decade. She calls it an antidote to the difficulties of life. "My life used to be in turmoil, full of sadness," she says. "I tried expressing my sorrow through poetry. That's how I started."

For centuries, poetry has been an important part of Pashtun culture, and it is often passed down by women through songs sung to children and at weddings. But Najiba tells me she's frustrated that women are now cut out of poetry. And even when they do manage to write, they're judged harshly, while male poets are widely respected.

A third female poet, Toor Paikay, says it's considered a great sin for women to want an education, or to want to make decisions for themselves. Toor is a keen writer, but she too keeps it a secret from her family.

Translation of Nadia Anjuman's poetry — Photo: Mudassar Shah/KBR

"The lack of security in my country, gender-based violence and murders of women — those are the main themes that I explore in my poetry," she says. "I focus on women's issues because women face many challenges, and their rights are rarely recognized. I want to be their voice. I want to highlight women's issues through my poetry."

Pashto poetry and culture often make reference to Malalai of Maiwand, a female independence fighter who died in 1880 resisting British colonization. She continues to be celebrated as a national hero. And yet, more than a century later, Afghan women are still struggling for their own independence.

Even when they do manage to write, they're judged harshly, while male poets are widely respected.

Under Taliban rule, from 1996 to 2001, public life was completely closed to Afghan women. They were confined to the home, and punished for minor indiscretions. After the fall of the Taliban, women began to make their way back into society, though serious limitations remain.

Still, a few female poets have gained acceptance — and even have the backing of their families. One of them is Zar Lakhta Hasini, who is now preparing her second book of poetry for publication.

"My school teachers encouraged me when I first shared my poetry with them. Then my family started supporting me. They helped me publish my poems in local newspapers and magazines," says Zar, who is now using her platform to push for women's rights so that others can also write openly and freely.

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