Her name was Rabia Balkhi and she wrote her last poem in her own blood as she lay dying. She wanted to express herself, write love poetry, be a poet in medieval Persia, but her brother murdered her to preserve the family honor.
In 2013, “Daughters of Rabia,” a Persian book inspired by the famed Afghan poet, flew off shelves in Afghanistan finding its way around the country to all seven provinces. The book sought to define “what it means to be a woman in Afghanistan” through written works by Afghan women collected by Noorjahan Akbar and her colleague Batul Moradi. Three years later, Ms. Akbar still receives correspondence from women thanking her for the inspiration that “Daughters of Rabia” provided; knowing the book continues to empower women across Afghanistan and beyond is Ms. Akbar’s proudest accomplishment.
I had the distinct pleasure of connecting with Noorjhan Akbar, who continues fighting for gender equality and social justice through her Afghanistan-based collective Free Women Writers.
Free Women Writers began when “Daughters of Rabia” was serialized on a Persian Facebook page, which then blossomed into a blog. Facebook, and the internet in general, is wildly popular in Afghanistan and serves as a crucial tool for recruiting, and communicating with writers through the editorial process. Today, they have more than 120 contributors from all over the country and a core team of ten volunteers editing and translating submissions.
To date, over 350 articles, including poetry, have been published in Persian, Pashtu and Uzbeki; Ms. Akbar and her team have also begun the process of translating this immense testimony of the lives of contemporary Afghan women into English.
The collective gives their writers a crucial safe space to express themselves and fight for equality and justice in their country. Even better, they write in their own native languages helping to reach a more diverse local audience. This grassroots approach allows these women to raise each other up.
Despite the rosy picture of a supportive writing sisterhood I may be painting, Free Women Writers continues to face the reality of advocating for women’s rights in Afghanistan, where misogyny permeates every aspect of society and daily life. Articles on Free Women Writers talk about these incredible challenges and includes pieces on how street harassment intimidates women from leaving their homes, girls struggle to finish high school due to tradition and the pressure to marry, advertising billboards condemn women who don’t wear hijab (head covering), and how internalized sexism plagues efforts for change.
Free Women Writer’s medieval inspiration Rabia was murdered for her poetry, and the danger unfortunately still remains today. Ms. Akbar and her team must meticulously preserve the anonymity of many of their writers for their own safety. Internet trolls, fueled by radical Islamic extremism, must be constantly blocked in order to preserve the safe haven of the written word that the Free Women Writers cherish.
However, as Ms. Akbar reminded me at the close of our correspondence:
“Afghan women are more than the violence we face. We have a beautiful history of fighting against oppression and standing up for our rights. I think the fact that we go to schools, we teach, we write, we sing, we protest… in a country where we can be killed for the simple fact of being women is telling of our resilience. I want everyone to know that Afghan women are unbreakable. We are determined to fight for our rights and no amount of oppression, threats, violence, insults, will stop us from doing so.”
When I first heard of the Free Women Writers, the boldness of their name struck me, as if they are asserting their freedom to write and express themselves in an infant democracy still rebuilding from decades of terror and war. I think Rabia herself would be proud of her modern bold ‘daughters’ who consider themselves free even if the society they live in doesn’t.
About the author
Lydia Solodiuk writes feminist social commentary and strives to keep her feminism intersectional. She’s currently working on her BA in English. You can follow her on Twitter.