The Subversive Feminist Poets of Afghanistan


In a nation beleaguered by violence, corruption, addiction, and dozens of other ills, a network of resilient women are coming out of the shadows through writing.

Embrace me in a suicide vest
but don’t say I won’t give you a kiss.

A landay is a subversive, biting poetry style esteemed among the Pashtun tribes of Afghanistan. The couplets weave nine syllables in the first line and 13 in the second into a quiet sound with sharp meaning. Landays only rhyme sometimes, and they end with the sound “na” or “ma.” It’s a simple structure made profound by the way Afghan women are finding new self-expression in a culture that too often keeps many silent.

I call. You’re stone.
One day you’ll look and find I’m gone.

Lacking a formal stage to share their work, women write and share their poetry however they can. Sometimes they trade landays over the phone with women who can’t leave home to meet in person. When a woman hears something that speaks to her heart, she memorizes that landay and shares it forward. The poet’s message is more important than the attribution.

You sold me to an old man, father.
May God destroy your home, I was your daughter.

Afghan women also repurpose old landays by changing a couple words to reflect something about their own stories. This communal brooding about war, lust, grief, separation, and love helps women process the deeply emotive issues that make Afghanistan such a wonderful, fractured, beautiful nation.

May God make you into a riverbank flower
so I may smell you when I gather water.

Source: The Poetry Foundation

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