Society

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
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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Boris Johnson tells France — not so eloquently — to prenez un grip

Bertrand Hauger


-Essay-

PARIS — I'll admit it straight away: As a bilingual journalist, the growing use of Franglais by French politicians makes my skin crawl.

Not because I think this blend of French and English is a bad thing in and of itself (it is!), or because the purity of the French language should be preserved at all costs (it should!) — but because in a serious context, it is — at best — a distraction from the substance at hand. And at worst, well …

But in France, where more and more people speak decent English, Anglo-Saxon terms are creeping in everywhere, and increasingly in the mouths of politicians who think they're being cool or smart.

Not that long ago, Emmanuel Macron was dubbed "the Franglais president" after tweeting "La démocratie est le système le plus bottom up de la terre" ...

Oh mon dieu

They call it Frenglish

It is much rarer when the linguistic invasion goes in the other direction, with far fewer English-speaking elected officials, or their electors, knowing more than a couple of words of French. (The few Brits who use it call it Frenglish)

Imagine then my horror last night watching British Prime Minister Boris Johnson berating France over the recent diplomatic clash surrounding the AUKUS submarine deal, cheekily telling UK media from Washington: "I just think it's time for some of our dearest friends around the world to prenez un grip about this and donnez-moi un break."

Cringe. Eye roll. Facepalm.
Here's the clip, in case you haven't had your morning cup of awkward.
Grincement de dents. Yeux au ciel. Tête entre les mains.

First, let me offer a quick French lesson: Sorry, BoJo, you needed the "infinitif" form here: "It's time for [us] to prendre un grip about this and me donner un break."

But that, of course (bien sûr), is not the point in this particular moment. Instead, this would-be bon mot is not just sloppy and silly, it is incredibly patronizing, particularly when discussing a multi-billion deal that sparked a deep diplomatic crisis in the Western alliance.

The colorful British politician is, alas, no stranger to verbal miscalculations and linguistic gaffes. He's also (Brexit, anyone?) not necessarily one who cares about preserving relationships with longstanding partners. This time, combining the two, even for such a shameless figure as Mr. Johnson, only one word came to my bilingual brain: Vraiment?

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