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Love, poetry and war: the Afghan women risking all for verse

The founder of Afghanistan’s largest women’s literary society, whose female members regularly put their lives at risk to write poetry documenting sex, rage, war and heartbreak, will be among those speaking at the International PoetryFestival at London’s Southbank Centre this summer.

Kabul-based Mirman Baheer is a pioneering female literary group which enables women to share landays, short two-line poems, traditionally only performed orally, which have long been used by Afghan women as a secretive form of rebellion.

Its members span professional women working in government to young girls in isolated rural villages forced to contribute in secret.

The society was first brought to the attention of the international community by journalist and poet Eliza Griswold in 2012 – this will be the first time she and Mirman Baheer founder Sahira Sharif have spoken together about the group in the UK.

They will appear as part of a festival lineup focusing on themes of war, conflict and oppression from poets and performers from across the world.

Bringing the work of Mirman Baheer on to the global stage, would be “transformative”, Griswold said, both for the group and for people’s perceptions of Afghan women.

“These poems are about war, they are about love, they are about drones, they are about American soldiers, they are about sex, they are about the size of a husband’s manhood – they don’t hold back,” said Griswold.

“They show a side of the life of Afghan women that is otherwise left hidden and no-one would ever dare to try and reveal. You could call these a protest but they are more than that because they show these women using their feminine power to shame men.”

While oppressive restrictions on women prevent most from being able to openly express opinions on sex and lust, on men, on their family and oppression and suffering, the landays have become powerful outlets for their emotions and anger.

Those who are able, gather every week in Kabul to share the couplets, which are only 9 words and 22 syllables, while others in outlying regions call into the society in secret and repeat their landays over the phone.

Thanks to the strict conservatism fostered by the Taliban, where singing is still associated with loose morals and poetry is seen as shameful, this puts the women at the risk of punishment or even death if they are discovered.

With the support of Sharif and the Mirman Baheer network, Griswold began a project to collect contemporary landays from Afghan women across the country – both to preserve them and bring their stories to the world – which have been recently published as a volume titled I am the Beggar of the World.

As part of the International Poetry Festival, there will be an evening of landays, celebrating how the poems have become a new platform for resistance.

Griswold said: “One of the great gifts about this poetry that it allows us to look out at the world through Afghan eyes, as much as that’s possible. So we’re not looking at them, we’re looking at the world they choose to describe and how they see it.”

“The landays so exploded any stereotype which I had of Afghan women as mute ghosts. Having worked there for more than a decade, my assumption has always been that I understood the nature of their subjugation better than they did themselves. But that is dangerous assumption and nothing shows that to be more inaccurate than these poems.”

While the popularity of Mirman Baheer is growing, however, Griswold said Afghanistan’s bleak and uncertain future made her concerned for the women involved.

“My sense is that Mirman Baheer is growing even stronger,” she said. “But with the withdrawal of international troops and the possible resurgence of the Taliban, the fear is that as a women’s organisation they will be one of the first to suffer.”

The International Poetry festival, founded by Ted Hughes in 1967, will this year host 30 poets from more than 10 countries including Iraq, Palestine, Iran and Pakistan.

The line-up will also feature a group of Pashto-speaking poets from Pakistan forced to flee after Taliban militants forced them to compose poems glorifying jihad. After settling in a refugee camp, they have begun to reclaim the traditional themes of their craft, and the festival will host three of the poets, Saleem Khan, Zahid Ullah Khan and Dilawar Khan, in the UK for the first time.

Southbank Centre’s Artistic Director Jude Kelly said this year’s line-up conformed perfectly to Hughes’s founding philosophy for the festival, that poetry “is a universal language of understanding in which we can all hope to meet”.

“We are particularly privileged to welcome two groups of poets from Afghanistanand Pakistan who share their incredible stories of adversity and highlight the enduring ability of poetry to envisage change and transcend barriers,” Kelly added.


I Call. You’re stone
One day you’ll look and find I’m gone

May God destroy the Taliban and end their wars.
They’ve made Afghan women into widows and whores.

You sold me to an old man, father
May god destroy your home; I was your daughter

May your airplane crash and may the pilot die
that you are pouring bombs on my beloved Afghanistan.

Making love to an old man
Is like fucking a shrivelled cornstalk black with mould

When sisters sit together, they always praise their brothers.
When brothers sit together, they sell their sisters to others.

Your eyes aren’t eyes. They’re bees.
I can find no cure for their sting.

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

I’ll kiss you in the pomegranate garden. Hush!
People will think there’s a goat in the underbrush.

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