One day you will be sick.
Lima, a female Afghan poet, age 15
Mirman Baheer is a quasi-underground women’s literary society based in Kabul, Afghanistan. In a private house, Ogai Amail receives phone calls from mostly young women who recite their poetry while she transcribes the poems line by line. The group cannot afford a tape recorder. The young female poets who make the calls to read their poetry are looking for support and an opportunity for self-expression forbidden to them in their homes. They risk beatings, often severe, if caught in forbidden activities with suicide too often chosen as an escape from oppression by the males in the family.
Journalist Eliza Griswold was waiting by the phone with Amail when a call came in from Meena Muska, the pen name used by the caller to prevent her family from discovering that she covertly writes poetry. Like many young girls in Afghanistan, Meena’s life is defined by tragedy. She lost her fiancé the year before in a land mine explosion and according to Pashtun tradition, she must marry one of his brothers, which she does not want to do. Her poetry allows a voice of protest forbidden to her in her home.
When Griswold asked her over the speakerphone how old she was, Meena responded with a proverb: “I am like a tulip in the desert. I die before I open, and the waves of desert breeze blow my petals away.” Meena went on to say that she guessed she was 17 but since she was a girl, no one in the family knew her birthday. As Amail continued to record Meena’s poetry in a spiral notebook, Meena recited a Pashtun folk poem called a landai: (Landai means “short, poisonous snake” in the Pashto language.)
“My pains grow as my life dwindles,
I will die with a heart full of hope.”
Reciting Pashtun poetry is a way that Afghan women can express rebellion and to show that they are not defeated or as submissive as the oppressive male-dominated society would like them to be. In Kabul, Mirman Baheer’s 100 members can attend their Saturday meetings openly in part because they are part of the Afghan elite including scholars, professors, journalists and parliamentarians. For the rest of Afghanistan’s aspiring female poets, it’s a very different situation. In the outlying provinces, Mirman Baheer’s members create their poetry in secret.
Eighty percent of Afghanistan’s 15 million women live outside of urban areas, only 5 percent graduate from high school and most are married by age 16 and 3 out of 4 of those are forced marriages. Many live in a tense atmosphere of impending violence. “Herat University’s celebrated young poet, Nadia Anjuman, died in 2005, after a severe beating by her husband. She was 25.”
After Meena finished reciting her landai, she said: “I am the new Rahila. Record my voice, so that when I get killed at least you’ll have something of me.” Rahila was the pen name of a young poet Zarmina who had committed suicide in 2010. Caught reading her poems over the phone, her brothers ripped up her notebooks and beat her as punishment. Two weeks later, Zarmina set herself on fire and died two weeks after that in a hospital in Kabul.
Zarmina was a regular caller during the Mirman Baheer meetings and sometimes she couldn’t wait for Saturday and would call Amail at inopportune times. Once when Amail said she was too busy to talk Zarmina responded with this landai:
“I am shouting but you don’t answer—
One day you’ll look for me and I’ll be gone from this world.”
Amail referred to Zarmina as one of Afghanistan’s poet-martyrs. “She was a sacrifice to Afghan women. There are hundreds like her.” Mirman Baheer’s founder, Saheera Sharif, said that “A poem is a sword.” But that sword must be wielded surreptitiously not openly in the political arena which is closed to women. Safia Siddiqi, a Pashtun poet and former Afghan parliamentarian, said, “In Afghanistan, poetry is the women’s movement from the inside.”
Like all seemingly hopeless and tragic struggles, the underdog must have a sense of humor just to survive and not lose hope. Many of the women in the provinces work so hard that they grow old before their time looking 45 when they are only in their twenties. Gulmakai was 22 but looked 45 but created poetry as she cooked and cleaned.
“Making love to an old man is like
Making love to a limp cornstalk blackened by fungus.”
Even though the Taliban in Afghanistan assassinates outspoken women, the greatest threat to an Afghan woman comes from within her own home. A physician’s assistant, who naturally wanted to remain anonymous, summed up the harsh reality for women in Afghanistan. “Now that Afghan women are aware of their rights, they fight for them in their family. If they get their rights, that’s good. If they don’t, they kill themselves or get beaten up.”
No human community regardless of how sophisticated or primitive its institutions is viable if half of its population is exploited and abused. All women on this planet experience disrespect and psychological enslavement in patriarchal societies where men unknowingly suffer the grievous consequences as well.
Lima at age 15 began writing poems to the Taliban when she was 11 years old. We close this essay with her rubaiyat, the Arabic name for a quatrain.
You won’t allow me to go to school.
I won’t become a doctor.
One day you will be sick.
References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry.