Free Women Writers: In poetry, Afghan women have found the voice of liberation

[This article was originally published in Words in the Bucket online magazine. The editor of this article — Virginia Vigliar — is also a writer on Medium]

I will not submit to exhaustion.

I will not become accustomed to sadness.

My heart seeks a window for hope,

Two wings to fly, and a lifetime of freedom.

I want my hours spent awake to be as sweet as my dreams.

A woman shouldn’t have to only dream.

- Sohaila Sediqi

An avid reader, Noorjahan Akbar couldn’t help but notice the number of extremist books targeting youth in Kabul’s libraries. “The books were accessible and affordable and they often dictated, through a narrow fundamentalist lens, what women should and shouldn’t be allowed to do,” she told WIB.

For a country like Afghanistan, plagued by decades of war and where women’s freedom of expression, movement and choice are threatened by extremist ideologies, these kinds of books were bound to postpone progress for another generation.

Poetry of Resistance

In response, Akbar and her friend Batul Moradi decided to publish 1500 copies of a small collection of women’s writings, which sold out within a month and sparked debate across the country. Free Women Writers was born. Subjects ranged from marriage, depression and violence, considered taboo particularly if approached from a female perspective

The anthology, Daughters of Rabia, took inspiration from Rabia Balkhi, a Persian poet of the tenth century C.E. who was murdered by her own brother for falling in love with a Turkic slave of lower caste, and wrote her final poems with her own blood as she lay dying.

Like Balkhi, women in Afghanistan face significant dangers when expressing themselves and challenging social norms.

You can love me,

You can hate me,

But you can never ignore me,

Because I’ll never be housebound again.

- Benafsha Jahanara

For Pary Shuaib, another member of Free Women Writers, male violence and domination lies at the root of a culture that quashes and dismisses women’s voices, glorifies brutality, and encourages cruelty. This is a global issue, and it affects the portrayal and perception of women worldwide.

“We firmly believe that uplifting women’s voices and allowing women to partake in society will change that and lead to a better world.”

The depiction of Afghan women as voiceless victims, she says, ignores their potential to promote a culture of peace where women’s needs are met and their problems addressed. “It’s largely men who are waging wars and partaking in terrorism,” she says, “We firmly believe that uplifting women’s voices and allowing women to partake in society will change that and lead to a better world.”

Indeed, the role of women in peacebuilding is becoming more important — but in Afghanistan, women are still largely ignored in these processes. This is not surprising, given that the experiences of women in Afghanistan are still largely invisible to society at large and they are often killed with total impunity, either by insurgents, other parties to the conflict or by their own communities.

This is why giving visibility to women’s experiences and voices remain so important.

Do not idolize me on high pedestals

And do not chain my luscious hair.

Do not imprison me in cages and make my life bitter

And do not place sweets at the corner of the cage.

“Not more, not less, we want equality” by Negin Badakhsh

Though transformation on a large scale is necessary, the liberation of women in Afghanistan implies meaningful behaviour changes in the private sphere, which is where most women are at risk: honour killings, forced marriage, and gender-based violence are still daily occurrences.

Free Women Writers have often written about violence against women in Afghanistan and thelong-lasting impact it has for the lives of Afghan women. In 2017, they published a second book entitled You Are Not Alone, in order to help women facing abuse. This book has had a major impact on its female readers. It allowed women to rediscover their courage and voice and learn that love is about respect and not ownership nor violence, wrote Akbar on the yearly review of the book.

Accepting the idea of healthy intimate relationships can be difficult in a culture where such things are not commonly discussed. But Free Women Writers are confident in the power of education to change mindsets. One of their initiatives is to offer advice to educators about how to tackle taboo subjects with young students such as consent, abuse and harassment so thatlove is not seen as a “dirty word”.

Love is not a dirty word

“Some of the women who write for us have nowhere else to share their story, their life experience, their traumas and deep longings,” says Shuaib. “How else can we know about them? How else can we heal if we don’t confront our trauma?”

Free Women Writers understand that long lasting and sustainable peace in Afghanistan must involve the full participation of women, but many of the issues that limit women are still considered taboo: such as virginity tests, custody laws or gender-based violence.

The organization offers a safe space to discuss these things, sometimes facing many risks.Akbar fears that these limitations could cause women to self-censor: “They don’t write as frankly and fearlessly as they could because of the pressures and threats around them, but I hope that slowly we will be able to do that and let our authentic selves shine when we write.”

‘We will not be silenced’

When reading through the poems of Free Women Writers, one finds a kind of courage, strength, depth and insight.

Their writings expose women that are different from the standard images of blue burkas that have become a part of a collective subconscious worldwide. These Afghan women are complex and fascinating human beings, capable of enacting change and fighting for their own liberation.

Like Balkhi, their words will stand the test of time. Writing is resisting, says Akbar — “No matter what form of oppression we face, we will not be erased or silenced.”

Here you will find my writings on Communication for Social Change. Reach out for writing gigs at

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