In Crown Heights, the nerve center of a project to mentor and help protect Afghan women writers

Writers at the Afghan Women's Writing Project space in Kabul (Cheney Orr)
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On a recent Monday evening, eight female comedians gathered on the fourth floor of a warehouse on an industrial stretch of Sunset Park, east of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. They sat in a circle, on threadbare rolling chairs, and one stepped into the center.

“When God created me, he put a world in my heart,” she said. “A world of grief, a country of blank deserts, a sky full of clouds. He put all my desires in a sack of winds; told me go and find it—I run after the winds in the blank deserts; find nothing but dead wishes.”

What she read, called “Sack of Winds,” was written by an Afghan woman called Norwan, who is one of 82 participants—many of whom write in anonymity or under a pseudonym, almost all in secret—in a virtual writing lab that spans the 6,700 miles between New York and Afghanistan.

On Jan. 21 and 22, those comedians (Jessica DeBruin, Corinne Fisher, Dawn J. Fraser, Chrissie Gruebel, Stephanie Masucci, Tracy Mull, Roopa Singh, and Katie Sullivan, seen rehearsing below)—plus Rachel Dratch of Saturday Night Live fame—will lend their unlikely voices to the women who wrote these poems in a fund-raiser titled "Comedians of New York for Afghan Women Writers." The reading is to benefit the Afghan Women’s Writing Project, an organization that mentors Afghan women writers and distributes their work to a global audience.

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“Comedians understand pain best,” said Stephanie Tait, a filmmaker and comedian herself, who acts as the AWWP creative outreach director and is also the event’s curator, “because they go into comedy to escape their own.”

The AWWP was founded in 2010, in the basement of a bed-and-breakfast on a leafy street in Crown Heights, by a novelist and former combat journalist named Masha Hamilton. In the fall of 1999, she saw a video streaming across the Associated Press newswires (viewable here; note that the video is graphic) that showed a woman enveloped in a pale blue burqa being driven on the back of a red pickup truck into Ghazi Stadium in Kabul. The woman was flanked by two other burqa-clad women, the hue of their coverings indicating their status as police officers. A man with a long beard, wearing a white turban and clutching a Kalashnikov, then summoned the women off the truck, and led them to the center of the field. The woman in the middle—a condemned criminal who had been sentenced to death after spending three years in jail on charges of murdering her abusive husband, a crime she confessed to in order to protect her nine-year-old daughter, the actual perpetrator—was then made to kneel, head down, as the man with the rifle positioned himself behind her, and pulled the trigger. Twice, actually—he missed the first time. Afterward, the crowd roared in approval.

The footage of this public execution, of a woman later identified as Zarmeena, a mother of seven, was smuggled out of Afghanistan by the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), and has since become a symbol of women's plight in Afghanistan. It served as the inspiration for the Afghan Women’s Writing Project.

“When I saw the video of Zarmeena I realized that not only were women hidden beneath the burqa, but their voices were being silenced,” Hamilton told me on the day we met. “As a journalist I had come to believe that telling your own story is important to a certain kind of survival; I came to understand that women were being denied that right in Afghanistan.”

The Taliban, during its rule, abolished all education for girls over the age of eight and required all women to wear head-to-toe burqas and cover their faces in public; women were routinely, savagely, and publicly beaten for minor infractions against such codes. Today, ten years since the Taliban was ousted from its stronghold in Kabul, the situation for Afghan women all over the country remains dire. The simple act of writing a story, and establishing an independent voice—a defiance of social mores if not the law—is immeasurably risky.

“Women who do attempt to speak out or take on public roles that challenge ingrained gender stereotypes of what's acceptable for women to do or not … are often intimidated or killed," wrote one expert polled for a report released in June of last year by Trustlaw, an arm of the Thomson Reuters Foundation Service. The report declared Afghanistan the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman.

One writer for the Afghan Women’s Writing Project, whose name and location is kept strictly confidential, walks four hours to an Internet café and back to send in her stories, accompanied by her younger brother—the only member of her family aware of her participation. She writes on a small laptop that AWWP smuggled to her through a network it has created; in a similar instance, an Afghan intermediary hid a computer under her burqa as a Taliban member armed with Kalashnikov questioned her. The consequences of exposure can be extreme.

According to AWWP Executive Director Elisabeth Lehr, it isn’t uncommon for writers living in the more remote provinces of Afghanistan to receive “night letters”—written warnings posted on their doors in the middle of the night, threatening that unless those inside cease their unlawful activities, they will suffer the consequences. One woman, after enrolling in AWWP, defied her father and rejected an arranged marriage, to instead marry the man of her choice. To save her life, she had to be smuggled out of the country.

