My hometown of Andover, Massachusetts was once a remote outpost in the wilderness, long before there was a bustling Northeast United States. One of the town’s earliest settlers was a wife, mother, and also a writer. Her name was Anne Bradstreet and in 1650 she had a book of poetry published all the way overseas in London.
This was quite an achievement especially when you consider those times. A woman being educated, much less being an author, was not something particularly welcomed.
Carol Majahad of the North Andover Historical Society told me, "It was rare for a woman to be as educated as Anne was in her day." One of Bradstreet's poems "gives a good reflection of popular opinion at the time.”
I am obnoxious to each carping tongue
Who says my hand a needle better fits,
A poet's pen all scorn I should thus wrong,
For such despite they cast on female wits;
If what I do prove well, it won't advance,
They'll say it's stol'n, or else it was by chance,
Wendy Martin, in her book An American Triptych, wrote that in Bradstreet’s era, “women who stepped beyond their domestic confines by means of literature, whether by reading or writing, risked being branded as dangerous to themselves and society.”
What if such attitudes had prevented Bradstreet’s work from being published or distributed? Or prevented her from receiving an education in the first place? She might never have become a writer or been published. Her achievement might never have been shared with the world. How many others never got an opportunity?
This is a struggle not unique to Bradstreet’s time. As International Women's Day arrives, there are women all across the globe who are being deprived of education and opportunities. This may be because of the poverty they live in, but it can also be due to deep-rooted societal beliefs.
Recently I learned of an organization called the Afghan Women’s Writing Project. This was started by novelist Masha Hamilton in order to give Afghan women a voice, one for which they have to struggle.
The first thing I noticed about the Project was that the family names of the Afghan women published on the site had to be concealed. These women must submit their work in secret from their families and friends. The locations of these authors are also kept hidden. Why? There are those in Afghanistan who disapprove of women being educated or telling their story through writing. Their personal information is kept hidden out of fear for their safety.
One of the Afghan women published on the site, Fatima A., writes:
I am from a country that kills girls’ talents,
From a society that doesn’t want women to work outside the house
From trying to teach those people
From knowing that everyone is not and cannot be the person you want them to be.
Another Afghan woman, Shogofa, tells of a meeting with a new friend, writing: “She has taught me that I am bereaved but strong, and that I have the right to talk, to think.”
Another one of the writers, Roya, says in a poem titled “The Cemetery of my Identity”:
There is no world.
I live in the prison
under my burqa
no permission to breathe the air.
I am a woman
Roya also sums up what having a voice through the Afghan Women’s Project means when she says, ”Thanks to God that I have the writing blog now.”
Many women across the globe need a voice, opportunities, and acceptance. If they do not get them, they will not advance and neither will their society.
Two years ago, with the encouragement of the UN World Food Programme office in Washington, D.C., I started a series of interviews profiling school feeding programs in developing countries. One of the constant themes was what food and education can do for girls. When take-home rations are included with these programs, the girls all of a sudden become breadwinners for their families. They become healthier and receive an education.
If you want to support a cause that can change the world, especially for girls, then look no further than school feeding. Yet, the policies of governments around the world have not emphasized this enough.
What can someone do on International Women’s Day? Show your voice of support for those who are struggling to have their own. Write a note of encouragement at the Afghanistan Women’s Writing Project for its authors. Write something on your own website for your readers. Write to your government officials in support of programs that help girls, like school feeding.
If women in Afghanistan can risk everything to write their thoughts and feelings, then certainly others can write these letters of support. If everyone does, it might make International Women’s Day more than just a single-day event, and the start of a new era of hope and opportunity.
View a video of International Women's Day from the World Food Programme.