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Khushboo Sharma

IWB Blogger

Noorjahan Akbar On Power Of The Pen And Reclaiming Women’s Voices In Afghanistan

  • IWB Post
  •  July 10, 2019

One of the most authentic and organic sources of a country’s history lies in its literature. Although gravely underestimated, the power of the pen has long empowered the ones using it and has served as an effective tool of resistance.

Feminist writer and activist from Afghanistan, Noorjahan Akbar recognised the same power when she founded Free Women Writer, a volunteer collective of women activists and writers in Afghanistan and the diaspora advocating for gender equality.

Noorjahan has been a staunch advocate of women’s rights and has worked with several organisations across the world for women’s empowerment and to defend human rights. She started the collective to improve the lives of Afghan women through advocacy, storytelling, and education.

In a recent Twitter chat with IWB, Noorjahan talked about the myriad voices of resistance through Afghan history, the common thread that connects all the women’s writings in Afghanistan, and the potency of the pen in impacting a revolution.

“Writing lets us tell our own stories. There’s immense power in that, especially for women, who are rarely featured in history,” she said talking about the power of storytelling.

Here are the excerpts from the chat:


On the sounds of resilience from Afghan history

Noorjahan Akbar on Twitter

It is key for people around the world to recognize that the fight for equality & progress in #Afghanistan didn’t start in 2001 with U.S. We’ve fought for our rights for centuries. I’m especially inspired by women who protested under the Taliban regime.

Noorjahan Akbar on Twitter

@indianwomenblog @FreeWomenWriter I’m also inspired by the advocacy and leadership of Queen Soraya in 1920s. Her work led to opening of schools and health centers for girls and a women’s publication among expanded legal rights. #AfghanWomen #WomensHistoryMonth #Shero

On the power of storytelling


Noorjahan Akbar on Twitter

This is a tough one. In #Afghanistan, where still less than 20% of women have literacy skills, we have a long way before written storytelling leads to widespread #resistance. That doesn’t mean it is not valuable. It is a tool for literate women to lay the foundations 1/2

Noorjahan Akbar on Twitter

Writing lets us tell our own stories. There’s immense power in that, esp for women, who are rarely featured in history. It can also help us heal from our trauma. Of course, #storytelling is not only written. oral history has been a means of protest in #AFghanistan for centuries

On reaching out to the untapped voices of Afghan women

Noorjahan Akbar on Twitter

In #Afghanistan, radio & TV have been key in reaching more women. Brave journalists like @FForotan and others have not only used their voices to bring light to women’s issues, but make all issues women’s issues. Here’s an interview with her: 1/2

Noorjahan Akbar on Twitter

In addition, art is a powerful way to connect with women around the country, even if they don’t have literacy skills. Films by @sadatroya1, @mani_sahra, & others have shaped discourse among women & all #Afghanistan. Interview w Sahra:

On the common theme that runs through all the women’s writings at Free Women’s Writers

Noorjahan Akbar on Twitter

2 things: gendered violence and resistance. Violence, whether it is physical abuse by intimate partners or street harassment by strangers, is a daily reality for the vast majority of #AfghanWomen. That’s a reality that won’t change until we admit to it and work on it, however 1/2

Noorjahan Akbar on Twitter

it is unfair & inaccurate to diminish the experiences of #AfghanWomen only to violence. There’s an inspiring amount of resistance that exists as well. From women who file for divorce despite stigma, to those who speak out against harassment, there are acts of protest everywhere.

Noorjahan Akbar on Twitter

it is unfair & inaccurate to diminish the experiences of #AfghanWomen only to violence. There’s an inspiring amount of resistance that exists as well. From women who file for divorce despite stigma, to those who speak out against harassment, there are acts of protest everywhere.

Noorjahan Akbar on Twitter

And you can clearly see this resistance in women’s poetry. Even daring to write and publish is resistance in a society used to women’s silence and obedience. Here are a few poems of resistance I love written by #AfghanWomen.

On the existing barriers for women to get justice in Afghanistan

Noorjahan Akbar on Twitter

The biggest obstacle to justice is the selective implementation of law in #Afghanistan. Some argue there’s no rule of law. I disagree. Laws that protect the marginalized are often the only ones that are not implemented. Another obstacle is serious flaws in legal system 1/3

Noorjahan Akbar on Twitter

for example, if women are not made aware of laws, esp laws that protect them, through systematic efforts, those laws might as well not exist. In addition, many laws are unfair, i.e. custody laws often keep women in abusive marriages. Learn more here:

Noorjahan Akbar on Twitter

And finally, access to justice is difficult when a legal system is corrupt, when most attorneys are abusive men themselves, and bribery and power say the last word. Women, and other marginalized groups, bear the brunt of our corrupt legal system in #Afghanistan.

On selected writings by Afghan women that all South Asian women need to know about

Noorjahan Akbar on Twitter

Ah, so hard. Too many options. I’m biased, obvi, but I love the poetry on our website. I hope you’ll all take time to read some. I especially love love love this poem: Also, @FatmaFaizi writes some incredible pieces for the @nytimes.

On using social media as a tool to push women’s narrative

Noorjahan Akbar on Twitter

Social media has incredible power. we’ve just begun to harness it in #Afghansitan & the region. We can & have used it to create safe spaces for women and our allies to amplify our voices, however we must remember: in-person human connection and movement-building is irreplaceable

On the actions that South Asia needs to take to make women’s voices heard

Noorjahan Akbar on Twitter

Govts: respect our right to define our own priorities & speak. We’re perfectly capable of doing so. Men: don’t be obstacles to our progress & don’t assume that calling yourself a feminist makes you one. Listen to women. Talk to other men. Women: foster sisterhood. <3 <3 #Equality

Owing to the diverse albeit rich cultural backdrop of the region, South Asian geopolitics remains unique in its own way. The culture, the religion, and the confusing international narratives have all amalgamated together to give birth to a politics unlike any other in South Asia.

While the social and political movements in the West might inspire us, we need a system of our own to incorporate them as per our surroundings. Our triggers are different, our catalysts are different, our methods are different, and therefore it becomes imperative that our understanding of it must be different too. We cannot see ourselves from the lens of the outsider like a narrative developed with only half-hearted efforts.

IWB recognises that the need right now is to take charge of the situation and facilitate a dialogue among women representatives from South Asian nations like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, China, and Sri Lanka.

We have thus initiated a series of Twitter chats with women representatives from the South Asian countries mentioned above.

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