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Ambassadors of Life: Poetry of Afghan Women


10 Jun 2011 18:43Comments
afghanwoman.jpgTrue liberation comes from within.

[ spotlight ] The shocking image of Nazia, an 18-year-old Afghan woman whose nose and ears were sliced off by her husband, appeared on the cover of Time in August 2010. Nazia's story shed light on the countless cases of domestic violence in her homeland and brought renewed international attention and sympathy to the suffering of women in Afghanistan. The discourse that emerged in response to stories such as Nazia's, however -- the central Western narrative in which Afghan women are positioned -- revolves around the concept of liberation. While within Afghanistan, the Taliban ruthlessly strive to annihilate the voices of women, issues of gender relations have often been used as a tool to legitimize the military adventurism of the United States and its allies. It is against this political backdrop that Afghan women and their predicament must be understood.

As portrayed by the Western media, the lives of Afghan women have come to a standstill at the crossroads of victimhood and war. The flood of images of abused and helpless women obscure the significant role women have played as agents of change in Afghanistan. During the 1920s and 1970s, periods of relative economic and political stability, many Afghan women asserted their rights and pursued higher education and professional careers. Though these women largely came from privileged economic backgrounds, all the same their aspirations offer the world an alternative narrative. Acknowledging the agency, contributions, and strong voice of Afghan women puts the stories of women like Nazia and her audacious spirit into fuller context.

The history of Afghan women's struggle for social recognition and equal rights reflects the history of the country's physical and cultural devastation. Through the Soviet invasion (1979-89), the Afghan Civil War (1994-96), and the U.S. invasion (2001-present), women's access to education, security, and jobs has been minimal. Today, in the "post-Taliban" era, Western "liberation" and Islamic fundamentalism each impose their own values on Afghan society. Westernization, with its emphasis on gender equality, does not take into account the traditional concept of family in Islamic or Afghan culture and tends to negotiate the rights of Afghan women outside their community and family. On the other hand, misogynistic readings of the Qur'an deprive women of their most basic rights. Neither ideology is central to the daily lives and dreams of Afghan women, their struggle for a democratic and just Afghanistan, social visibility, and involvement in the reconstruction of their homeland. Afghan women are agents of change in numerous ways, one of which is poetry.

The poetic tradition is one of the most celebrated components of arts and culture in contemporary Afghanistan, once the center for Persian verse. Though marginalized in the literary arena, women are not absent from this ancient tradition. There are Afghan women from progressive and affluent families who have the financial and material means to write -- a room of one's own, as Virginia Woolf put it. Widespread acceptance and social recognition for women writers who reveal their sentiments through verse has yet to come, most especially in rural Afghanistan. Nadia Anjuman, included in this selection, was a young poet from Herat who published her first collection at the age of 25. Nadia, who was known in both Afghanistan and Iran, was murdered not long afterward; many Afghans believe her husband murdered her because of her social visibility and fame. Meena Keshwar Kamal, included here as well, was a women's rights activist and founder of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA); she was assassinated in Pakistan in 1987. In spite of the restrictions and risks, countless women write and share their poetry in public and private meetings. However, the majority of Afghan literature is produced in the diaspora, where there is greater access to resources.

The following selection of works by Afghan women provides readers with the opportunity to observe some of the diverse currents in their poetry. These works add refreshing new colors to the monochrome blue of the chaddari (burqa), which has ironically become the defining "face" of Afghan women in the West. Their poetry empowers them, expands their minds, individualizes them, humanizes them. Their works strive to heal their war-stricken homeland, express profound patriotism, reveal resentment for dogma, religious hypocrisy, and misogyny, and romanticize Afghanistan and its stunning natural beauty. They commemorate those that have lost their youthfulness, hopes, and lives to many decades of war. Whether writing in Persian (Dari), Pashto, or English, their words echo their yearning for peace and convey their identities and aspirations across our globe as ambassadors of life.


Bahar Saeed (b. 1953)

The Veil

Grisly veil dare not censure me from sight

Nor, my bare face, my nakedness expose;

Sun-like I transcend the darkness and shine.

No blackness, however dense,

Can forge the mask of confinement.

Isn't your flawed morality, Believer,

To banish me thus behind the veil.

