Before I ever met Mahnaz Rezaie ’13, I knew certain things about her. Mahnaz means “beautiful moon” or “glory of the moon.” It’s a Persian name, even though she’s Afghan, and she finds it wonderfully elegant. She loves the sound of the syllables reverberating in her throat: Maah-naahz. I also knew that in 1997, when she was eight years old, her Shia Muslim family fled Sunni-Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. They went to Iran, which was the country closest to their home in the southwestern province of Herat. Iran was more westernized, and in some ways life was better for the Rezaies, but as Afghan minorities, they also faced harsh discrimination. At one point, the Iranian Ministry of Education banned all Afghan children from the schools. Because Mahnaz was academically gifted, her principal shielded her from expulsion.
At the age of nine, Mahnaz had endured a horrific accident one night while she was at a family wedding. She was pouring tea from a giant samovar when it toppled over, sending a cascade of boiling water onto her arm. She watched her skin peel away from her body and drop to the floor along with the sleeve of her dress. The pain was so excruciating she thought she was dying. Her family, fearing the Taliban would kill them for breaking the 10 p.m. nightly curfew if they took her to the hospital, instead used toothpaste and mashed potatoes to treat her wounds. The next morning, Mahnaz went to a doctor who scrubbed her burns clean with a brush. This procedure was nearly as painful as the initial scalding. During the next six months, while she was recovering, she developed scars that would impact her life in many ways—including, she believes, putting her on a more academic path that led her to Middlebury, where she is now a student in her junior year.
I first learned Mahnaz’s story through articles she wrote for the Afghan Women’s Writing Project (AWWP), a nonprofit writing collective based in Kabul, Afghanistan. Founded in 2009 by American writer Masha Hamilton, the writing project provides Afghan women with a place to write—a so-called writer’s hut where they can compose their stories, primarily in English, using computers and Internet access that many of them don’t otherwise have access to. Some of these women, who range in age from their teens to their 40s, are forbidden to write by their families, and they do it in secret at AWWP headquarters, using pseudonyms. The project also provides a venue for these women to publish their work; twice a week, their personal essays and poetry are posted on the project’s blog. U.S.-based writers, women with backgrounds in journalism, fiction writing, and teaching, serve as long-distance writing mentors, providing prompts for story ideas, guidance on writing fundamentals, like grammar and story structure, and feedback on their stories. I am one of those mentors.
Mahnaz began contributing to AWWP after a friend told her about the program during her senior year of high school. Her family was living in Kabul then, her father having decided his children would get a better education in Afghanistan. Mahnaz is a naturally gifted writer, and soon after she took AWWP’s initial writing workshop, she was penning poems and essays in English, her second language after the Farsi she learned in Iran. “She’s always been a strong writer, and she’s so amazingly brave,” AWWP executive director and former writing coordinator Elisabeth Lehr told me. “Hers is a tremendous story. Her mother is illiterate, which in and of itself says so much about Afghanistan today.”
The way Mahnaz strung English words together was surprisingly eloquent and evocative to Lehr, and her stories carried a gravitas and emotional depth that betrayed her age, not to mention the fact that she’d only been studying English for a few years. Another thing that stood out about Mahnaz’s work was her feminist leanings. In writing about her childhood, she explored the inklings she’d had from an early age that the discrepancy between the way men and women were treated in the society she inhabited did not work for her.
When she was a girl in Iran, she and her family often worshiped at a Muslim shrine—a place she found so spectacular and inspiring that she wrote this about it: “I want to sink in this sacred air. I want to hear my heartbeats and listen to the breeze as it cools my face. I want to fly to farther lands where only imagination can go. This is the magic of being in a place where you love and feel you are yourself. This is the magic that allows you to think freely.” Yet, as much as she loved the temple, it didn’t seem fair to her—even at age eight—that the men should pray in the front of the shrine while the women were relegated to the back. Her mother’s explanation reflected a widely held religious belief: Men are entitled to stand in front of women because they have higher positions before God. Mahnaz was outraged. But she was powerless to change the rules—this time.