For a woman writer in Afghanistan, honor killings are a constant threat.
If you were given the chance to write an essay for Elephant Journal, would you take it? The answer may depend on where you were born. Across the world, many writers are not given the option to publish and share their voices.
Last Friday, as I scrolled through the ever-engaging “Tweet Deck” application on Android Smart Phone, I came across the Elephant Journal Facebook page with a simple post asking: “Want to write something for elephantjournal.com?”
Typically, my answer to this question would simply be an immediate and resounding, “Yes!” You see, I like to think of myself as a writer. It is how I earn a living, what I studied in college and even the topic I excelled in most during my early education years. I also happen to love yoga and Elephant Journal, which couldn’t hurt when picking a topic for Elephant Journal readers.
This particular Friday, though, my response was different. Instead, I thought to myself, “If it was only that easy for everyone.”
My somber approach to the topic was the direct result of Dan Rather Reports, a news program I had viewed the prior evening. Mr. Rather took his show to Afghanistan to focus on a rarely-told story of the state of women in the country. Among statistics showing the risks of child birth, the lack of education for women and the daily dangers posed to this repressed group, Mr. Rather focused on an angle I had never heard before: the challenges facing female writers in Afghanistan.
If I were ever asked to speak at a career fair about becoming a writer, I would likely speak of the challenges. I would tell aspiring writers how the salary can be unpredictable, the discipline required can test even the most focused mind and the health benefits are, well, nonexistent. I would tell them to consider whether they can tolerate being alone at a keyboard all day, whether they can organize paperwork and invoicing, whether they can commit to setting up — and contributing to — an IRA without the help of an employer. I would present these as great challenges I faced in my pursuit of writing as a career.
That is, I would have presented these as great challenges until I heard the story of women writers struggling to share their voice in Afghanistan, a country where many people feel women should have no voice at all. In Afghanistan, women who choose to express themselves in any way (including writing essays, poetry or stories) may be viewed as loose, undesirable or subversive. They can be forced out of school, away from resources to assist their work, out into the farms to suffer oppression or, in the worst cases, killed.
Voices that can’t be heard.
To the average American reader, an honor killing may be a thing of the past, a memory of a barbaric time, a term for acts better left forgotten. For a woman writer in Afghanistan, honor killings are a constant threat. A woman who knows too much, shares too much, writes too much, may be put to death at the hands of her father, her brother, or her husband.
The alternative? Stop writing, immediately, and be sold into marriage. Face the risks of childbirth in a country where health resources are slim and many cannot make it to a sanitary facility in order to deliver.
This is the alternative a young woman who goes by the alias, Mariam, was facing at the time she was to graduate from her university.
Mariam showed promise, writing poetry about love and the struggle to attain it in a country that did not permit such feelings. She was among the brightest students at her school, but her mind was not worth nearly as much as her body as far as her family was concerned. She was purchased by an uncle in order to wed a first cousin — a common occurrence in the country.
In the short term, it appeared Mariam had alternatives. Her supporters, 87 in all, raised enough money to purchase her away from the cousin she was to marry. She was permitted to instead marry the man of her choice.
This happy ending did not last. The uncle discovered Mariam’s sale, kidnapped the cousin who had accepted payment, chopped off three of his fingers, and is threatening to take his life. Mariam now faces the rash of her uncle’s “baad” — the Afghan word for revenge. According to local sources, the uncle will stop at nothing to reclaim Mariam and, as repayment, the younger sister of her new husband.
The story continues, the sadness and lack of opportunity to escape the ultimate fate only grows deeper. As one of her teachers somberly wrote me, “Decisions were made about who’s life had what value, and …”
Upon hearing this story, I could not help but compare Mariam’s story to my own. Two women of the same age, both struggling to be “writers,” both recently married, both dreaming of a future where our voices could help heal, inspire and teach.
If the same question went to both of us — “Want to write something for elephantjournal.com?” — the answer would be the same. A resounding “Yes.”
The only difference is this: Mariam cannot act on that desire. If she were to write, to publish, to place her name, headshot and bio on this simple blog, she would face death, either at the hands of another or her own, when she decided she could no longer face her fate.
When I think back on the “challenges” I have faced and continue to face as a writer, I can hardly name one. The reality is this: I was born with every opportunity and resource available to support my writing career. All I had to do was pick; I just had to wake up one day and say, “I think I will write.” It would have been the same had I chosen to be a lawyer, a veterinarian, a teacher. I could have thrown a dart at a board to choose my career, and the challenges would all have been similar, all easily conquered through a few years of work.
Blessed to be an American.
Women everywhere, people everywhere, are born without these options. They, too, would like to “write for elephantjournal.com.” They would like to write blogs, poems, stories and articles. But they cannot. They cannot because they are not American. They are not American for the very same reason I am; it all comes down to the spot of my birth. Something I, you, all of us, have no control over. We are simply born lucky or unlucky. With opportunity or without it.
As I close this story and run it through my mind, I have come to not feel “proud to be an American” — for I don’t think it is right to be proud of where I was born, by chance, through no work of my own — I have come to feel “blessed to be an American.” This dialogue, this writing, these blogs, Elephant Journal in itself, they all exist because of our fundamental freedom to pursue opportunity.
The next time you are presented with an opportunity to do something remarkable — to write, to read, to study, to compete — take it. Do not feel guilty; I do not feel guilty taking this opportunity today. Just appreciate the fact things are pretty easy for you. You have been blessed with an opportunity, and you have further been blessed with the freedom to seize it.