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Behind the burqa

Lake Oswego author Elissa Minor Rust, a member of the Afghan Women's Writing Project, teaches secure online writing workshops to women in Afghanistan
by: Vern Uyetake Elissa Minor Rust serves as a mentor to a secret group of Afghan women from the living room of her home in Lake Oswego.

A secret group of Afghan women comes to an unmarked place in Kabul they've named The Writing Hut to submit their stories online. Some of them walk for miles just to post a paragraph or two - always watching from behind their burqas, careful to avoid suspicion.

For the brave members of the Afghan Women's Writing Project, writing their stories, poems and memoirs is a risky business.

'Some of the women have written that their families will kill them, literally kill them, if they find out they are writing and expressing themselves on their own,' said Lynn Harris, public relations coordinator for the Afghan Women's Writing Project.

'But, for these women, their writing fulfills a basic human need, as critical as food and shelter,' said Masha Hamilton, Brooklyn journalist, novelist and founder of the AWWP. 'Telling their stories makes them feel alive.'

'I took the pen and I wrote and everything changed,' said Roya, an AWWP participant who, like all the Afghan women writers, protects herself by using her first name only.

About the AWWP

Hamilton started the project in 2009 with what she calls a 'kitchen-table idea.'

'In order to give at least some of (the Afghan women) the ability to tell their stories, I (decided to) teach a free online class to them for 10 weeks or so,' Hamilton described on her website. 'But it took only one class for me to understand that their interest and desire would outstrip my ability to meet it. So in May 2009, the Afghan Women's Writing Project was founded, and grew quickly from me at my laptop to three secure online classrooms taught by rotating published novelists and poets, memoirists, screenwriters and journalists around the country.'

Initially, the Afghan women were reluctant. They were not sure how much to disclose, if it was safe, or if it mattered. But with the aid of the AWWP mentors, who offered prompts, edits and advice - the stories unfolded.

The AWWP has provided many of the Afghan writers with laptops, and The Writing Hut, a small, non-descript apartment in one of Kabul's safer neighborhoods has been open since October 2010.

Through word of mouth, the project has grown from a just a few to more than 50 Afghan women.

LO author - AWWP mentor

Elissa Minor Rust, Lake Oswego author of 'Prisoner Pear' (a novel about Lake Oswego) and writing and literature teacher at Portland Community College, calls her work with the AWWP 'the most rewarding project of my career.

'Working with the women one-on-one puts a human face on their stories,' said Minor Rust who has been a mentor since November. 'It makes what these women are going through very real.

'It is hard to imagine. I can write anything I want - any time I want - and yet here are these women who risk their lives just to get their words on a page.'

And the writing is powerful. With the help of Minor Rust and the other AWWP mentors, the women, some of whom have never had a formal education, are producing essays and poems full of dreams, courage, and, even in the face of growing Taliban extremism, hope.

And the writers have been empowered by finding their voice. One AWWP participant was recently able to pay off her own bride price and arrange for study in the United States. Another is in the process of seeking political asylum.

While some have received death threats and chilling night letters, they bravely continue to write.

'One woman wrote about trying to sneak out of her house as a young girl, just to stand outside on the porch. Her parents got furious and pulled her back inside. They were afraid that if the Taliban saw her, they would take her and imprison her,' Minor Rust said.

Another one of the Afghan authors wrote about the day she and her friends were no longer allowed to go to school, and how she grieved for her books.

Minor Rust is convinced that 'change in Afghanistan is going to come from the women - from their stories. I feel like something really huge is going to come from this project.'

Connecting with AWWP

To learn more about the Afghan Women's Writing Project, visit its website at www.awwproject.org.

The AWWP is in the process of setting up a special Kabul office fund to help pay for Internet, rent and security.

A nonprofit organization that has filed for 501©(3) status, the AWWP welcomes donations to help with laptop computers, Internet access and printing costs and postage for the all-volunteer AWWP team.

'The most meaningful thing people can do to help is to comment on the work they read on the site,' Hamilton said. 'If you read something you like, make a comment. When a woman walks four miles to submit a poem, it is nice for her to get feedback.'

Donations to the AWWP are accepted at the AWWP website, or checks may be mailed to AWWP, P.O. Box 333, Kentfield, CA 94914.