Elisabeth Lehr reads from the book “The Sky is a Nest of Swallows,” a collection of work from the Afghan Women’s Writers Project’s online magazine.
PLATTSBURGH — Telling a story is a human right, but not in every corner of the world.
In Afghanistan, being a woman means not having a voice. It means you might be forced into marriage with someone you don’t love, and it means your child might be taken from you if that marriage fails.
On Nov. 16, 1999, Zarmeena, a mother of seven, was executed by the Taliban in the Kabul’s Ghazi Stadium for allegedly killing her husband.
When writer Masha Hamilton saw a video of the execution, she became determined to uncover Zarmeena’s story.
In the process of her investigation she learned a lot about the lives of women in Afghanistan, and soon became determined to give those same women a voice.
After visiting the region, Hamilton founded the Afghan Women’s Writing Project in May 2009.
“Women in Afghanistan are probably the most repressed women on earth and our goal is to get their stories out,” said Elisabeth Lehr, workshop director for the AWWP in Jericho, Vt. “What happens in Afghanistan is very filtered by the media. We want to get the voices out of the people that are there and are living the reality of life in Afghanistan.”
The AWWP works closely with Afghan women and helps give them an outlet for their voices.
Mentors, who are carefully selected via an application process and must be published writers, work with the women and help them develop their pieces, which are then published in an online magazine at awwproject.org.
“About 85 percent of the women in Afghanistan are non-literate,” Lehr said. “We work with them and help give them language skills and computer skills.”
It is dangerous work for everyone involved, which is why the writers only use their first names and are sometimes anonymous.
“It speaks loudly about the potential risk of being female in Afghanistan, and it also speaks very loudly about the spirit of the women in Afghanistan to want to take that risk,” Lehr said.
The AWWP has offices throughout the United States and one in Afghanistan. The writers are primarily found via word of mouth, and no one is ever turned away.
To date, more than 90 Afghan women have written more than 500 pieces for the magazine, and those numbers are growing.
On Nov. 7, Lehr spoke about the AWWP and about the lives of women in Afghanistan to a group of faculty and staff at SUNY Plattsburgh.
And then, with the help of Kieva Reynolds and Alex Gartner, two student officers from the Plattsburgh State Chapter of National Student’s Language and Hearing Association, she let the Afghan women speak for themselves.
Lehr started with an essay by Norwan called “The Voice of Sahar Gul,” and explained that the story is not uncommon in Afghanistan.
Gul was sold by her family and made to marry an Afghan army soldier. When she refused to allow her in-laws to force her into prostitution, they beat her, tortured her, burned her, ripped her fingernails out and locked her in the basement for five months.
She was 15.
Authorities intervened and Gul was released and taken to a hospital. Her story is now considered to be a voice for other Afghan women.
Norwan’s essay never would have been printed in Afghanistan.
As Lehr, Reynolds and Gartner continued reading the selected work of the writers, their lives began to unfold within the steady cadence of the words. The pieces were bold, direct, sometimes hopeful and oftentimes heart wrenching, and they were all driven by a momentum that can only be described as pent-up.
In a poem called “Always a Hand to Wipe Tears,” Mena wrote about Kabul, a place she calls: “A land of bravery and beauty, a land where poverty increases daily, where death is cheaper than life, where children die before they are born.”
But in the same poem, she expressed the other side of where she is from—music, laughter, friendship and a love of nature and exploration.
They are simple things that most can relate to, things that can easily be taken for granted.
Suzanne Hungerford, advisor of the Plattsburgh State Chapter of National Student’s Language and Hearing Association, the student club for the Department of Communication Disorders and Sciences, sponsored the event in hopes of showing her students the power of words.
“They’re aspiring to be speech language pathologists and they’re very interested in the power of communication and what communication does for human beings,” Hungerford said. “It’s interesting that it can be considered subversive to be able to communicate.”
Hungerford added that communication is a person’s way of asserting their individual personality, hopes and dreams, and that it can help them become free as individuals and as a nation.
“There is no better example of how communication can be liberating than the Afghan Women’s Writing Project,” she said.
Currently, the AWWP has about 50 volunteers, has a book of collected work for sale called “The Sky is a Nest of Swallows,” and is always accepting donations.
For more information, visit awwproject.org