Afghanistan is, according to a survey of the world’s nations, the most dangerous country in the world for women. Because women there have few rights (including, in many places, the right to even leave their home without a male relative chaperoning – however, the male relative can be a young son), and live in a society indifferent or hostile to their health, education and well-being, the pain Afghan women suffer is constant and intense.
If they wish to write about their perceptions, how do they even start? Where is the outlet?
There is one . . . online. A recent NYTimes story explored the Afghan Women’s Writing Project, whose 75 participants live in almost every part of the country. They write whatever they want – personal perspectives, political commentaries, poetry, family stories – with the assurance that an assortment of female activists and their own fellow writers will mentor them. There are three rules: writers must be female, live in Afghanistan, and contribute at least one piece per month.
They must be secret to avoid detection from officials and, in many cases, from their own families. Many use computers at an internet center in Kabul. Most use false names, common first names, or demand total anonymity.
Yet they write, and in writing unburden themselves and give others a glimpse into lives of restriction: how they learn, their work at home, the mandated burqa, whom they are expected to marry. Like Holocaust writers in concentration camps, sometimes their writing is about the wonders of nature, all the world seen in a blade of grass. No matter the subject, that they write at all is enormously important, a form of quiet activism in the face of afflictions no Afghan man is expected to suffer, especially when the planned pullout of foreign troops will take place in three years.
I wish that Afghanistan’s attitude toward women were the sole example of such benighted oppression in Asia. Unfortunately, in a few years it is likely to be the model. It will be imitated in India and China as the number of their women grows smaller and the number – and power – of men rises to heretofore unseen levels. Where women are regarded as chattel to be hoarded and hidden, they will need “protection” so that their services belong to one, perhaps two, men. Where they are protected from the outside world, their access to it tumbles. No longer are they part of society, or even part of female society, since female society – to paraphrase the infamous and unhappy words of Margaret Thatcher – will cease to exist. There will only be small numbers of women and girls held within families or gangs.
I wish it weren’t so, but I’m afraid within 20 years it will inevitably come to pass that, in reworking social systems so that men are benefitted – to the cost of women and children — even more than their current levels, China and India will look west toward Afghanistan for their inspiration.
Let’s hope the Women’s Writing Project will spill beyond Afghan borders.