Our voices Matter
By Maryam Laly
Eighty-seven percent of Afghan women have faced some form of physical or sexual violence, according to research by Global Rights. That staggering statistic on its own impacts me, but the reality is that I am part of that number. I've faced street harassment and verbal abuse in educational institutions and workplaces, as most Afghan women have. Almost every woman I know has faced some sort of gender discrimination and violence, both in Afghanistan and around the world. After joining Free Women Writers, I learned about the injustice that is rampant in Afghanistan's justice system. For example, according to Afghan Civil Law, after the age of 7 for boys and 9 for girls, custody of a child automatically goes to the father. Grandfathers and sometimes uncles and cousins are granted custody before a mother is. This unjust law forces women to stay in abusive marriages because they don't want to lose their children or leave their daughters with abusive husbands and in-laws. When the legal system as well as the social structure is designed to discriminate against women, we all need to fight in order to bring about gender equality. And this is not only a problem in Afghanistan: One in three women around the world have experienced physical or sexual violence. That doesn't include verbal street harassment or emotional or physical abuse. It should impact and enrage us all that a full one-sixth of the world lives in violence. It should propel us into action.
Free Women Writers is an all-volunteer collective of writers, students, and activists based in Afghanistan and throughout the diaspora. We work for gender equality and social justice in Afghanistan through advocacy, storytelling, and education. Our work highlights the rich history of Afghan women's struggles for equality, sheds light on the rampant abuse and persecution of women throughout the country, and breaks the taboo around speaking about practices that harm women.
We began with a small anthology of Afghan women's writings in Persian. Batul Moradi and Noorjahan Akbar published this first book to provide Afghan women with literature of their own. Within a month, they ran out of their 1,500 copies of the book. This inspired Noorjahan to create a wider platform to highlight women's voices. Through this platform we've been able to bring together a collective of writers and activists who are passionate about promoting and creating a more just and equal Afghanistan. Today, we have 15 volunteer members and more than 130 writers around Afghanistan and the world. We've published a guidebook for women facing violence in English, Persian, and Pashtu. And we provide a yearly scholarship to a woman in Afghanistan to complete her higher education. Despite being a small grassroots and volunteer group, we have big ambitions for what we want to do for our country. Every day we are inspired by the courage of Afghan women who challenge norms and break barriers in small and large ways.
We are more than an organization and a platform. We are a sisterhood. Through this sisterhood a bond has been created that includes all of our intersectional identities as Afghan women from various parts of the country, different ethnic and religious affiliations, different ages, and different walks of life. Our lives are enriched by our collective stories and struggles. Some of us live in the diaspora, and for us, including myself, it has been crucial to have a sisterhood that can identify with the beauty and struggles of life outside your home country. Some are in Kabul or in Balkh, who find friendship in meeting one another, protesting, and working to change social norms. Some of us studied feminism and women's rights, while others have reached here through grassroots advocacy. We learn and uplift each other's voices. This diversity of experiences has allowed me to question my notions about what it means to be a woman, an Afghan woman, a brown woman, a woman from the global south. It has allowed me to see different perspectives and understand how our oppressions are linked, how our identity as women can't be divorced from our racial and economic background, and how our background might shape our identity as women, our priorities, and our point of view. We strive to be an intersectional feminist group. This is a process of learning and growth.
The challenges we face are not uncommon for women's advocacy groups. Working as volunteers while having jobs, attending school, or fulfilling other responsibilities is never easy, and members of our collective often feel they are being stretched too thin. We are working actively to make sure activism doesn't cost us our mental health and happiness. This is why we have a full month for self-care every year when everybody takes time off to relax. In addition, because the nature of our work is to bring about conversations that are often swept under the rug, for example by writing about virginity tests or custody laws in Afghanistan, we receive threats on a regular basis. We prioritize the safety of our writers. Thus, some choose to use a pseudonym to protect their identity.
The opportunity to tell these stories means that the women's voices, stories, dreams, knowledge, and hopes matter. We have a responsibility to pick up the pen and advocate for those who are prevented from doing this. The women who share their experiences want the world to know that there needs to be an end to the injustice women face. We write to learn, inform, and educate. We receive messages every day from women who are impacted by the topics and articles they read on our platform. We have already received notes that our guidebook for women facing violence, "You Are Not Alone," has helped them better understand their legal rights. Our work has started dialogues about difficult topics, and it has encouraged male allies to speak up more about gender issues. That is change that may not be captured in data, but it is lasting.
We hope to fill the gap in the conversations that happen around gender equality and social justice by amplifying the authentic voices and stories of Afghan women. The women of Afghanistan have the right to live free from violence and discrimination. We hope to use our voices to make that a possibility.
A member of Free Women Writers collective, Maryam Laly is passionate about human rights issues. She works for a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., and volunteers for Afghan NGOs. She hopes to contribute to building a more equal and just Afghanistan through her writing and advocacy. Maryam has a degree in Government with minors in Peace Studies and Arabic from St. Lawrence University. Follow @freewomenwriters.
Words: Maryam Laly