The first time Masha Hamilton traveled through Afghanistan talking with the country’s most disenfranchised women—war widows, imprisoned criminals, child brides—she felt that the expulsion of the Taliban had given them a sense of hope. When she went back four years later, in 2008, the Taliban had returned to power in large sections of the south “almost overnight,” she says. That led Hamilton to act on a long-simmering idea, one sparked by the Taliban’s public execution of a mother of seven: to help Afghan women tell their stories. “Telling one’s story is a human right,” says Hamilton, a journalist, award-winning novelist (31 Hours, The Camel Bookmobile) and Brooklyn mother of three. “I believe as these women write, they also begin, in ways only they know, to take control.”
In 2009, working with colleagues in Kabul and the U.S., Hamilton founded the Afghan Women’s Writing Project (AWWP). Since then, some 100 American authors, journalists and screenwriters have led monthlong online workshops for more than 60 Afghan women (the project provides computer access to those who don’t have it). These sessions—conducted in English, which many of the women learned in refugee camps—encourage them to unveil their souls in prose and verse. Many women participate in secrecy, knowing their families would punish them if they found out.
Why run such a risk? “I took the pen . . . and everything changed,” writes a student named Roya. “I learned if I stand, everyone will stand.” The AWWP has created a space in Kabul—dubbed the Women’s Writing Hut—where participants are free to meet, work and share their compositions aloud. The Hut is a rough draft of sorts for AWWP’s next big project: opening Kabul’s first women-only Internet café. Hamilton estimates that securing funding and local partners will take about two years. In the meantime, read the women’s harrowing, beautiful work at awwproject.org.