Three years and counting
I came up with the idea of publishing a book of Afghans women’s writings when I was home for my summer break in 2013. It was one of those crazy hot days and I was walking around Shahr-e-Naw in search of popcorn and fresh coconuts- because I have my priorities straight- when one of the many children selling books and magazines approached me.
He showed me the collection of small books he was carrying. Most of them used and torn, the dozen or so books were all religious texts. They were not copies of the holy Quran or a re-print of Hadiths. They were religious commentary published in Pakistan. The spelling mistakes (often on the cover) assured me that the books didn’t even attempt to relay real information. They were propaganda books and they were everywhere. And they were cheap.
I bought a couple.
Despite their innocuous titles like “the habits of a young Muslim,” and “the foundations of a Muslim family,” the books were obsessed with women. They wrote in detail about how men should treat their wives in bed (I will save you the trouble of reading them, it is not good), how a Muslim girl should behave in public (don’t be in public), how a Muslim father should discipline his family (so many things wrong there).
There were entire passages embellished with a false sense of romanticism about the importance of protecting women from the evils of the world outside the home. They told women to never disagree with their husbands in “harsh ways” or disrespect their husbands’ families. They warned women against inviting guests or leaving their homes without the permission of their husbands. They told horror stories of what would happen to women who laughed with na-mahram (non-related) men. In case you are curious, according to these books women who laugh with unfamiliar men will be forced to drink liquid fire. Long story short, these books were harmful and misogynistic and basically guidebooks on how to abuse women.
In many ways the books mirrored the sermons we hear in certain mosques around Kabul and other cities on Fridays. They spend all their energy attacking women who work outside the home or attend universities in a country where corruption, war and poverty are eating people alive.
I had to do something. I didn’t have enough money to buy all the books and create a huge fire and dance around it like a witch so I decided to work with a close friend, Batul Moradi, and create an alternative book. That is how Daughters of Rabia was born.
The book included more than thirty poems, articles and narratives written by Afghan women about what it means to be female in Afghanistan. The selection covered anything from street harassment to forced marriage and other forms of gender-based violence, to testimonies to honor brave women who came before us.
Batul and I hoped that Daughters of Rabia would be a tool for other Afghan women to have conversations about their lives, to be inspired and to come to the realization that they are not alone. Patriarchal societies thrive by dividing women; antagonizing them and making them feel ostracized. Through the writings of women like themselves, we wanted our countrywomen to feel connected.
It worked, somewhat. Within a month we were out of the 1500 copies we had published with some of the money I had received as an award as Glamour Magazine’s Top College Woman earlier that year. People from around the country came and took copies for their local libraries and schools. The energy we felt when we saw photos of women in the war-torn Helmand reading our books is indescribable, but the success of the book was a sign that we had to do more.
In August, I came back to Dickinson College, where I was studying and launched a Facebook page (Afghans love Facebook and I couldn’t afford a website) to re-publish the book in small portions. Soon, I was getting new poems and articles from women around the country. They didn’t want to just read. They wanted to contribute. The page flourished.
Today, we have more than 120 contributors from all over the country and a core team of ten volunteers editing and translating submissions. We have published more than 350 pieces in Persian and Pashtu and we began publishing their works in English on this website last year.
We have also created alliances to amplify authentic Afghan voices and stories. We have partnerships with other platforms including Safe World for Women and SISTER-HOOD to republish these pieces and amplify the voices of Afghan youth speaking up for gender equality to a more global audience. We also have partnerships with local media organizations. Two newspapers inside the country often republish our work to get them to people without Internet access and we just started a partnership with Radio Rustam, a local radio in north Afghanistan with more than 150 thousand listeners. They broadcast our writings in audio-form.
To celebrate our 3-year anniversary, we also created a scholarship program to sponsor one Afghan woman’s higher education every year. We hope to expand this scholarship in the future because we know that at the heart of gender equality is empowering women with knowledge, but this is a start.
Free Women Writers is a start. We hope to spend the next year expanding our work, reaching more of our own people, representing authentic voices of Afghan women in a more robust way in global media, enabling more women to tell their stories and inspiring our country. Stay with us and watch us grow.