By Kaylen Forsyth
For a poet language is land on the water, is water on the land. The poem becomes necessary to existence, a way of transforming the physical world into something that can’t die. Like with many other art forms, its greatest assets are its humanness and intimacy. “I composed my first poems in the dark“, says Philip Levine in My Lost Poets. This is a small window into the understanding that happens between a writer and the words they either chose or don’t.
“I dream of lost vocabularies that might express some of what we no longer can”, laments Jack Gilbert, as though deprived of self-expression his entire life.
This brings him to a shared affinity with so many women across the globe, today and always, who may be able to fathom even more thoroughly than him exactly what it’s like to be stifled. To have so much pent-up rage and passion that there is no way to coordinate any coherence. This is why poetry plays such a vital role in the lives of many women in Afghanistan.
Recently, it has become clearer than ever just how essential it is for women to have a platform that cannot be deterred by men. Such deterrence is now symptomatic of a growing rather than declining patriarchy. This struggle for a stage is a problem that the women of Afghanistan have faced so much they’ve now formed their own kind of barracks, built out of language. Amidst a country that has seen vast amounts of violence and duplicity, a number of incredibly courageous women are voicing their political and emotional concern through the power of poetry. It takes the form of a “landay”.
The simple structure of the “landay poem” features couplets with nine syllables in the first line and thirteen in the second. This frame is used by many Afghan women who constantly search for new ways to articulate in a society wishing for their silence. Women write and share their poetry any way possible. Sometimes they share via phone calls with other women who are unable to leave their homes. Or other times, they meet up secretly to discuss their creations and merge them. Distribution always takes precedence over attribution.
Western representation of Afghan women would like to ignore this. Instead, it attempts a powerless portrayal. There is such an ethnocentric trend in Western media. It wants us to view other cultures as inherently alien in their differences. This leads to mass polarisation. Some begin to view those who live differently as outlandish. Evidently, this eliminates empathy and the ability to see with human perspective. It is the cause of an inaccurate depiction of Afghan women.
Journalists, specifically the tabloid sensationalists, would love us to view these women as voiceless victims, completely unable to have an opinion that hasn’t been indoctrinated by a patriarch. It’s inaccurate, and reading their “landays” emphasise this massively. Most suggest raw and often bursting passions of lust and love. There are hints of fury over the Taliban and the U.S., and foreign occupation.
My lover is fair as an American soldier can be. / To him I looked dark as a Talib, so he martyred me.
Landay lines like these cut deep and reveal strength, the strength that we all must see. Too prevalently, there is a manipulated view of Muslim women as direct results of oppression. Obviously, the consequence of this is their immediate dehumanisation. They are then seen through a lens that fails to attribute any agency or depth. Even their initiative is brushed aside.
Since the recent inauguration of Trump, women across the globe have risen up in a unified voice against his despicable policies. It’s fantastic! It’s inspiring to see that his government’s blatant misogyny and bigotry is not going unchallenged. People can address the politics of the women marching in the US and Europe, their agency, their intelligence. Yet, there still remains a struggle to identify these qualities in women from Islamic countries. Their acts of revolution and activism are either ignored, dismissed or played down. It’s easy to look at a middle-class American woman and call her a political revolutionary but people don’t want to call an Afghan woman anything of the sort.
In the West there is an erroneous thought that women from Islamic backgrounds are in need of salvation. This has been helpful to politicians in the past, allowing them to justify certain invasions. But to look at these “landays” is to understand that perhaps, these Afghanistan poets are the revolutionaries we should be taking examples from, rather than forcing our examples onto them.