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The Poetry of Afghanistan's Women

June 07, 2012|

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A meeting of Mirman Baheer, the Ladies’ Literary Society, in Kabul. The group has about 100 members in Kabul, where they meet openly most Saturdays. The city of Kabul is, in many ways, an anomaly. Its security allows women to gather openly, a near impossibility across most of the country. Outside Kabul, there are as many as 300 members in the outlying provinces of Khost, Paktia, Wardak, Mazar, Kunduz, Jalalabad, Kandahar, Herat and Farah. Exact numbers of members are impossible to come by since the society must operate in secret. Image by Seamus Murphy. Afghanistan, 2012.

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Lima Niazi, 15, joined Mirman Baheer two years ago and is known as a very good poet. She recently won the group’s literary prize. Her life improved after the Taliban’s fall.
Image by Seamus Murphy. Afghanistan, 2012.

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Notebook and latest poem by Lima Niazi, addressed to the Taliban:



You won’t allow me to go to school.

I won’t become a doctor.

Remember this:

One day you will be sick.


Image by Seamus Murphy. Kabul, Afghanistan, 2012.

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A woman writing during a meeting of Mirman Baheer, the Ladies’ Literary Society, in Kabul. Image by Seamus Murphy. Afghanistan, 2012.

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A woman writing during a meeting of Mirman Baheer in Kabul. Image by Seamus Murphy. Afghanistan, 2012.

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A woman reading her work at a meeting of Mirman Baheer in Kabul. Image by Seamus Murphy. Afghanistan, 2012.

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A group portrait of women at Mirman Baheer in Kabul. Image by Seamus Murphy. Afghanistan, 2012.

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Ogai Amail, 40, is an out-of-work poet. She belongs to Mirman Baheer, the Ladies’ Literary Society. “Many of our members write under pen names,” said Amail, who serves as one of the group’s two secretaries. “It’s safer for them.” Image by Seamus Murphy. Afghanistan, 2012.

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Ogai Amail, 40, with her flat-mate and fellow poet, Gulalai Omerkhel, 55, going through landai poems at home in the Microryan District of Kabul. They both belong to Mirman Baheer. Image by Seamus Murphy. Afghanistan, 2012.

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Ogai Amail, near her apartment in Kabul. Image by Seamus Murphy. Afghanistan, 2012.

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A woman begs outside a luxury goods store frequented mostly by foreign residents. Image by Seamus Murphy. Afghanistan, 2012.

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Sahira Sharif, parliamentarian and founder of Mirman Baheer, the Ladies’ Literary Society, at home with her family. “Landai," she says, "belong to women.” Image by Seamus Murphy. Afghanistan, 2012.

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Image of a woman's eyes on a motorbike in the bazaar. Image by Seamus Murphy. Afghanistan, 2012.

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Women walking in an underground pedestrian corridor in Kabul. Image by Seamus Murphy. Afghanistan, 2012.

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Mother and young daughter walking in Kabul. Image by Seamus Murphy. Afghanistan, 2012.

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Woman leaving the bazaar. Image by Seamus Murphy. Afghanistan, 2012.

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Poster from another era revealing an image of a woman. Image by Seamus Murphy. Afghanistan, 2012.

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A burqa caught in the door of a bus. Image by Seamus Murphy. Afghanistan, 2012.

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Screening of a Bollywood film at Cinema Pameer in central Kabul. Image by Seamus Murphy. Afghanistan, 2012.

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A shepherd and his flock on the road from Lashkar Gah to Ghareshk in Helmand. Image by Seamus Murphy. Afghanistan, 2012.

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Family traveling on the road from Lashkar Gah to Ghareshk in Helmand. Image by Seamus Murphy. Afghanistan, 2012.

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Inside the city of Ghareshk. Image by Seamus Murphy. Afghanistan, 2012.

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Fatima Zurai, a member of the local women’s shura, or council, in the village of Haji Rauf Khan Shela. Zurai sits with a small pair of brown trousers that belonged to her 12-year-old son, Ihsanullah, who was walking home from school in June 2011 when a military vehicle driven by a U.S. Marine struck and killed him. The driver and his commander visited Zurai’s house. “God gave me this son 12 years ago, before the Americans came.” She forgave the driver. Image by Seamus Murphy. Afghanistan, 2012.

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Mina Muska (light blue burqa), a new young poet , with her father's second wife (pink burqa), journalist Eliza Griswold (green burqa) and Asma Safi, translator (purple burqa). Image by Seamus Murphy. Afghanistan, 2012.

