Saheera Sharif has spent much of her professional life working for the women of Afghanistan. As one of the few female members of the Afghanistan Parliament, she made it a priority to address women’s issues, particularly with regards to child marriages. She worked long hours, five days a week, to try and improve the lives of her constituents while also raising a family, including a child with special needs. However, despite the long, hard work she put in as a member of Parliament, she is perhaps most known for the work she did for women outside of the legislature – work she did as the founder of Mirman Baheer.
Mirman Baheer is a poetry society in Afghanistan. The idea of a poetry society does not, on its own, sound revolutionary – that is, of course, until one considers that the potential price of writing and sharing that poetry in Afghanistan, particularly in the more rural provinces, could be death.
A poem is a sword.
In Afghanistan, poetry is often associated with questionable morals and ethics, so women are rarely encouraged to write and/or study it. Landays (2 line couplets consisting of 9 words and 22 syllables) are considered particularly dangerous because they have long been used by the women of Afghanistan as a secret language of protest. In these landays, women have found a place to speak openly and critically about everything from war to religion to sex. In Mirman Baheer, these landays have found a home.
Each week in Kabul, the members of Mirman Baheer gather together to share their landays. Women and girls from the outer provinces, who cannot travel to the meetings, sneak out in secret and call the group to share their landays over the phone. It’s risky business, but that doesn’t seem to deter. Instead, the society is growing in size and popularity, with women flocking to Mirman Baheer for the opportunity to share their own raw, unfiltered thoughts – to participate in their own literary rebellion.
In addition to giving women a place to connect and contribute to the rich cultural and literary history of landays, recently, Mirman Baheer has also been doing a great deal to combat stereotypes of Afghan women. Since first being brought to the international public’s attention in Eliza Griswold’s article for the New York Times in 2012, the landays composed by the members of Mirman Baheer have been published in a collection of poetry entitled I am the Beggar of the World. The society and Saheera Sarif were also featured at the International Poetry Festival in London earlier this year.
This is a different kind of struggle.
Mirman Baheer is a place where women unite. It is a place where established female government officials mingle with young women from rural villages who taught themselves to write in secret. It is a place where women discuss what makes them unique and what makes them the same – where they can protest the war, mourn the loss of a lover, or even criticize religion and the government. In Mirman Baheer, these women, whose freedoms are so often restricted, for 2 lines, 9 words, and 22 syllables, get to be free.