“My writings which was a secret from my family and most of the time when I was writing, they burnt it on the heater or put them in the garbage, or most of the time when I was afraid I tore my writings myself,” wrote one Afghan writer in an email, which for security reasons was vetted through Lehr. (As a policy, all information about AWWP participants, from names to email addresses, is kept secret). “I was afraid of my shadow,” she wrote, “if my family knew that I was writing then they could easily break me … but I played with my destiny.”

Both this writer and another I interviewed cited an Afghan poet named Nadia Anjuman as their only female role model; Anjuman was killed six years ago in her native city of Herat, by her husband. She was 25.

“We have a male literature in Afghanistan … male writers judge about women, and write on behalf of us,” she continued. “With my writings I take hands of freedom, and walk with him.”

The goals of the Afghan Women’s Writing Project are ambitious and complex. By encouraging female Afghans to write—about themselves, their experiences and their environment—AWWP aims to empower a population that has historically been silenced, and create the space for these women to explore, and have agency over, their identities in the midst of a culture that encourages them not to. In a poem entitled, “Blue Bird Cage,” one poet named Arifa wrote: “Who am I under blue burqa? I want to fly from this blue birdcage, I want to feel love and peace, I want to take a pen and write dreams of freedom on the world walls. Who am I under blue burqa? A mother who always suffers? A sister who lost her brother? A wife who lost her husband? A citizen who’s lost her country to war?”

While many Afghan women’s lives are measured, monitored and micromanaged by their families, their communities, and the society in which they live, when they write stories, they create something private and inaccessible, that can’t be injured, censored or co-opted. The content of these stories—and the sheer fact that they’re being written—is meant to at once raise international awareness of the situation for Afghan women, and debunk popular myths about them.

“One thing the Afghan women say over and over is, we don’t want to be seen as victims, because we’re not just victims—we’re so many other things,” Hamilton said. “We’re strong, we fight, we’re complex, we struggle within our families and communities, and hopefully within the country itself. Many of us love our fathers and our husbands. There are a number of heartbreaking stories, there’s no denying it; but there are also strong stories, graceful stories, stories that make you smile—and they don’t want to be seen in one way only, just like we wouldn’t.”

NEHA BAWA, A 29-YEAR-OLD WOMAN living in Seattle, is one of a rapidly growing army of more than 100 volunteer mentors, who facilitate ten-week online workshops for women writers in Afghanistan through AWWP. Bawa was born in India, grew up in the United Arab Emirates and relocated to Connecticut at the age of 18. Like many other mentors, Bawa hails from academia, teaching poetry courses at a local university; others are professional journalists and published authors. The role of the mentor is twofold: to edit the pieces delicately, preserving the integrity of each writer’s prose, language, and sentence structure; and to provide support, encouragement, and positive reinforcement.

“Many of these women have never shared their stories or written about their lives before, and they’re very nervous,” said Tina Singleton, AWWP’s country director on the ground in Afghanistan. “They’re very vulnerable, and mentors have to be very careful because any kind of feedback that’s perceived to be negative can be damaging to the woman’s ability to continue writing.”

Bawa became a mentor in 2009, shortly after AWWP was founded. Masha Hamilton came to Tunxis Community College in Farmington, Conn., where Bawa was teaching composition and pre-composition to freshmen.

“When I met Masha, I was hooked immediately,” said Bawa, whose personal experiences growing up as a woman in New Dehli influenced her decision to become a mentor. “Where divisions exist based on class and caste and wealth, if you’re a woman, conditions are twice as oppressive. But we speak on an equal footing and can say, as women, we understand. As women, we’re here to help you. As women, we don’t pity you.”

Valerie Wallace, 43, is a poet who teaches at three community colleges in the Chicago area, and has mentored three workshops since becoming involved almost two years ago, for the sheer love of and interest in the language.

“The way they write is beautiful—they have a very interesting way of putting words together—and I try to preserve the integrity of their voices,” Wallace said. “Many write about moments of beauty, in sweeping the dirt out every morning, and have a way of distilling memories that I find fascinating as a poet. Their stories multiply in many corners of my mind; it brings their lives into mine.”

The Afghan Women’s Writing Project has a physical presence in two cities, Herat and Kabul. One Afghan woman runs a small AWWP-affiliated library in Herat, where women writers can borrow books (in secret); the program is headquartered on a compound in an undisclosed location in Kabul, where Singleton lives. She is 50 years old and has glasses and a buzz cut. Before joining AWWP, she worked for the Peace Corps throughout Africa. But after living in Afghanistan while working for an NGO providing aid to Afghans with disabilities between 2006-2007, the country “got under my skin, and into my blood,” she said. “I had to come back.”

The AWWP’s Kabul compound is low-slung and cream colored, and consists of two two-bedroom houses. The writer’s room is lined with windows looking out onto a garden that, in spring, yields brightly colored roses, collard greens, kale, chard, and five different varieties of lettuce. Singleton tends to the garden—a hobby she credits for maintaining her sanity. When the weather is warm, she hosts monthly reading salons out there in the open air.

