Afghanistan’s Secret Feminism, Through Verse

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Underneath W.H. Auden’s dictum that “poetry makes nothing happen” is a familiar anxiety: perhaps poetry has no effect, and means nothing outside of its own closed circuit. As a counterpoint, we might consider Zarmina Muska: a teenage girl from Afghanistan, Muska set herself on fire in 2010 after her family discovered that she had been writing poems. As testaments to her emotions and free will, her poems were considered dishonorable.

Muska is not the only Afghan woman for whom poetry is a matter of life and death. Even 13 years after the Taliban was removed from power, strict injunctions and conservative mores keep many women from exercising their rights and autonomy. Only 5 percent of Afghan women complete high school; most are married by 16, usually against their will. In the outer provinces, women are often forbidden to leave the house. Self-expression becomes nearly impossible in this situation; but as a result, the women’s voices that do emerge from this silencing are intensified and vivid.

Many of Muska’s verses were landays (pronounced “land-eyes”), two-line folk poems in Pashto that have been sung and recited, mostly by women, for centuries. The subject matter is most often love, but they also speak of loss, war, and identity. Landays are circulated orally, and are not the product of a single author. However, each woman who recites one may inflect the poem with a slight variation or an altered word, tailoring it to her experience. This combination of anonymity and pith makes landays poignant and subversive without endangering the speaker. The word landay itself translates as “short, poisonous snake.”

Eliza Griswold, a poet herself and a journalist, first came across the landay while writing about Muska for the New York Times in 2012. Griswold has been reporting from Afghanistan since shortly after 9/11; her 2010 book, The Tenth Parallel, is a study of clash-points between Christianity and Islam across two continents. Over the last few years, Griswold collected landays from women around Afghanistan, collaborating with photojournalist Seamus Murphy on a project of “investigative poetry.” The translations of landays she found were first presented as an essay in Poetry magazine in the summer of 2013, along with Murphy’s images. This work has been recast and expanded to form I Am the Beggar of the World.

Principally at stake in I Am the Beggar is the understanding that, in a corner of the world far from the western imagination, poetry may stand for something vibrant, illicit, honest, and subversive. I Am the Beggar collects landays because they are reportorial artifacts, documenting the voices that remain silenced and sequestered in Afghanistan today. Importantly, it presents landays as a monument of feminism, enacting the “cloak-and-dagger dance around honor” that governs Afghan women’s lives.
Don’t shout, my love, my father isn’t giving me to you.

Don’t shame me in the busy street by crying out, “I’ll die for you.”


My darling, you are just like America!

You are guilty; I apologize.
I Am the Beggar groups landays by theme, crosscut with Griswold’s commentaries and Murphy’s photographs. The poems run the gamut: here are young lovers, bawdy jokesters, sexual challengers, and proud sisters. Some speak of nationalism, grief, or anger at the unfairness of the world. In total, the landays invoke a full community of female experience. And, as the poems are essentially author-less, each one carries within it the voices of hundreds of Pashtun women.
Embrace me in your suicide vest

but don’t say I won’t give you a kiss.
While some of the poems exhibit timeless romantic tropes, many of the landays are distinctly of the current moment, referring to text messages, the Taliban, or remoti (drones). Many of the poems have undergone refashioning time and again, as they are passed from one woman to another and down through generations. Where a current iteration of one landay refers to an American soldier, an earlier version would refer to a Russian or British one — a full genealogy of Afghanistan’s occupiers. The change of a word reveals shifting realities: what was once a woman’s sleeve becomes her bra strap, and a talib’s book is exchanged for his gun.

There are two contrasting characterizations of Afghanistan that dominate I Am the Beggar. Griswold’s commentaries seek to universalize these women’s experience, making them just the same as us, while also relishing their foreignness. Since the poems are honest expressions of familiar emotions, Griswold sometimes presents them as a kind of diplomatic bridge, proving that women in Afghanistan have interior lives very similar to their counterparts in the West. This humanist belief underlies the book’s project.

At the same time, though, part of the allure of the book — as seen most evidently in Murphy’s photography — is the exotic landscape of Afghanistan and the mysterious beauty of its people. Even when describing the psychological effects of drone attacks on the Pashtun community, Griswold can’t resist the urge to close the description with “a plate of freshly quartered pomegranates.” These contrary impulses — humanism and orientalism — are at play throughout, and both risk flattening the portrayal of Afghan life.

But the book’s greatest strength is the complicated spectrum of voices that it allows these women, whom we wouldn’t otherwise know anything about. I Am the Beggar casts Pashtun women as vibrantly self-aware and autonomous. It shows the many ways in which they navigate the social codes of a repressive society, not least in their means of expressing honest emotion against the demands of a culture that frowns on music, poetry, or a woman who speaks for herself. Griswold notes how the poems represent the “battles for growing autonomy, especially for young women, [taking] place in the privacy of their homes.” Landays signal how Afghan woman recognize and countenance the systems of power they live under.
My body belongs to me;

to others its mastery.
Griswold finds a way to present these poems and images in juxtaposition so that they evoke a multiplicity of voices and views, giving an almost democratic quality to the anthology’s populace. Social and political beliefs that would seem to butt heads share the same space. One page late in the book presents three landays, each viewing Afghanistan’s political situation in a different light:
Without the Taliban,

Afghanistan would be London.


If the Taliban weren’t here for the world to see,

these foreigners would be free to occupy every sacred country.


Leave your sword and fetch your gun.

Away to the mountains, Americans have come.
By allowing for contrasting perspectives on the underlying political strife that burns beneath I Am the Beggar, Griswold lets the landays speak variously. Here is where the real community of the book is made: in a polyphony of voices, exercising their claims feistily and forcefully. When one envisions all these vibrant voices that are largely withheld and silenced, a striking picture of women’s lives emerges. The landays reveal a powerful hidden economy, in which poems can be carried and circulated behind closed doors, imbuing the private, overlooked, or forgotten spaces of a woman’s life with the power of a whispered self-expression — one that individuates the speaker at the same time that it ties her into a community of voices across generations.

Griswold says that “landays survive because they belong to no one” — that their very anonymity is the source of their power. But that strength also makes them ephemeral. As she notes, after the drawdown of American troops this year, it will be all the harder for outsiders to find these poems. The landay tradition has already been dampened and relegated to the intimate spaces where women escape the eyes of a repressive social order. If a conservative revanchism fills the void left by America’s troubling presence in Afghanistan, it may become impossible for us to uncover these voices at all.