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Afghan women write their own stories to fight for gender equity

Free Women Writers, a nonprofit in Afghanistan, strives to foster a shift in thinking about women in a nation rife with gender-based violence. It has published poems, memoirs, and articles written by more than 140 women and creates scholarships for women with the proceeds.

Hasht E Subh
This image of four girls embracing each other adorns the cover of "You Are Not Alone," a guide for Afghan women who are facing gender-based violence. It's one of several titles published by Free Women Writers, an organization that uses literature to promote gender equity in Afghanistan.

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In Afghanistan, gender inequity and gender-based violence remain widespread: In 2016, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission investigated 5,575 cases of violent crimes against women, noting that most cases go unreported. A 2009 United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan report found that women participating in public life face threats, harassment, and attacks. Now, women in Afghanistan are standing up for their rights – through writing. Free Women Writers, a nonprofit founded in 2013 by Afghan activists Noorjahan Akbar and Batul Moradi, hopes to improve women’s lives by simply telling their stories, in their own words. Their first book, “Daughters of Rabia,” is an anthology of poems, memoirs, and stories by Afghan women. For Afghan women to find empowerment, Ms. Akbar says the change must come from them. “It was very important for me to work independently and not to receive any financial assistance from governments or foreign embassies because I have always wanted us, the women of Afghanistan, to value our own priorities.”

This story is one of several from world news outlets that the Monitor is publishing as part of an international effort to highlight solutions journalism.

Rabia Balkhi was one of the first female Persian poets. She was killed by her brother, a king, hundreds of years ago for falling in love with a slave and daring to write poetry in a male-dominated culture. Much like her, women of modern-day Afghanistan, including journalists, still face violence because of their writing, or are murdered because of love affairs.

In late 2016, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) investigated 5,575 cases of violent crimes against women, noting that most cases go unreported due to traditional practices, stigmatization, and fear of consequences for victims. A 2009 United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) report states that women participating in public life face threats, harassment, and attack. In extreme cases, some have been killed for holding jobs that are seen to disrespect traditional practices or are considered “un-Islamic.” Now, about 11 centuries after Ms. Balkhi’s murder, her nation’s daughters have launched a nonprofit organization to stand up for their rights through writing. It’s called Free Women Writers.

Founded in 2013 by Afghan activists Noorjahan Akbar and Batul Moradi alongside a collective of writers, students, and activists, the nonprofit hopes to improve women’s lives by simply telling their stories, in their own words. Their first book, “Daughters of Rabia,” an anthology of Afghan women’s writings inspired by Balkhi’s story, was published the same year.

One of the collective’s members is Roya Saberzada, a painter and writer who lives in Mazar-e-Sharif. Ms. Saberzada is unafraid of laughter, but her smile suddenly disappears when speaking about the status of women in Afghanistan. “The situation is bad,” she says. “Violence increases every year.” Yet she remains optimistic, because awareness is growing. “The more women are aware of their rights, the less violence they will face,” she says, adding that there’s still much work to be done.

Ms. Akbar, who was featured in Forbes 100 Most Powerful Women of the World in 2012 for her advocacy work, says she wanted to use this book to raise awareness of gender inequality among Afghan women – who rarely have access to feminist literature – but also among men who wish to join their fight.

“In the streets of Kabul, many vendor children were selling extremist books written and published in Pakistan for 30 Afghanis (40 cents). Most of these books were about women and they spread misogyny under religious pretenses. We wanted to provide an alternative,” she says. Using Akbar’s personal savings, the organization managed to print 1,500 copies.

“All the copies were distributed within a month. People from six provinces came to Kabul and took the books back to their provinces and schools,” she recalls. In order to make the contents of the book accessible to everyone, they then decided to publish it on social media and on a website. “We drew a lot of attention and many other women began to send their writings,” Akbar says. They have now published poems, memoirs, and articles written by more than 140 women, and some men, hundreds of which have been translated into English thanks to the work of volunteers based in Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif, and Washington, D.C.

Over the past couple of decades, international nongovermental organizations and institutions have tried to foster women’s rights in the country with initiatives often funded by the Afghan government, but the results of these efforts generally remain imperceptible. For Afghan women to find empowerment, Akbar says the change must come from them.

“It was very important for me to work independently and not to receive any financial assistance from governments or foreign embassies because I have always wanted us, the women of Afghanistan, to value our own priorities,” she says, adding that unless Afghan women start seeing themselves as independent humans with human rights, a shift in mentality and gender equality will be unlikely.

In September 2017, the collective published its second book, “You Are Not Alone,” a short guide for women facing gender-based violence that provides practical tips for seeking legal aid, forming networks of support, and protecting mental health. It is available in Persian, Pashtu, and English. Profits from its sales allow the nonprofit to finance higher education scholarships for young women in Afghanistan, and to continue producing literature educating women about their rights.

This story was reported by Hasht E Subh, a news outlet in Afghanistan. The Monitor is publishing it as part of an international effort by more than 50 news organizations worldwide to promote solutions journalism. To read other stories in this joint project, please click here.

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