Meeting Malalai

When I heard that Malalai was touring the US, I flew to Sonali Kolhatkar’s (author of Bleeding Afghanistan) California home where the young Afghan would be staying, to meet her. When Malalai walked into living room she seemed quiet and shy but once we began the interview, she became animated and energetic.

Malalai is most famous for her short speech as an elected member of the constitutional Loya Jerga (2003), when she addressed the elephant in the room that Afghans were already cognizant of and asked, how Afghanistan could become a democracy when there were warlords and criminals in the government.  The audience erupted into angry chaos and her three-minute allotted speaking time was cut short after only a minute and a half. Angry lawmakers threw empty water bottles at her and shouted insults and death threats. Supporters and UN security forces gathered around to shield her. She was only 24 at the time. I met her during her first tour of the United States in 2006, after she had been elected as one of 249 Members of Parliament. Her outspokenness got her in trouble there as well and a year and two months later she was banned from that institution also.

At first, I wondered why she didn’t bite her tongue and try to work peacefully to make changes in the laws affecting women.  Surely, that would be a more effective way to change women’s lives. Why stir the hornet’s nest? But then I realized that she wasn’t speaking to the other MPs, who already knew the situation, but to the international press and development leaders who were ready to pour billions in to Afghanistan’s reconstruction. They, too, were likely aware of the horrific human rights records of some of the MPs, but Malalai’s speaking out made that awareness public.

Malalai is also important because she’s a voice from a region across the country from Kabul. Most non-embedded reporters work from Kabul and investigate stories from there. Their view, the dominant one in the media, comes from that perspective and it’s very helpful to hear the voice of someone from conflict areas, especially a woman’s voice.

There is more of my interview with Malalai as well as with other Parliamentarians and women from all walks of life in my book, Gathering Strength: Conversations with Afghan Women which is available in many online bookstores as well as my publisher’s site, Pomegranate Grove Press.


Peggy Kelsey created the Afghan Women’s Project and in 2003 and 2010 traveled to Afghanistan to photograph and interview women. She shares her dynamic slide presentations with audiences around the world. Her book, Gathering Strength: Conversations with Afghan Women, came out in October, 2012.

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Writing: Gathering Strength: Conversations with Afghan Women

Gathering Strength, my book of conversations with Afghan women, is published! I will have books in my hands by October 8th and on Amazon sometime around early November. (email me if you want me to send you a copy before November.) The writing process has taken nearly two and a half years but really, Gathering Strength is the culmination of ten years with The Afghan Women’s Project including two trips to Afghanistan.

It’s been over a year since my last post. I couldn’t tear myself away from writing and editing to write about the book. Now it’s the end of an era of narrow focus with a workaholic intensity.

When I started working on Gathering Strength I never imagined that I was capable of creating a work this profound and this beautiful. Of course it wasn’t all, or maybe even mostly my doing. Editing, layout and cover design have shaped this book into a form worthy of the Afghan women who shared their thoughts and stories with me.

From my last day in Afghanistan in May 2012, when I realized that I needed to and could write a book, I only knew that that I’d need an editor and that I would self-publish so I could maintain control over the material and the timing of publication. As I worked, I found that this book had a life and timing of its own and all I could do was to work as hard as I could (in a way balanced for the long haul) and be open to what came my way. Realizing that probably kept me from going crazy while trying to select from the myriad publishing and other options and it helped me be patient with my unrealistic imagined timeframe.

Thankfully, during the writing and editing, when I awoke in the mornings, I was driven out of bed to begin the day’s writing, a much different experience from the resistance I’d felt during past writing efforts. By the end I couldn’t wait for the writing/editing to be completed, but I never felt it to be drudgery.

As I wrote my early drafts, I dreamed of handing over the manuscript to someone who would transform it into a finished book for me; a knight in shining armor. Oh, well, that didn’t happen. Instead, I worked closely with my editors, going back and forth over different points, sometimes changing my mind, sometimes not. It felt good to have the last word.

The transition from writing and managing my book project to putting it out into the world has been difficult. I suddenly find myself procrastinating and being distracted by the many different fronts I have to engage. Hopefully, soon, I will find my stride. Frequent posting in this blog is one of those new efforts.

I’ll end this post with a quote from the only writer in Gathering Strength, Roya. She says:

I’m going to change my life and think differently. I’m going to experience the things that are my right. I have to show my sisters, my friends, my family, and Afghan women all over the world that we can change if we have a chance.


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Tajwar Kakar Part 1, Birth Story plus 2011 Update

I’ll begin 2011 with the amazing birth story of Tajwar Kakar, a woman I met on my trip in 2003 and again this past spring. I’d love to see her life portrayed on the big screen.

Tajwar Part 1 Birth Story

Tajwar holding a picture of her father (far left)

Tajwar holding a picture of her father (far left)

In 1948, Tajwar’s soon-to-be father was commissioner of the border between the Soviet Union and Afghanistan. The Russians* had gotten control of the Amu Darya River, also known as the Oxus, which runs along the northern side of Afghanistan, and were trying to make the border on the Afghan side of the river. “My father didn’t let them,” Tajwar told me. Six times before, Afghans had tried to negotiate a mid-river border, but had failed. “My father was brought from his post in Farah Province to meet with King Zahir Shah and head up the delegation. Before he left, my grandmother told him that my mother was pregnant. He told my mother that it doesn’t matter whether this child is a girl or a boy, but ‘if I get the river from Russia then it will be a lucky child for me. If I lose this river and Russia makes the border inside Afghanistan, this will be an unlucky child and I never want to see its face.'”