You devout Visitor

from the cities of pious way,

A speck of doubt ought lead you thus astray?

Let no warped preacher, advocate,

Bend my proud head, so low,

To where your footsteps mislead.

I see no fairness in such wisdom:

For others' moral frailty,

I must reside in hell.

Conjuror of morality!

Why conjure up such devious device;

To conceal from sight my unblemished face,

Design instead, an opaque veil to hide

from innocent views your impure gaze.

--Translated from Persian by Leila Enayat-Seraj


Nadia Anjuman (1980-2005)

A Voiceless Cry

The sound of green footsteps is the rain

They're coming in from the road, now

Thirsty souls and dusty skirts brought from the desert

Their breath burning, mirage-mingled

Mouths dry and caked with dust

They're coming in from the road, now

Tormented-bodied, girls brought up on pain

Joy departed from their faces

Hearts old and lined with cracks

No smile appears on the bleak oceans of their lips

Not a tear springs from the dry riverbeds of their eyes

O God!

Might I not know if their voiceless cries reach the clouds,

the vaulted heavens?

The sound of green footsteps is the rain.

--Translated from Persian by Zuzanna Olszewska and Belgheis Alavi


Parwin Pajwak (b. 1966)

in my dreams

I fly and look at myself

in disbelief -- like a bird

flying over a lake

do captive birds

dream such dreams?


the flower that turned

into stone

was me

once more delicate

than the flower

I fear becoming

harder than

the stone

--Translated from Persian by Aria Fani


Parween Faiz Zadah Malaal (b. 1957)

Like a desert flower waiting for rain,

like a riverbank thirsting for the touch of pitchers,

like the dawn

longing for light;

and like a house,

like a house in ruins for want of a woman --

the exhausted ones of our times

need a moment to breathe,

need a moment to sleep,

in the arms of peace, in the arms of peace

--Translated from Pashto by Dawood Azami

© The Poetry Translation Centre


Fatana Jahangir Ahrary (b. 1962)


Like an enervated man

Gasping for air

Like a wounded bird

Searching for remedy

Like a guilty conscience

Seeking some virtue

Like a hungry child

Craving some sustenance

Like a thirsty creature

Yearning for some water

I want some serenity

I need some harmony

I am waiting for some tranquility

Come please Come

Peace Peace Peace


Shakila Naseer (b. 1949)

An Oath

I swear to the restless hearts

of wandering people,

To the sorrows and miseries of the homeless,

To the bitterness and pains of the poor,

To the desperate heart of a mournful mother,

I swear to the body of a brave soldier falling for his homeland,

I swear to your green valleys

high mountains and ever-blue sky,

I swear to your brave sons and daughters

who stand for you,

I swear to the Holy books,

I swear to almighty God, the creator,

That I shall give

Not even a tiny peace of your soil,

Oh, my beloved homeland!

For the entire world.


Meena Keshwar Kamal (1956-1987)

I'll Never Return (excerpt)

I'm a woman

awaken now

arisen from the ashes of my children's burnt

bodies, become a storm

arisen from streams of my brothers' blood

empowered by my people's wrath

every burnt village of my homeland

fills me with resentment for the enemy

now my compatriot

no longer think of me as a powerless victim

I'm a woman

awaken now

I've found my path

I will not return

--Translated from Persian by Aria Fani


Selection from Nadia Anjuman retrieved from UniVerse: A United Nations of Poetry. Selection from Parween Faiz Zadah Malaal retrieved from Poetry Translation Centre. Selections from Fatana Jahangir Ahrary and Shakila Naseer retrieved from How2. Selection from Meena Keshawar Kamal retrieved from RAWA.

Recommended reading:
Songs of Love and War: Afghan Women's Poetry (2010), edited by Sayd Bahodine Majrouh.
One Story, Thirty Stories: An Anthology of Contemporary Afghan American Literature (2010), edited by Zohra Saed.
Sher-e Zanan-e Afghanistan [The Poetry of Afghan Women] (2000), edited by Masoud Mir Shahi.
Hamzabani va Hamdeli (2009), edited by Behrouz Jabari.

Comments af@ariafani.com. Photo above by Lorenzo Tugnoli. Homepage photo from Afghan literary festival in Tehran, 2004.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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