Dangerous 'truth': The Kabul women's poetry club
- 21 October 2013
- From the section Asia
In Afghanistan, women are determined to protect new-found freedoms. For the BBC's 100 Women season, I met the women poets who face great risk, including death threats, to express their deepest thoughts.
In a little room tucked behind a Kabul cinema bedecked with Bollywood billboards, Afghan women are waging a literary war that is both personal and political.
They call poetry their sword.
"We take pure and sacred words and express our feelings with those words," explains 29-year-old Pakisa Arzoo, with an energy as bright as her striking emerald green veil.
"But I know my society has this belief that writing poetry is a sin."
A few dozen women writers meet every week to share poetry in a quiet place sealed off from the din of a bustling neighbourhood, and the pressures of a deeply conservative society.
Amil recites her poem with an emphatic cadence that captures everyone's attention. It is a story they all know well.
"The fire of war has started and is burning the country / My heart is burning in these flames, my body is burning."
The Mirman Baheer literary society brings women together to share and publish their poems, and find strength in greater numbers. It now counts a few hundred members in clubs in several Afghan cities.
"It's our form of resistance," explains one of the society's founders, Sahira Sharif, a member of parliament.
Afghan women are drawing on their own traditions to break taboos. For centuries, in a largely illiterate society, women used verse as a means of expression and escape from lives largely controlled by men, except for their deepest thoughts.
Women poets have gone down in history. The warrior poet Malalai - who famously fought British troops in the 1880 Battle of Maiwand - and Rabia Balkhi - one of the first poets to write in modern Persian - are the stuff of legend.
Most members of the society in Kabul are educated women in professional jobs. But most still write under pen names. Some are chaperoned by male relatives who sit in neat rows of chairs on the other side of the room.
Others write in secret, their work hidden from their families. Determined and defiant, they take brave risks to belong to this special sorority, if only by telephone.
When a phone rings at the back of the room, Pakisa Arzoo rushes to take the call.
A schoolgirl is on the line with her poem from a village on the outskirts of Kabul.
Ms Arzoo carefully holds the mobile phone next to a crackling microphone so everyone can hear her tribute to her teacher.
"As I am serving today, I have become a doctor / Teacher, if I am an engineer today / It is all because of your hard work / That today I have become a soldier of this nation / I can feel all the pain and suffering you have been through…"
"When we recite our poems, we remove our pain," says Seeta Habibi, Country Director for the Afghan Women's Writing Project, a group established with the help of writers living in the United States.
"We talk to the paper with our pen and we fight for our rights on paper," she explains. "Someday we hope we will win."
Threats from the Taliban in the west of Afghanistan forced Ms Habibi, the only female journalist in her province, to leave her home.
Karima Shabrang faced a similar fate in her village in the remote northern province of Badakhshan. Local elders condemned her as a bad moral influence for her romantic laments of love and loss.
"They said I should be got rid of. They meant I should be killed," she recalls in the simple mud brick home in the poor suburbs of Kabul where she now lives with two brothers who came to her rescue.
She recites a poem with mementoes of Badakhshan around her: a striped rug of bright colours; a quail, issuing its staccato call from its cage.
But her explicit images of intimacy seem to belong to another place.
"I miss you… my hands are stretching from the ruins of Kabul… I want to invite you to my room for a delicious smoke… and you will give me refuge in your shivering red body."
Is poetry worth a life in exile?
"I would prefer a dignified death to a life lived as a hostage in silence," is Ms Shabrang's softly voiced, strongly worded reply. Her work was recently honoured with an award by the Afghan chapter of PEN.
"It's true these topics are not acceptable in today's society but that doesn't mean what I express is not true."
'Stronger than a letter'
Truth can be hard to tell in country struggling to emerge from 30 years of war.
The walls of the Kapisa Writers and Poets Society, two hours' drive north of Kabul, are plastered with photographs of Afghan kings, presidents, and warlords.
That does not stop Dr Masouda from taking on the men with guns.
"Oh my God, all the warlords testing their weapons again and earning a lot of money out of war..." she recites from a handwritten poem.
But local commanders threatened her with dire consequences if she did not censor her published work. I ask her what they did not like about her poems.
"The truth, the truth," she insists. "They want us to ignore crimes in Afghanistan, killings and bombings."
But for all the poets' pain, they believe they are making progress.
"Last year, five women won poetry prizes and their families realised poetry could be something positive," says Dr Sharif, an MP.
"If a family member takes a step with them, even for just one hour or one day, it helps their struggle with wider society."
At the poetry club in Kabul there is a poem to Afghanistan's President, Hamid Karzai.
"I stand in your presence, president / Take my request. / I have come tired, restless and injured. / Your criminals made me cry."
I later ask the president if he knew about the poem.
"Yes," he replies with immediate recollection. "The poet read it to me when I visited her province."
"A poem is always stronger than a letter," says Dr Sharif.
As worries mount over their fragile gains of the past decade, women writers are now waging their own fight for their rights, including their right to write and be heard.