“The salons are an opportunity for the writers to hear their own stories, out loud, in their own words; to hear and see the reactions and the impact that their work has is very powerful,” Singleton told me over Skype. Throughout our conversation, the Internet flickered in and out—an obstacle that sometimes makes contact with the outside world difficult for her, and for the writers. “Not only is it important for the women to be able to write their pieces, but to understand the power of their words to others.”

In the winter, when temperatures dip into the single digits, salons are held in the compound’s foyer (pictured below), where couches are set up in a semi-circle, and padded with bright purple pillows. The compound is equipped with a handful of computers, a digital voice recorder, a video camera—all donated through the Ashton Goodman Foundation—a small library with books both in English and in Dari, a tall metal filing cabinet, and a long wooden table. The house is outfitted with wireless Internet, the cost of which eats up roughly $17,000 of an approximated $40,000 annual budget made up almost exclusively of small private donations (“anywhere from $15 to $1,000” each, according to Lehr). The rest of the funds go toward supplies and small stipends for Singleton’s Afghan assistants, and to maintain the compound. In the corner of the main room, there’s a wood-burning fireplace.

“We want to create a space where women can come and talk and write and feel comfortable sharing stories they’re not able to talk about with their families or their friends.”

But Singleton is faced with the distinct challenge of fostering a safe and comfortable environment for the Afghan writers while upholding strict security precautions: The compound is surrounded by walls, as are many other compounds throughout Afghanistan, and is largely nondescript. But inside, the premises are lined with fences topped with reels of barbed wire, and are patrolled by three male guards who are prohibited from allowing anyone without an appointment to pass. In a recent upgrade, a safe room was installed in either house in the compound. Part of Singleton’s job—and that of her Afghan assistants—is keeping track of AWWP writers. If one stops submitting pieces and coming to salons, Singleton has to seek her out and make sure she's alright.

“We’re very careful about who knows where we are,” she said. “We always keep our compound as safe as we can, without going overboard so you feel like you’re in prison. But we never forget where we are.”

In-person reading salons are just one of four discrete projects of the Afghan Women’s Writing Project, along with online workshops, a web magazine that has published over 500 pieces, and AWWP Presents, which stages and produces events throughout the United States. Today there are 13 donated refurbished laptop computers in the hands of women in the provinces—to qualify for a laptop, a writer must submit a certain number of pieces, and priority goes to those living in rural areas—and AWWP is in the process of securing more.

The project is advertised in Afghanistan exclusively by word of mouth—any kind of call for participation is deemed far too dangerous—and is growing exponentially. Singleton, with the help of her Afghan assistants, began work on facilitating AWWP’s first workshop in Dari, in an effort to expand the project’s scope to include those who do not speak English (most English speakers are educated, and education for women is expensive and difficult).

This year, AWWP plans to introduce yet another element to its rapidly expanding agenda: an oral history project in which Afghan writers are trained as interviewers, armed with video cameras and tape recorders, and sent into the provinces to collect the stories and histories of illiterate women and women with disabilities.

Eventually, the program will be almost exclusively Afghan-run.

A FEW WEEKS AGO, I MET MASHA HAMILTON at her Crown Heights bed-and-breakfast. She was brewing a fresh pot of coffee, and had just set out a tray of homemade scones for her guests, who occupy the rooms her children vacated when they went off to college. After founding the Afghan Women’s Writing Project and watching it grow, Hamilton is now resigning from the board of directors, to accept a job at a U.S. government agency for which she was recruited. She celebrates the successes of AWWP, and the impact of the little-known project that has grown into something greater than she ever imagined.

“One of our women began writing for us, ran for parliament, and won a seat,” Hamilton said. “I’m happy about what I’ve been able to do for Zarmeena. It started out about Zarmeena and I haven’t forgotten her.”

Before leaving AWWP in the capable hands Lehr, Singleton, and the hundreds of dedicated volunteers, Hamilton will perform one of her favorite pieces, “I Am For Sale,” at the reading on Jan. 22, as a tribute to the project and its participants.

“Very often I’ve edited the pieces myself, yet when I hear them read dramatically I hear them anew, it makes the words alive,” she said. “And I think the women in Afghanistan would be very moved to see these women in New York City imagining what it’s like to be an Afghan.”

Comedians of New York for Afghan Women Writers, featuring Rachel Dratch, Jessica DeBruin, Corinne Fisher, Dawn J. Fraser, Chrissie Gruebel, Stephanie Masucci, Tracy Mull, Roopa Singh, and Katie Sullivan, takes place at Magic Future Box, with a prose reading on Saturday, Jan. 21 at 7 p.m., and two poetry readings on Sunday, Jan. 22 at 2 p.m. and 4 p.m.