On a Kabul football field marked with white chalk as though ready for sport, a woman in a burqa kneels, her shadow yawning long before her. A man approaches almost casually, his Kalashnikov pointed skyward. She half-turns toward him, her left arm raised slightly, then seems to glimpse the weapon out of her peripheral vision and turns away. He lowers the muzzle to her head. The rifle kicks as he fires once, then twice more. She surrenders to the ground, a discarded blue handkerchief.
I can still picture with precision the smuggled video I saw on the internet in November 1999: the execution and its aftermath: the burqa-hidden woman who appeared to modestly cover the lower half of her sister’s lifeless body, the group of turbaned men moving like an athletic team toward the body, the Toyota arriving to remove it. The version I saw, which ran on the AP wire, had no sound. Its silent violence left me shaken.
I knew far too little about this woman to be party to such a stark and intimate moment. Zarmeena: her name. Seven: the number of children she had. And her alleged crime: beating her husband to death with a hammer as he slept. It all amounted to a scattered detail or two, not a life story. This absence of narrative, in fact, was true for virtually all women in Taliban-held Afghanistan. They were gagged as well as hidden, I understood then. This recognition left a lasting impact that sparked a deep interest in the country, sending me first to books and news reports, then to travel to the country myself, and finally, a decade later, to the creation of the Afghan Women’s Writing Project.
I first visited Afghanistan in 2004. The U.S. Embassy urged caution, but I felt safe. I visited the opium poppy fields south of Kandahar, the border city of Jallalabad, the province of Wardak, and wandered around Kabul. I interviewed women in prison in Kabul and Kandahar, a child bride steps from a playground to which she longed to return, a war widow living in rubble, the smiling, elderly matriarch of an opium-growing family. I practiced shiatsu on a group of women who had walked for hours to see a doctor. The stories I heard spilled one over the other; each night I transcribed my notes until the electricity failed, so that the next day I could take in more. It was a trip that left me by turns horrified by what these Afghans had endured, and exhilarated by the strength, grace and humor with which they had survived.
When I returned to Afghanistan in November 2008, I found a country more dangerous for Afghans and outsiders alike, a country where women’s optimism had been replaced by strong undercurrents of trepidation. The Karzai government, most believed, had done too little to protect women’s rights. The prospect of that government opening negotiations with “moderate” Taliban left many women wary. Some, like Shaista Hakim, told me about the speed with which the Taliban seemed to take over Kabul in September 1996, almost overnight. Shaista and others said they did not feel their rights were secure enough to rule out a sudden return to a set of rules that would leave them powerless within their own society, unable to go to school or work, forbidden to speak, unable to tell even their own stories.
I had a kitchen-table idea: in order to give at least some of them the ability to tell their stories, I would teach a free online class to them for ten weeks or so. But it took only one class for me to understand that their interest and desire would outstrip my ability to meet it. So in May 2009, the Afghan Women’s Writing Project was founded, and grew quickly from me at my laptop to three secure online classrooms taught by rotating published novelists and poets, memoirists, screenwriters and journalists around the country, with an entire volunteer and generous support team, plus donations that have contributed to laptops for our writers, and will eventually help create Afghanistan’s first women-only Internet cafe.
I have come to feel that speaking our own truths aloud is as critical to a certain kind of survival as food and shelter. At first, though, the Afghan women who joined us in three secure online classrooms were not sure how much they should disclose about their private worries and losses to a faceless, nameless audience. They weren’t sure if it was safe, or if it mattered, or if anyone would notice. Over time, under AWWP mentorship, the stories deepened, and became more revealing of what it meant to be an Afghan woman.
As many times as I’ve read them, I remain moved and illuminated by these essays and poems. We offer them in hopes that you, too, will be moved, and will reach out to comment, and that these stories will connect us, American to Afghan, and broaden our understanding of our complex relationship with Afghanistan and its compelling people.—Masha Hamilton