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Afghan women's voices brought 'Out of Silence'

April 12, 2011

Can you fight with me?
You have a gun
I have a pen
You have power
I have mind, intellect and tongue
Your result of fighting: war, blood and killing
My result of fighting: peace, light and freedom
Now, judge, who is the winner?
Or Me?

These words were written by a woman in Afghanistan. Her name is Freshta, and that’s all we know about her.

If her identity became public, she could be at risk for her safety, and perhaps even her life, because of reprisal from the Taliban – or even her own family members.

That’s why it is so vital for Freshta’s poetry to be heard, and heeded, in free nations, according to Melissa Pritchard, ASU professor of English and women’s studies. Pritchard will be honored for her humanitarian and literary work on April 13 by receiving one of nine 2011 Faculty Achievement Awards.

Pritchard and eight graduate students will present the first-ever collegiate reading of works by Afghan women at 7 p.m., May 3, in Neeb Hall on ASU’s Tempe campus.

The free program, “Out of Silence: Readings From the Afghan Women’s Writing Project,” will include essays, poems and stories written by participants in the Afghan Women’s Writing Project (AWWP).

AWWP was founded in 2009 by international journalist and novelist Masha Hamilton. The project matches Afghan women with American women writers who serve as their online mentors. The finished writing is posted regularly on AAWP’s Website, with space on each for readers’ comments.

(Comments are encouraged, according to the website, because the writers “work in such isolation and under such difficult conditions that any feedback or commentary helps them know they are being heard and is greatly appreciated.”)

Hamilton said she became interested in Afghanistan in the late 1990s during the Taliban period, when she understood it was “one of the worst places in the world to be a woman.”

She first visited the country in 2004, and was “awed and inspired by the resolute courage of the women she met.”

When she returned to Afghanistan in 2008, she saw that “doors were closing and life was again becoming more difficult, especially for women,” and began to fear that “we could lose access to the voices of Afghan women if we didn’t act soon.”

And thus was born the Afghan Women’s Writing Project, whose goal is “to allow Afghan women to have a direct voice in the world, not filtered through male relatives or members of the media.”

The writing workshops are taught in three secure online classrooms, but many of the women have to make extreme efforts to gain computer access in order to submit their writings, according to Hamilton.

A recent outgrowth of the project is AWWP Presents, a global theatrical initiative that promotes staged readings of the Afghan writers’ works. So far, readings have been held in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., and ASU’s is the first to be presented by students on a university campus.

Reading and assisting with the program at ASU on May 3 will be eight graduate students who study with Pritchard: Laura Ashworth, Paul Ocampo, Adrienne Celt, Naira Kuzmich, Courtney Fowler, Tessa Stevens, Branden Boyer-White and Eman Hassan. Only the women will read, in respect to the Afghan culture.

Each student selected three to four poems, essays or stories for consideration. During rehearsals, the final writings for the evening will be selected. Even though some of the students admitted to being shy, they didn’t hesitate to volunteer for the reading.

Kuzmich, who was born in Armenia and grew up in Los Angeles, said she writes in an ethnic narrative motif and was interested in the writing by the Afghan women, since it follows the same theme. "I will be voicing other women’s stories, stories that are in part a result of their cultural background and circumstance."

Stevens commented that “the writing is so good. I am appreciative of their work as writers.”

Boyer-White said, "My passion for human rights work is just as great as my passion for writing. This is an opportunity for those two to intersect.”

Ashworth volunteered to read because she was moved by the work on the AWWP Website. “I am invested in women’s rights – the right for women to voice their opinion,” she said. “We will be the vessels.”

Fowler said she thinks the Afghan writers are “incredibly brave.”

“We don’t hear these women’s stories. Art is crucial in places where people are experiencing such suffering.”

Ocampo, who has been helping shape the script, pointed out that writing is a freedom often taken for granted. ”We forget that writing is a luxury and a privilege,” he said. “It’s cathartic to hear these voices that have been silenced.”

Celt said that ”with the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, the role of women has been pushed under the rug. It’s an honor to be involved with these women.”

Though the reading is free, donations will be accepted for AWWP’s Ashton Goodman Fund, Pritchard said. “Our goal is $1,000. That will buy three laptops, or three months of Internet access.”

For more information about the reading, contact Pritchard at For more information about the Afghan Women’s Writing Project – and to read the work of the Afghan writers – go to

The reading is supported by ASU Project Humanities and the Creative Writing Program in the Department of English at ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing.