Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The couplet as platform for resistance for Afghan women

Imagine risking severe punishment or even your life for just two lines of poetry… Now visualise doing this, not just once, but on a weekly basis. Poetry has become a powerful vehicle of expression for the silenced women of Afghanistan and I was fascinated, recently, to learn about a tight form known as the landay. I confess that the only other poetic type I knew about from Central Asia was the ghazal (a relatively short form of no more than a dozen couplets, which originated in 10th century Iran and often addresses themes of love) so I was intrigued to learn that the landay is a brief two-line poem, traditionally only performed orally. Each poem has twenty-two syllables: nine in the first line, thirteen in the second and it ends with the sound “ma” or “na.” Sometimes landays rhyme, but more often not. Quite different to the equally compact but even tighter haiku form (which originated in Japan, is typically made up of three lines of 5/7/5 syllables and often draws its power from contrasting the micro and macro on the theme of nature), the landay is driven by vital emotions of anger, heartache or love. Though this couplet dates back thousands of years, it has become a particularly potent lifeline and secretive form of rebellion for Afghan women within the climate of fundamentalist conservatism fostered by the Taliban. Female poetic self-expression, within this culture, implies dishonour and free will.

A Kabul-based female writers group, known as the Mirman Baheer literary society, is empowering women to share these couplets with each other and to resist the culture of muteness imposed by their male-dominated society. The pioneering Mirman Baheer group was founded by MP, Sahira Sharif, to enable Afghan women to communicate with each other and to express their deepest thoughts about their every day realities such as war, the Taliban, American soldiers, sexual oppression, drone strikes and military weapons, social media, love and sex. The groups members range from professional urban women to young girls in remote rural villages, many of whom are forced to participate in secret by phoning into group meetings. Speaking last month at London’s Southbank Poetry International weekend Sharif stated: “If women are writing poetry, it means they are risking their lives. In our community, if a woman writes some words, it is seen as stigmatising family honour. And that’s why she always tries to hide her name and her identity when writing poetry. But this poetry is much more powerful than the sword. It could be our best medium to fight what is going on.”

I was particularly struck by the poignant concision of the following poem:

When sisters sit together, they always praise their brothers.

When brothers sit together, they sell their sisters to others.

Other examples included below were published in an article by Hannah Ellis-Petersen which appeared in The Guardian on 6 June 2015 and also in a feature by Lyse Doucet on the BBC news website, dated 21 October 2013. 

Some Contemporary Womens’ Landays:

You won’t let me go to school. I won’t become a doctor. 
Remember this. One day, you will be sick.

May God destroy the Taliban and end their wars.

They’ve made Afghan women into widows and whores.

Oh my God, all the warlords testing their weapons again
And earning a lot of money out of war - Dr. Masouda

Making love to an old man

Is like fucking a shrivelled cornstalk black with mould

My love gave his life for our homeland.
I'll sew his shroud with one strand of my hair.

You sold me to an old man, father

May god destroy your home; I was your daughter

When we read these landays we can appreciate that they are so much more than just two lines of text - they constitute crucial lifelines, acts of resistance, tools of coping, learning and surviving within a war-torn society. These micro-poems allow us to unpack so much about the every day lives of women in Afghanistan. They remind us, not only of all we take for granted, in our industrialised West, in relation to education, freedom of speech and poetry itself, but also of the unbroken, transformative power of this medium to condense and transmit vital truths that need to be articulated. 

You can read further about the history of the landay and many more fine examples of this art form in I Am the Beggar of the World: Landays from Contemporary Afghanistan, a collection translated into English by Eliza Griswold (who has helped to bring global attention to this poetry) and with photography by Seamus Murphy.