By Lensay Abadula
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
Through distance learning with U.S. volunteers, Afghan women are learning writing skills and filling a blog with their thoughts about love, politics and family. Some don't tell their families, fearing disapproval.
"This election ate my heart out," Roya writes. "We want change. We don't want to die under the sky of wishes. We can't see our country, land of blood, land of blood."
Another describes a dream world. "Everyone is happy," writes Seeta. "Young and innocent people are not being killed. There are no insurgents; no insecurity."
In more than 100 entries about love, politics and a variety of other topics, Roya, Seeta and a small group of other Afghan women are able to express themselves freely, something women like them cannot always do.
They are students of the Afghan Women's Writing Project, which offers three dozen women in Afghanistan the opportunity to study various forms of writing through online communication with volunteer teachers in the United States.
Students' work is published on a blog, allowing people from around the world to read their writing and leave comments.
Although the United States has declared that women have been free since the war in Afghanistan, Masha Hamilton, who founded the Afghan Women's Writing Project, said women have felt that their rights are in danger. Women are fearful of government negotiations with the Taliban, as they worry that, even at its most moderate, the Taliban's interpretation of Islam limits their rights, she said.
Getting an education can also be difficult for some young females, who may be kidnapped or harmed when trying to attend school. The literacy rate in Afghanistan for young women, ages 15 to 24, is 18 percent, while the literacy rate for young men is 49 percent, according to the United Nations Children's Fund.
"I love writing, so it is enjoyable for me to learn how to write better," said Seeta, whose last name is concealed by the project. The blog does not use family names out of concern for the students' safety. "I can show to the world what is going on in this side of the world, what women are suffering, what kind of problems we are facing."
The students, between 18 and 28, are divided into three workshops.
Each week a teacher, who volunteers on a rotation of four weeks, e-mails them writing assignments and gives feedback. Through the editing process the women develop skills in poetry, journalism, nonfiction and fiction writing.
Writer and teacher Hamilton, who has written for Women's eNews and has traveled within Afghanistan, began the project in May 2009, running it from Brooklyn, N.Y.
Hamilton's interest in Afghanistan began in the late 1990s during the Taliban's rule. She saw a video released by The Associated Press that depicted a woman in a burka being killed in November 1999. The woman was in a Kabul football stadium, where the Taliban held weekly trials and punishments, sometimes serving popcorn.
"I understood from that that it was arguably one of the worst places in the world to be a woman," Hamilton said.
In 2004 Hamilton traveled to Afghanistan, where she interviewed girls and women in a variety of situations. She met with women in prisons in Kabul and Kandahar, matriarchs of opium-growing families and child brides.
During her trip back to Afghanistan in November 2008, Hamilton got the idea for creating the writing program.
Hamilton used the help of partners on the ground, such as the Kabul-based School of Leadership, Afghanistan, to recruit women for the project. She avoided advertising the free classes for fear of overwhelming demand. She personally recruited volunteer teachers.
"Some of these women are writing as a way of declaring their lives," Hamilton said. "I truly believe, and I've believed this since I was a journalist, that often times being seen is as important to survival as food and shelter. And some of these women feel unseen."
The biggest obstacle for the students in the program, Hamilton said, is gaining Internet access.
"I live in a province that does not have electricity, this is an obstacle to work online," Seeta said. "We do not have access to Internet in Farah province, insecurity is the biggest problem for me."
Some students get online through their work or school. Others must travel to Internet cafes, where, even when accompanied by a male relative, they attract unwanted attention.
To combat these difficulties, the Afghan Women's Writing Project hopes to one day establish Afghanistan's first all-women Internet cafe.
The project has begun providing jump drives--small devices that allow computer users to transfer documents among computers--and laptops so that students can write at home and have male relatives take the jump drives to Internet cafes to e-mail their work. But the program has not yet been able to provide this to every student.
Some students can't rely on help from family members because they are participating in the program without their knowledge, fearing that relatives might not approve. Writing in the program can be a safety risk for some women.
"Most people do not like me to write about their actions so if they find out, it is clear that it can put me in danger," Seeta said.
Lensay Abadula is a freelance writer living in New York.
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