“So every time my grandmother prayed she would say ‘Allah, please help that man. This is an innocent child. When he says he will do this he will because he‘s a very strong Pashtun.’ My grandmother prayed every day that my father would get the river back. On the same day I was born he won back the river.”

“When he got the river he called to his people and told them to bring my child to the border. My grandmother said that I was too young but some people came and made a basket from branches and some very nice cloth. I was put inside and they took off for the border. More than 5000 people followed. When I arrived, my father put me in the boat and we went out into the river where he gave me the name Tajwar which means crown.”

“When he got back to Kabul, my father warned the king about Russia’s intention to invade Afghanistan and of his cousin, Daoud’s intention to help bring it about. Mr. Kakar was ignored, but his sympathies became known within the palace.”

“We moved to Kunduz when I was nine. Two years later, my father was poisoned by Daoud’s people because he was a powerful man and he didn’t support the Russians.”

*Tajwar always referred to the Soviets as Russians, but there were many Soviet troops from Kazakhstan as well as the other satellite states in addition to the Russians.


It’s been months since I’ve updated my blog. But with a new year comes a new determination to be more present in this space. 2010 brought my second Afghan Women’s Project trip to Afghanistan and its subsequent six months of interview transcription and image processing. Finally, my new presentation, Afghanistan 2010, a View from the Ground was crafted and debuted.

2011 will be the year of writing my book on the subject as well as giving presentations throughout the country. In addition to commentary on issues, I will be posting here in this blog elements from the book plus reviews of books pertaining to Afghanistan that I’ve read. And I resolve to post more regularly.

Posted in Afghan Women's Project, AWP 2010, education, Other, Peggy Kelsey, Tajwar Kakar, Uncategorized, women | Comments Off on Tajwar Kakar Part 1, Birth Story plus 2011 Update


Yesterday I attended a lecture by Jen O’Neal on her trip to Uganda. She told us stories of women who had sustained or been forced to perpetrate horrific atrocities.  Although they certainly had residual emotional effects as a result, the women she met were generally not depressed. They had full access to their emotions, both positive and negative.
I thought about this in comparison to Afghan women who, as a result of all they have been through, suffer from a high rate of depression. I saw that there a key difference.
In 2003, when I asked women in Woleyat prison how they support each other, a few told me that when a new woman comes into their room, they would encourage her to tell her story and they would cry together. The crying together would help them bond as each woman in the group would take on some of the storyteller’s pain and by connecting with their own similar stories, they could help heal some of their own traumas.
However, on this trip when I asked women how they most often deal with difficulties they face, many of them told me that they keep their troubles to themselves so as not to add to the burdens of those they love. This is a prescription for isolation and depression.
In both groups, the ones who are moving forward, who are engaged in creating better lives for their children and/or the wider society, heal the quickest and have emotional access to the most joy.
Joy is a state of being that doesn’t fall into the lap of the beholder but must be strived for. Jen O’Neal

Posted in AWP 2010, Other, psychological health, Uncategorized, women | 2 Comments »


Naghia was eleven and living in Baghdad when the Iran-Iraq war broke out. Her father owned a restaurant, but lost it when he was drafted to fight. Being Chaldean Christian, they were otherwise left alone by Saddam’s regime. Even so, times got hard economically, and by the time Naghia got her BA in store management, she had to abandon plans for a Masters degree and work to help support her family. She got a job managing the stores of the Department of Education, earning a decent salary. In the early 90’s however, during the sanctions, her pay was reduced to the equivalent of $2.00 a month, both because the government couldn’t afford to pay her, coupled with the devaluation of the Iraqi Dinar. So, she quit and began doing volunteer work at the church, helping poor families as a kind of case-worker. In turn they helped her and her family. About 11 years ago, her sister had an opportunity to go to the Netherlands and abandoned her son to Naghia’s care. When some of Saddam’s men had begun questioning her father about what he may have overheard as proprietor of his restaurant, and made it clear that they would all suffer if he didn’t cooperate, he decided that he’d rather leave than inform. Read more »

Posted in Iraqi Refugee Women's Project, Uncategorized | 5 Comments »

Isra and life in the "good old days"

Isra was born into an upper middle class family. Her father worked in the oil industry under Saddam. They lived in Basra, in the southern part of Iraq by the Kuwaiti border, until she was 11. She had a nice, carefree life; going to social clubs, swimming, hanging out with her friends and going to school. When the Iran-Iraq war began in 1980, her father was transferred to Baghdad. In some ways the war didn’t affect her external life too much; she still continued with school, she made new friends and lived her teenaged-life. On the other hand, it deeply saddened her since she lost a lot of relatives who were sent off to fight in that war. She’s angry about that war that “was for no reason”. Read more »

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