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A landai in the notebook of Mina Muska, a new young poet. Muska’s fiancé, a beloved cousin, was killed last year when a landmine exploded. According to Pashtun tradition, she must now marry one of his brothers, which she doesn’t want to do. She loves poetry, and most Saturdays she calls into the Kabul group of Mirman Baheer to read her poems and to have them critiqued by fellow members at the meeting. “I can’t say any poems in front of my brothers.” she said. “Whenever I want to talk about my hopes and what I want, my brothers beat me up.” Image by Seamus Murphy. Afghanistan, 2012.

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Zarmina Shehadi's mother Simin Gula and father Khel Mohammad. They denied that Zarmina wrote poetry or that her death was suicide. “It was an accident. She was trying to get warm after a bath, but the firewood was wet, so she poured petrol on it and caught herself on fire.” And no, her daughter absolutely did not like writing or reading or poetry, her mother argued. “She was a good girl, an uneducated girl. She was a good tailor. Our girls don’t want to go to school." Image by Seamus Murphy. Afghanistan, 2012.

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Zarmina Shehadi's mother and father visit her grave. Image by Seamus Murphy. Afghanistan, 2012.

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Gulmakai, 22, says she made up poems as she cooked and cleaned the house. She recited one of her works:



Making love to an old man is like


Making love to a limp cornstalk blackened by fungus.



“I know this is true,” she announced. “My father married me to an old man against my will when I was 15.” Image by Seamus Murphy. Afghanistan, 2012.

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A woman in bright shoes standing on a Kabul street. Image by Seamus Murphy. Afghanistan, 2012.

Pashtun poetry has long been a form of rebellion for Afghan women, belying the notion that they are submissive or defeated. But writing poetry is dangerous for many Afghan women and girls. Its classical subject — love — in almost any form is taboo. It threatens to be evidence of an illicit relationship.

Landai are two-line folk poems that can be funny, sexy, raging or tragic and have traditionally dealt with love and grief. The word landai means “short, poisonous snake” in Pashto. The poems are collective — no single person writes a landai; a woman repeats one, shares one. It is hers and not hers. Although men do recite them, almost all are cast in the voices of women. “Landai belong to women,” said Safia Siddiqi, a renowned Pashtun poet and former Afghan parliamentarian. “In Afghanistan, poetry is the women’s movement from the inside."

They often rail against the bondage of forced marriage with wry, anatomical humor. An aging, ineffectual husband is frequently described as a “little horror.” This is from Gulmakai, a 22-year-old woman in Gereshk, Helmand Province.

Making love to an old man is like
Making love to a limp cornstalk blackened by fungus.

“I know this is true,” she announced. “My father married me to an old man when I was 15.” She said she made up poems all the time, as she cooked and cleaned the house.

But Afghan women have also taken on war, exile and Afghan independence in poetry.

Lima Niazi, a 15-year-old Pashtun woman in Kabul addressed her latest poem to the Taliban:

You won’t allow me to go to school.
I won’t become a doctor.
Remember this:
One day you will be sick.

Mirman Baheer is Afghanistan’s largest women’s literary society, and in Kabul has more than 100 members drawn primarily from the Afghan elite: professors, parliamentarians, journalists and scholars. They travel on city buses to their Saturday meetings, their faces uncovered, wearing high-heeled boots. But in the outlying provinces — Khost, Paktia, Maidan, Wardak, Kunduz, Kandahar, Herat and Farah — the society’s members number about three hundred. In rural areas, Mirman Baheer functions largely in secret. Many of the rural members have to use mobile phones to participate at meetings, calling whenever they can, often at great personal risk. They read their poems to the group by phone and these are then transcribed line by line. To conceal poetry writing from their family, they rely on pen names.Traditionally women writing poetry is seen as shameful and could result in a beating or even death.

Of Afghanistan’s 15 million women, roughly eight out of 10 live outside urban areas, where U.S. efforts to promote women’s rights have met with little success. Only five out of 100 graduate from high school, and most are married by age 16 with three out of four in forced marriages.

Meena Muska (Meena means “love” in the Pashto language; Muska means “smile”) lost her fiancé last year, when a land mine exploded. According to Pashtun tradition, she must marry one of his brothers, which she doesn’t want to do. She doesn’t dare protest directly, but reciting poetry allows her to speak out against her lot. She has written:

My pains grow as my life dwindles,
I will die with a heart full of hope.

Zarmina, who committed suicide two years ago, described “the dark cage of the village.” Her poems posed questions: “Why am I not in a world where people can feel what I’m feeling and hear my voice?” She asked: “In Islam, God loved the Prophet Muhammad. I’m in a society where love is a crime. If we are Muslims, why are we enemies of love?” Zarmina is to the women of Mirman Baheer the most recent of Afghanistan’s poet-martyrs.

“She was a sacrifice to Afghan women,” says poet Ogai Amail and organizer Mirman Baheer. “There are hundreds like her.”