You have a voice.
Your voice is valid.
Your voice is powerful.
In celebration of International Women's Day, this year's Joseph R. and Jeffrey R. Paolino speaker, Noorjahan Akbar, treated the Lincoln community to her passionate and personal journey about working with Afghan women to confront violence through writing.
The founder of Free Women Writers, a collective of writers and students working for gender equality and social justice in Afghanistan, Akbar has worked tirelessly to provide women who face violence with resources.
The process of writing is a source of both therapy and advocacy for women, one grounded in fighting the roots of misogyny in Afghanistan rather than simply trying to cure the symptoms. Through online platforms and publications, Free Women Writers reaches more than 60,000 Afghan women every week, telling authentic stories as a tool to bring change and promote sisterhood and equality.
"Through Free Women Writers I learned that I wasn't alone, that there were many other girls who had suffered in similar or even more terrible ways than me," said Yalda, a contributing writer and survivor of sexual assault.
On Tuesday night, in a talk entitled "Afghan Women and the Global Fight Against Gender-Based Violence," Akbar was insightful, spirited, and inspirational.
"We have the power to bring change," said Akbar. "We—men, women, everyone—have the ability to end this cycle of violence. It starts by listening. It starts by giving hope and building homes and communities filled with love and compassion."
She spoke to a packed house of Providence community members and provided the audience with simple techniques to help break the cycle:
- Support a woman's education and economic self-sufficiency
- Talk about these issues with people around you
- Take responsibility. Of course not all men are violent, but why are most people silent?What does our silence say about us?
- Donate to your local women's shelter
- Listen to women's voices and believe them
She shared similar ideas on Wednesday morning, when Akbar spoke to Lincoln Middle and Upper School students as a part of an all-day celebration of International Women's Day. Akbar herself attended an all-girls school until Grade 8, and there she found what she called "incredible circles of sisterhood and support."
"Women can uplift each other, they can be true instruments of change in each others lives. Our stories have the power to bring people together. They can tell you that it's not your fault, that we are with you. It is true that sisterhood can change the world," said Akbar.
The theme of this year's celebration of International Women's Day, Owning Your Own Narrative, came naturally to Akbar, for which she is grateful. At a very young age, she and her sisters produced a handmade magazine that they worked on at home, would then photocopy, and hand out to other girls in their community. Akbar has always believed in writing as a powerful tool for change, though she knows that doesn't come naturally to everyone.
Free Women Writers' mission is to "be bold and project our own voices, then support and uplift the voices of other women." Akbar encourages women to trust their own perspective, not just as a method of personal catharsis, but as a necessary agent for social change.
"Writing is a great tool to connect and a great tool to advocate. As women, and perhaps particularly Afghan women, we are often the subject the conversation, but we are so often missing from the table. We use writing to make sure other people don't speak for us."
But, Akbar noted, if writing's not your thing, success can be defined in many ways. "We aren't competing against anyone than ourselves: if we had a better day than yesterday, if we learned something, if we are a smarter woman than yesterday, then that's success. Aim for that."
She shared a poem from a Free Women Writers contributor, Hosnia Mohseni, who didn't think of herself as a writer, but shared her story all the same.
I Can't Lock Away My Voice
I can be beautiful and put together
Without an occasion
just for my own gaze,
And I can not.
For my own happiness,
I can adorn myself,
Darken my eyes with kohl and color my lips,
And I can not.
I can be angry,
I can laugh, I can cry, But i cannot tolerate imposition.
I cannot remain silent in the face of pain.
I cannot be neutral to oppression.
I cannot accept being the second sex.
I am not a poet.
But I can write.
I can't read my words.
Only in the bed, in the kitchen.
Within the four walls of my home.
I can't lock away my voice.
"As women, you have immense power," said Akbar to Lincoln students. "You have the power to lift up someone else, to truly hear them, to make someone feel important, and that may be the most important thing of all.