Sunday, November 13, 2005

Afghan Poetess battered to death

Woman poet ‘slain for her verse’

Christina Lamb

Sunday Times 13 November 2005

SHE risked torture, imprisonment, perhaps even death to study literature and write poetry in secret under the Taliban. Last week, when she should have been celebrating the success of her first book, Nadia Anjuman, was beaten to death in Herat, apparently murdered by her husband.
The 25-year-old Afghan had garnered wide praise in literary circles for the book Gule Dudi — Dark Flower — and was at work on a second volume.

Friends say her family was furious, believing that the publication of poetry by a woman about love and beauty had brought shame on it.
“She was a great poet and intellectual but, like so many Afghan women, she had to follow orders from her husband,” said Nahid Baqi, her best friend at Herat University.
Farid Ahmad Majid Mia, 29, Anjuman’s husband, is in police custody after confessing to having slapped her during a row. But he denies murder and claims that his wife committed suicide. The couple had a six-month-old son.
The death of the young writer has shocked a city which prides itself on its artistic heritage. It has also raised uncomfortable questions about how much the position of women in Afghanistan has improved since the fall of the Taliban to American-led forces four years ago.
“This is a tragic loss for Afghanistan,” said Adrian Edwards, a spokesman for the United Nations. “Domestic violence is a concern. This case illustrates how bad this problem is here and how it manifests itself. Women face exceptional challenges.”
Herat, in particular, has seen a number of women burn themselves to death rather than succumb to forced marriages.
Anjuman’s movements were being limited by her husband, her friends believe. She had been invited to a ceremony celebrating the return to Herat of Amir Jan Sabouri, an Afghan singer, but failed to attend.

Her poetry alluded to an acute sense of confinement. “I am caged in this corner, full of melancholy and sorrow,” she wrote in one “ghazal”, or lyrical poem, adding: “My wings are closed and I cannot fly.” It concludes: “I am an Afghan woman and must wail.”
Afghan human rights groups condemned Anjuman’s death as evidence that the government of President Hamid Karzai has failed to address the issue of domestic violence. It is especially tragic because she was one of a group of courageous women, known as the Sewing Circles of Herat, who risked their lives to keep the city’s literary scene active under the Taliban regime.
Women were banned from working or studying by the Taliban, whose repressive edicts forbade women to laugh out loud or wear shoes that clicked. Female writers belonging to Herat’s Literary Circle realised that one of the few things that women were still allowed to do was to sew. So three times a week groups of women in burqas would arrive at a doorway marked Golden Needle Sewing School.
Had the authorities investigated, they would have discovered that the sewing students never made any clothes. Once inside the school, a brave professor of literature from Herat University would talk to them about Shakespeare, Dostoevsky and other banned writers.
Under a regime where even teaching a daughter to read was a crime, they might have been hanged if they had been caught.
I was taken to meet some of these women by Ahmed Said Haghighi, president of the Literary Circle, in December 2001, only days after the Taliban had fled. One of them, Leila, said that she stayed up till the early hours doing calculus because she so feared that her brain would atrophy. “Life for women under the Taliban was no more than being cows in sheds,” she said.


Anjuman was part of this remarkable group. After the Taliban fell, she went to Herat University to study literature. “She was becoming a great Persian poet,” Haghighi said. Anjuman’s husband was also a literature graduate. Speaking from prison he insisted: “I have not killed Nadia. How could I kill someone I loved? We had a small argument and I only slapped her on the face once.
“She went to another room and when she returned she told me she had swallowed poison. She said she had forgiven me for slapping her and pleaded, ‘Don’t tell anyone I have swallowed poison. Tell them I died from a heart attack’.”

The authorities are sceptical of this account. “One of the reasons we suspect the husband is he did not take her to the hospital until four hours after beating her up,” said Maria Bashir, the city’s prosecutor.
Although Afghanistan’s new constitution guarantees equal rights for men and women before the law, its conservative mindset has not changed. This is partly because of the continuing power of the American-backed warlords whose repressive views are similar to those of the Taliban.
Many women were allowed to stand in parliamentary elections in September, the results of which were being finalised yesterday. One of the most surprising results announced earlier in the count was in Herat, where Fauzia Gailani, a female aerobics instructor, topped the polls.
The 32-year-old mother of six said she was outraged by Anjuman’s death and was compiling a list of such cases. “In Islam no one has the right to hit their wife,” she said. “We hope the government will take action and stop crimes like this.”

Additional reporting: Tim Albone, Kabul Christina Lamb is the author of The Sewing Circles of Herat (Flamingo)

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