Bursting the Irvine Bubble: Pashtun Poets in Afghanistan

I have recently gotten back into writing poetry and it is exhilarating, but I never conceived the idea that something as simple as scribbling down a few lines of emotion would be considered illegal in other parts of the world. Unfortunately in Afghanistan, female poets are living in this inconceivable reality.

Pasthun poetry is known for poems about love, a forbidden subject for women to write about because of the assumption that the writer could be in an unlawful relationship. And really, when three out of four girls are forced to marry a 40-year-old man during their teen years, it is a fair assumption. But who cares? Oh yeah, the Taliban.

There is a famous Pashtun style of poetry called “landai” that many Afghani women love to write in. This style is written in no more than two lines, captures daily themes of love and grief, and ranges from being comical, devastating or even lustful.

A perfect example of this style of poetry goes as follows:

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

Of course because of the country’s laws, these two simple lines can be the cause of an Afghani woman’s death. Death. If caught pen-handed, an Afghani woman can legally be beaten or killed. Let me repeat, beaten or killed for writing lines of poetry. The thought of this makes me cringe and the reality makes me nauseous.

Because of this travesty, Pashtun poetry has become a major form of rebellion for Afghani women around the country.

Many resort to using pen names in order to keep their writing a secret from their families. There can be no risk that her family may turn her in for her written words.

Although the classical form of Pashtun poetry deals with themes of love or grief, many have turned their words to face war, exile and Afghani independence. In an excellent display of “sticking it to the man,” 15-year-old Liam Niazi from Kabul, the nation’s capital, dedicated her most recent poem to the Taliban:

“You won’t allow me to go to school. Remember this: One day, you will be sick.”

Keep in mind, the Taliban are the ones who administer the beatings and deaths of female poets in Afghanistan and she just called them out in the best way. Liam Niazi has more balls than you.

Despite their potential death, over 400 women are members of Afghanistan’s female literary society. They travel by bus to rural areas of the country in order to meet in private. Think of it as “Dead Poet’s Society,” only much more badass. Over 100 of these women in the secret literary society hold positions as journalists, professors, scholars and some are even parliamentarians. How these women are able to hold such positions and keep their lives is a mystery to me. I just hope they never stop.

With the countless riots that have broken out around the Middle East, I am happy to see this small but impactful revolution happening in Afghanistan. These women are risking their lives to share their voices on paper and you should support them as much as I do. As a Lebanese woman with a passion for pen and paper, I hate that this is even an issue for my fellow Middle Eastern women to live with, but I am proud to hear it is one they are willing to die for. I can’t believe this is a problem the world must deal with in 2012. It kills me that in so many parts of the world, the US included, a person’s anatomy determines their rights. If you are a female writer, whether legally or illegally, please keep at it. You’re doing the right thing.

Cleo Tobbi is a fourth-year literary journalism major. She can be reached at ctobbi@uci.edu.