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Opinion | Sexuality

Have We Forgotten the Power of Poetry?

While Afghan women risk their lives for verse, we ignore it.
Have We Forgotten the Power of Poetry?
Image: U.S. Air Force TSgt Laura K. Smith / ISAF / Flickr
Have We Forgotten the Power of Poetry?

What would you do for poetry? What would you sacrifice just to pen a verse? Would you spend a few minutes a day to read a few lines? Would you give money to support a poet? Would you gamble your life to write a poem?

Some women from the rural provinces of Afghanistan are doing exactly that—risking their very lives for poetry. A poignant essay in the New York Times Magazine describes the lengths some impoverished, oppressed, and unschooled women and girls will go just to grasp the bits of freedom poetry gives. In writing and reciting their poems, these women give voice to the fears and injustices—and to the hopes and dreams--that define their lives.

For many of them, poetry is their only form of education. Their literary societies are so dangerous that they gather in secret, like the women immortalized a decade ago in Azar Nafisi's memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran. In some of the groups, recitations and lessons are offered surreptitiously over cell phones. Getting caught could cost the women their lives, just as it did one girl who set herself on fire two weeks after a beating by her brothers who had found love poems she'd written in secret. To write a love poem suggests a lover, and to have a lover is a sin punishable by death in some communities. One girl interviewed told her poetry call-in group, "I want to write about what's wrong in my country." Through tears, she recited a folk poem of her people:

"My pains grow as my life dwindles,I will ...

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