A Journalist in Paris Writes for Women Left Behind in Afghanistan

A Journalist in Paris Writes for Women Left Behind in Afghanistan

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Afghan writer Mursal Sayas protesting at the Eiffel Tower in Paris for 60 young Hazara school girls killed in an explosion in Afghanistan Sept 2022. Photo courtesy of author

In December 2021, I was asked by Ann Birot-Salsbury, a professional coach and supporter of refugees, to be the writing coach for a recent exile from Afghanistan named Mursal. She had left behind her family, career, and homeland that had been retaken by the Taliban following the American withdrawal. The three of us met over lunch in Paris – and before me was a 26-year-old with sparkling eyes who reminded me of my own daughter. In about two seconds flat, I knew I wanted to help this young writer.

Ann and I became les anges de Mursal, her angels, and we were joined by Ayyam Sureau, founder of the Association Pierre Claver, where Mursal was a student, and Geraldine Mehigan, who had welcomed Mursal into her home. The four of us supported Mursal Sayas as she learned French, integrated into France, and prepared her pitch and first story to present to a publisher.

The angels of Mursal (center), Anne Birot Salsbury (left) and Jane Mobille (right). © Mursal Sayas

Influenced by her personal experiences and inspired by the testimonies of women she met in shelters in Kabul, Mursal has written a book that gives voice to the forgotten and martyrized women in Afghanistan.

“Qui entendra nos cris” recounts the experiences of Sonbol, married at age 11; Arghawan, forced to be a prostitute by a husband who preferred young boys; and Saman, offered as part of a deal to close a financial arrangement.

Each of the ten voices in her compelling book speaks of unbearable suffering and remarkable resilience.

It is difficult to stay immune to such poignant testimony. When I was 13, the cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead spoke at the outstanding private girls’ school I attended. She told us that we were the women who must support the women in the world who did not possess the right to education and freedom. Mursal’s generation of women and men in Afghanistan were building these rights, and now, heartbreakingly, they are gone. Mursal’s courageous book gives voice to this heartbreak.

I share with you my interview with Mursal Sayas so as many people as possible can hear the cries of Afghan women. May Qui entendra nos cris be a call to action!

“Qui entendra nos cris?” by Mursal Sayas. Published by Éditions de L’Observatorie 2024

Before you came to France, tell us about the path that led you to a job at the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) and the women you met.

From the early days of university and studying law, I realized that things were not fair. The division of rights under Islamic law between men and women, the cruelty in society, and the mistreatment of females deeply troubled me. I was juggling university, motherhood, and being a wife, with numerous commitments that I couldn’t neglect. It seemed unfair that my brothers and ex-husband didn’t face the same expectations.

After completing my studies, I wanted to work. Initially, I suggested opening my own law office, but my husband opposed the idea, offering excuses. Later, I considered returning to work in the media, where I had been employed before marrying him. However, he objected, citing concerns about his honor if his wife worked in a visible position. He imposed conditions, stating that while he didn’t need my salary, any job I pursued should offer a good position and salary, which seemed unreasonable for a recent university graduate.

A friend informed me about openings at the AIHRC focusing on women’s rights. Despite my husband’s skepticism, I applied. His response, dismissing my chances but allowing me to apply, reflected his typical attitude of underestimating me. I proved him wrong when I was accepted.

Mursal offering training to police in Afghanistan on women’s rights. © Mursal Sayas

How did you receive the testimonies of the 10 women whose stories you share in your book? 

A part of my job involved listening to victims of violence and following up on their cases across various organizations. Additionally, I monitored prisons, shelters, hospitals, and other places where women’s rights were at risk of being violated. This is how I met them, either directly in my office or during visits to different locations.

Why did you leave Afghanistan in August 2021?

I left my country because I was at risk from the Taliban, facing the possibility of arrest, violence, or worse. I couldn’t stay where my freedom and rights were compromised. I firmly believe that women should not be confined to domestic roles; we possess abilities beyond just managing households. Unfortunately, under the Taliban regime, these abilities are suppressed.

I’ve always been aware of how the Taliban’s rise to power in the past severely impacted women’s rights and development. Living under their rule is a constant torment for every woman in Afghanistan. I couldn’t endure such oppression.

I feel called to advocate for human rights, women’s rights, and equality, a mission impossible to achieve under the Taliban’s regime.

Mursal and her son. © Mursal Sayas

What dreams did you leave behind in Afghanistan, and what dreams did you bring with you?

The common dream that I left behind and carried with me is freedom. My aspirations for freedom were shattered in my country. Despite facing numerous personal and social challenges, I held onto hope that the next generation, particularly my children, would experience equal rights, freedom, and humanity. These hopes were dashed by the Taliban, past political policies, and the irresponsible withdrawal of the international community from Afghanistan. Nevertheless, I still carry the dream of freedom within me. I’ve paid a high price for it—striving for independence, advocating for humanity—and this drive keeps me feeling alive and determined to press forward.

Book signing of “Qui entendra nos cris?” © Mursal Sayas

How were you able to write and publish your book in France?

As you know, I received the support of a group of kind-hearted individuals who believed in me and in the power of sisterhood. These strong women have done so much for various young refugees, and I am grateful for what they did for me. Specifically, Ayyam, in collaboration with Maison Observatoire, facilitated the publication process. Ann provided both financial and emotional support, while Geraldine cared for me like her own daughter. You, Jane, helped organize my thoughts and encouraged me not to give up. Additionally, the unwavering support of other friends, such as Christine Chaumou and Rosa Montireo, as well as my family and children from afar, played a crucial role. It was the trust that all these people had in me that enabled my success.

Mentor and writing coach Jane Mobille with Mursal Sayas. © Mursal Sayas

What was your purpose in writing Qui entendra nos cris?

I wrote the book for many reasons: I didn’t want all those stories to gather dust and remain confined to files and folders. I wanted them to be told, to show people the depth of violence against women and girls. I believe that storytelling is another way to break the cycle of violence. Additionally, I wanted to shed light on the shameful situation of women in so-called democratic countries, emphasizing the absence of legal systems and support organizations to protect them.

In Afghanistan, women are left alone in the clutches of terrorist groups, deprived of basic freedoms like enjoying the sunlight or securing employment to pay for their essential needs, such as hygiene. This is below the minimum standard of living. I aimed to bring the plight of Afghan women back to international platforms. Furthermore, I hoped that this book would serve as a valuable resource for researchers in gender studies and feminism, providing insights for future policies in Afghanistan.

Mursal speaking up for the rights of women at the EU Parliament conference “Feminist Voices in Afghanistan”, Sept. 29, 2022. © Mursal Sayas

What are your goals and projects for the next few years?

What I truly aspire to is to return to university to complete my master’s and Ph.D. degrees. I have a profound passion for academia and envision myself fully immersed in scholarly pursuits. However, as a young woman refugee striving to establish stability on my own, without external support, and simultaneously invest in a secure future for my children while assisting my family in our homeland, it can be challenging to prioritize education and pursue this goal. Nonetheless, I hold onto the dream of one day returning to my country, particularly when it attains freedom, to contribute to the establishment of a secular education system. In the meantime, I am preparing to embark on writing another book, a collection of fiction stories grounded in reality and a novel that I have long dreamed of crafting.

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