The summer after her freshman year at Middlebury, Mahnaz spent three months traveling throughout Afghanistan, taking pictures of people on the streets and in their homes. Her work had already begun to take on a more journalistic style; she had told the stories of other Afghan women and the hardships they faced. There was the tale of a friend whose family forbade her from marrying the man she loved because he was from a different religious sect, and the story of her mother’s friend, who bore 16 children and watched 15 of them die from malnutrition. But this project was the first for which she went out and reported a story.
Being a woman photographer in a Muslim country, she faced challenges—Afghanistan, after all, is the worst country in the world for women according to a recent study by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “Security was the biggest barrier. My family added to my anxiety by saying that someone will kidnap me or take my expensive camera,” she wrote in the three-part article that detailed her photojournalism adventure, entitled “Snapshots from Home.” “I traveled with a family member; I never took photos in public alone. I learned I was more comfortable taking photos with female escorts, than males. I was more courageous with my brothers and father, but they were constantly nagging me about the security.”
Despite her precautions, she was harassed and questioned. She was even accused of being a spy. And yet, she produced stunning photos. She captured men staring at her suspiciously from behind their vegetable stands at a Kabul bazaar, a woman from a nomadic tribe holding her sick baby inside the dilapidated tent she called home, and a cluster of small boys crouched on a strip of pavement, grinning up at the camera. There was some upside to being a woman in this circumstance. “An Afghan female photographer has the advantage of gaining access to the private lives of people,” she explained in the article. “It is easier for her to go inside people’s houses and take pictures. If a man asks to go to a house, it is more difficult to get permission.” And during the course of the project, she developed a philosophy she never could have learned in a classroom: “A photographer needs to have a free mind without worries to produce good images.”
The same isn’t necessarily true for an Afghan writer. Several of the women who contribute to the AWWP blog, including Mahnaz, have told me they write when they’re feeling emotional—they write through their tears. That’s likely because they face so much hardship. I began volunteering for the organization last summer after a project I was scheduled to work on—profiling the recovery of an Afghan woman who had been disfigured and brutalized by her in-laws—was canceled because her emotional trauma was too overwhelming for her to move forward. After learning the basic details of this woman’s story, I was both horrified and heartbroken. Her ears and nose had been cut off and she’d been left for dead, the product of a culture that put no value on her life. By some miracle, she was rescued and brought to a shelter in Kabul. I considered myself to have an above-average knowledge of international women’s issues, and yet, I realized I had no idea what it meant to be a woman in Afghanistan.
I wanted to learn more by connecting with an Afghan women’s cause. A search for nonprofits in California, where I live, came up short. And then I discovered the Afghan Women’s Writing Project. It was January 2011, and AWWP had launched the blog just a few months earlier. I e-mailed Elisabeth Lehr, at the time the writing coordinator, presenting my bona fides and pleading my case for becoming a writing mentor. She’d be happy to have me, she replied, but the first available slot wasn’t until August, eight months away. I took that slot—a four-week posting—and re-upped for another rotation in January.
Apparently, I wasn’t the only one interested in helping out. AWWP was growing rapidly, and women’s rights issues in Afghanistan were getting more public attention. Several high-profile cases had been covered in the news at around that time: Bibi Aisha, the woman I was originally assigned to write about, was being treated for her emotional trauma in New York; a woman named Gulnaz was imprisoned in Afghanistan for adultery after reporting her rape to police; another woman, Sahar Gul, was said to have been tortured by her in-laws after refusing to work as a prostitute.
Mahnaz herself wrote about Gulnaz in the article I mentored her through in January; it was a two-part series entitled “Afghan Feminist Thought.” “Many educated Afghan men still smirk at the word ‘feminist’ and associate it with extremist ideas perpetrated by women,” she wrote. “These men . . . get served first and eat the best food. As husbands, they think they have the right to beat and discipline their wives. As young boys, they order their sisters to fetch them water. And in government, they ask a girl to marry her rapist in order to free him from jail. People rarely respect the rights of women or accept feminist thinking in Afghanistan, but feminist concepts are precisely what is needed to bring about positive change.”
She went on to describe the case of Gulnaz, who gave birth to her rapist’s child in jail. For the adultery charge, Gulnaz was at first sentenced to three years in prison; at a second trial, her term was increased to 12 years. As Mahnaz noted, the judge presented her with a horrifying alternative: to marry her rapist. Gulnaz was eventually pardoned by President Hamid Karzai, in December 2011, but her future, according to Mahnaz, is grim. “Many rape victims have been . . . shot and killed by their family,” she wrote. “There is no support system that encourages women to engage in politics, to stand up for feminist ideals, or to work toward justice.”
The problems in Afghanistan, as Mahnaz sees them, aren’t just cultural—they very much extend to religion. “We have lots of women who are really good scholars of Islam,” she told me. “But I don’t see any translation of the Holy Qur’an from women.” She also wrote about this dearth of respect for female Muslim theologians in “Afghan Feminist Thought.” She believes the absence of a woman’s touch on translations of the Islamic holy scripture isn’t accidental. “Unfortunately they are bringing lots more ideas in order to suppress and control women. Then they gradually get into the books and into the beliefs of people,” she said of the male Muslim religious leadership. She has also challenged the hypocrisy of the way the religion is practiced. “In my religion, men can have four wives,” she pointed out. “So I was always asking, ‘Why can they have four wives, but a woman can’t have four husbands?’”