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ASU students, professors speak for Afghan women without a voice

ASU students, professors and instructors participate in a reading on Oct. 8, 2015, at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe.
ASU students, professors and instructors participate in a reading on Oct. 8, 2015, at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe.

Afghanistan has one of the lowest female literacy rates in the world, but the Afghan Women’s Writing Project is looking to combat this issue by giving women the tools, guidance and opportunity to share their stories.

The AWWP is a non-profit, non-governmental organization whose goal is to nurture, educate and share the words of Afghanistan's women with the world, while offering readers unique insights into Afghan culture.

They provide writing materials, laptops, training workshops and safe facilities for the writers to use. AWWP started the first women-only internet café in Kabul, Afghanistan, but its exact location is kept secret due to security concerns.

“I didn’t think about writing as a privilege before, but for these women it really is,” said English graduate student Jacqueline Balderrama, a teaching assistant in ASU’s English department.

Balderrama participated in a reading of “Washing the Dust from Our Hearts,” an anthology of poetry and prose from the AWWP writers at the Tempe Changing Hands Bookstore on Oct. 8.

“We didn’t want the event to be about us at all,” Balderrama said. “The writers of the poems were able to watch the reading online so it was great to be able to help them amplify their voices.”

Sara Sams, an ASU English professor, has developed a great respect for the project’s writers while preparing for the reading.

Spending so much time inside the poems made Sams grateful for the freedom she has to write, she said.

“In these poems, we learn about some of the same stories we might hear about on the news — the beheading by the Taliban of a local teenager, the stoning of a couple in love — but we don’t usually learn about it from those who have lost them, and how they endure,” Sams said.

AWWP was supposed to be a single workshop when it was founded in May 2009 by journalist and novelist Masha Hamilton who reported as a foreign correspondent from Afghanistan in 2004 and 2008.

Hamilton visited women in prison in Kabul and Kandahar, interviewed child brides and spoke to the matriarch of a family of opium farmers while she was there.

The mood among women in 2004 was hopeful according to the AWWP website. When she returned in 2008, Hamilton found it much more somber due to the Taliban’s resurgence and the women’s safety concerns.

AWWP’s support structure has grown to stretch across the globe to include mentors who are writers and journalists in the U.S., India, Africa and Denmark.

A big part of the project’s mission is helping women get their words onto paper. Once a draft is written, other writers and mentors help the author polish her work until it is complete.

“I’ve heard from writers that the mentoring process is a very treasured experience, being with like-minded women and sharing experiences allows them to grow together,” said Stacy Le Melle, the director of social media and communications for AWWP.

The project has adapted to the issue of illiteracy by teaching Dari and Pashto workshops as well as developing the oral stories project which trains current writers to meet with women who are illiterate and write their story for them, Le Melle said.

“In telling their own stories, we’ve seen these women gather strength, courage, and self-confidence," according to the website. “They become empowered to make change within their homes, their communities, and eventually their country.”

Related Links:

A bright future for Afghanistan is on the horizon

Afghan women need U.S. troops — just for a while longer

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