Poetic Offense

Rebecca Johnson

What would you do if your government told you that your passion was corruptible? That pursuing what you wish was your freedom would eventually lead you to a life of loneliness, condemned from your own society?

For many Afghan women, this obstruction of law comes in the form of words strung together to create poetry.

Afghanistan is in line for a new presidential election, and it brings forth many crucial questions about the rights of women and whether they will be protected by possible new reforms. Afghan women have fought fiercely for their rights since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001. According  to the Feminist Majority Foundation, actions that were enforced during the Taliban’s strict regime included:

  • Women banished from the work force
  • Women and girls banned and expelled from universities
  • Women prohibited from leaving their homes unless accompanied by a close male relative
  • Women’s houses ordered to have publicly visible windows painted black, and women forced to wear the burqa (or chadari) – which completely shrouds the body, leaving only a small mesh-covered opening through which to see
  • Women and girls prohibited from being examined by male physicians, while at the same time female doctors and nurses prohibited from working

Women were sorely mistreated, beaten in public, stripped of any individual freedom of expression and threatened with death if they did not comply with the extreme dictatorship.

After the Taliban rule ended, women began to gain more independence and rights as citizens. Thirty-eight percent of the women returned to work, 35 percent of the school children are now girls, and universities are again open to women. One of the more interesting rights women gained in this reform was the right to compose and recite poetry.

This October, the BBC is covering stories related to controversial women’s topics. The story about the Afghan election is just one of the highlight of the BBC’s “100 Women Season.” The opening statement on the BBC news webpage dedicated to the events reads, “Women around the world  have achieved extraordinary things during the past century. But despite major steps forward in securing political, cultural and social rights, women everywhere face steep challenges compared to their male counterparts.”

The BBC’s international correspondent approached the issue of women’s rights in the country by interviewing some women thought to be at high risk of serious consequences brought on by law–the poets.

Although women received the right to write poetry, the strict guidelines of the deeply conservative society do not accept poetry depicting emotion. Writing poems that speak of the soul have evoked fear in the hearts of many Afghan women.

One woman faced death threats for her poem.

“The fire of war has started and is burning the country. My heart is burning in the flames. My body is burning. The hope of seeing buds blooming has died.”

Many of the women must write in secret to stay safe, which requires them writing under a pen name. Some never get the chance to read their work for fear of safety, as well as not being allowed to go to the local theater to perform because they are now allowed.

Many of the women face discrimination, being refered to as sinners for their work. Some face a more serious consequence of banishment from their communities. Many of the poems that are seen as controversial are about feelings of love, longing and desire.

The women interviewed by BBC  stated that they have no choice but to write. It is their passion, and not even death threats could stop them. It is also about bringing attention to the issues faced every day by women. For centuries Afghan women have expressed themselves through poetry and will continue to do so.

The story out of Afghanistan shows a real life struggle of women from around the world. Where you live, wherever you are, you will always be a human on this earth. It is easy to understand that, in a society where women have been so suppressed, giving up something  as important to their being as poetry is worth dying for. To these women, poetry is more than words strung together to sound nice, for them it is a symbol of power. It is an expression of their views on the world in a place where their voices are solemn heard. It is a lifting of the veil, seeing and accepting things that may be hard for a society built on strict views and principles, but it is important to do so. These women are riveters of a new foundation.

The Afghan elections are set to take place in 2014. Until then, industries like the BBC and Feminist Majority Foundation will be continuing the fight to inform the public about pressing issues around the world. In the meantime, think about the things you would die for. Things you could never live without if they were one day taken away. And reflect back to the women’s struggle in Afghanistan and all over the world.

To find out more about current and past situations for women, click here.

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