Masha Hamilton: Amplifying the Voices of Afghan Women

This March, for Women’s History Month, the Ms. Blog is profiling Wonder Women who have made history—and those who are making history right now. Join us each day as we bring you the stories of iconic and soon-to-be-famous feminist change-makers.

In the words of Masha Hamilton—journalist, novelist, social activist and founder of the Afghan Women’s Writing Project—“to tell one’s story is a human right.” Yet in Afghanistan, women are treated as though their voices and ideas don’t matter; in fact, many face severe consequences for daring to speak out.

Hamilton dedicated AWWP to Zarmeena, a mother of seven who was executed by the Taliban in Kabul in November 1999, allegedly for killing her husband. When Hamilton saw a smuggled video of the execution that ran on the Associated Press news wire, she was determined to find out more about Zarmeena. Sadly, she could find few details, which made it clear that not only were Afghan women hidden beneath burqas but their stories were also veiled. As a journalist covering war zones, she had come to believe that telling one’s story is as important to survival as food and shelter, so she resolved to learn as much as she could about Afghanistan, traveling there for the first time in 2004. She visited women in prison, interviewed child brides and spoke to the matriarch of a family of opium growers.

After a second visit in 2008, she found that the Taliban, never fully banished, was regaining strength, and women were afraid. This led her to found AWWP in May 2009. In six years, it has grown to include committed and talented people across the U.S. and abroad, with more than 160 women across five Afghan provinces  enrolled in online writing workshops.

The premise is simple: Mentors are matched with workshops of several Afghan women, and the women respond to writing prompts, which the mentors edit. Ultimately, the work appears on the AWWP website, where people from around the globe can respond.

In Hamilton’s words,

In telling their own stories, we’ve seen these women gather strength, courage and self-confidence. They become empowered to make change within their homes, their communities and eventually their country. They also gain computer literacy and skills of language and critical thinking, which increases their job-related skills. They have become lawyers, journalists, parliament members.

I became an AWWP mentor in 2012, shortly after meeting a young Afghan woman, Tabasum, who had just graduated from Middlebury College in the U.S. and was en route to Oxford University for a master’s degree in women’s studies. One of the first young writers I mentored was Zahra, who is about to graduate from a boarding school in the U.S. and has received a college scholarship here, in part due to the English language skills she acquired as a writer for AWWP. Here is an example of her eloquent writing:

I became a feminist because I could not tolerate seeing my neighbor beat his wife. I could not listen to my teacher call me a bad girl for working on a project with boys. I could not tolerate injustice toward women. I could not see women stoned for choosing their future. I could not stand to see a man who raped a young girl walk freely in the street and not even be ashamed.

Because of Masha Hamilton, I found a passion that has consumed me. In March 2013, I became host to Sabira, an Afghan woman who was part of AWWP while she was attending high school in Kabul. Because she had learned English, she was selected for a scholarship to a boarding school in the U.S. (The Feminist Majority Foundation, publisher of Ms. and a longtime supporter of Afghan girls’ and women’s education, helped Sabira pay for her books during her freshman year.) Today, Sabira is a freshman on full scholarship at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut—the first Afghan student at her small, liberal arts college. Her plan is to major in economics and return to her country as part of the educated class of her generation.

Sabira’s ultimate goal: to serve as her country’s Minister of Economics. Don’t bet against her.

Get Ms. in your inbox! Click here to sign up for the Ms. newsletter.

Photo courtesy of U.S. Embassy Kabul Afghanistan on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0


Elizabeth Titus has been a journalist, an English teacher, an advertising executive, a communications director (15 years at American Express in New York City), and a freelance writer and communications consultant. Her work has appeared in publications including Narrative, The Humanist, and Women’s Voices Now. She volunteers with groups that support the education of Afghan and Indian girls and women and has sponsored an Afghan woman in the U.S. through high school and college. She is also an active volunteer with PennPAC, working with other graduates of the University of Pennsylvania who donate their time to nonprofits. She was connected with Days for Girls via Catchafire, a digital platform that "strengthens the social good sector by matching professionals who want to donate their time with nonprofits who need their skills.