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Lori Noack: Women Writers Crafting Their Own Narratives

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Lori Noack is the executive director of marketing and development for the Afghan Women’s Writing Project. The project organizes writing workshops and reading salons across Afghanistan for women in both English and Dari. The project helps women find their own voices and gain strength and confidence. It also brings previously untold stories to the world, showing another side of Afghanistan.

The Afghan Women's Writing Project is also one of the partner organizations behind Clarion Project's latest film Honor Diaries, which exposes the devastating effects of the honor culture in many Muslim-majority countries. 

Noack has over 20 years of non-profit leadership experience, along with writing, editing, consulting and arts management expertise. She has been the executive director of nationally recognized music festivals in Oregon and San Francisco, a newspaper editor, the founder of an arts management agency, a university lecturer and a writing instructor. Noack earned her MFA in Creative Writing in 2009. Today, Noack builds AWWP’s North American team to support of women’s rights in Afghanistan.

For more information about the Afghan Women's Writing Project, see their website. They can also be found on Twitter and Facebook.  

The following is an interview with Noack by Clarion Project Research Fellow Elliot Friedland about her organization's work and women's rights in Afghanistan. 

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Clarion Project: Your project empowers women by helping them to tell their own stories in a country where men normally dominate the narrative. What is it about writing and sharing stories that is empowering?

Lori Noack: The ability to express our thoughts and feelings is a crucial step in developing our sense of who we are. When we write our stories, we are able to both discover and craft our own narratives, leading to heightened awareness. Perceptions are altered as we interpret experiences on the page and we are then able to project these new interpretations onto our future. Like an airplane, if we are altered by even one percent, we end up in a different location.

Add these discoveries to being part of a workshop with like-minded and supportive peers and mentors and you have a group of writers able to reshape their defining personal stories away from the oppressive thought patterns ingrained by past experiences into an expanded narrative that creates new possibilities for the future.

As one writer put it,

AWWP gave me the power to feel I am not only a woman; it gave me a title, an Afghan woman “writer.” … I took the pen and I wrote and everything changed. I learned if I stand, everyone will stand, other women in my country will stand.

 

Can you tell us a particular success story about a woman who was able to gain strength and transform her life as a result of your project?

Noack: What is the measure of “transformation”? Let me borrow some words of our writers to answer this question from their perspective. Freshta says,

When I had sorrow inside of my heart and a pain in my eyes, [that] no one can see, I thought to write them down and share with the world… my life was dark and AWWP made my life colorful.

Safia R. says,

I fought and fought with my problems…then when I attend the program of AWWP, it was not sad, disappointing and hopeless messages to discourage me. I saw bravery, I saw leadership improvement, young beautiful women bravely talking, going and fighting for their rights, it made me to write and stay strong like them. I joined with them in this way. Now AWWP means my home of writing.

And who cannot be cheered by Nasima’s experience?

Four years ago before I started writing for AWWP I was a simple person who nobody knew. No one had knowledge of my…pains. Now people all around the world have communicated with me through their comments on the AWWP blog.

When my office manager saw my story…he decided to write about me for our official site.  My writing has been published in other sites and in a book because of AWWP, and also in the Wilson Quarterly.

I received an invitation letter for the International Visitor Leadership Program from the American government after people at the American consulate read my writing and my personal story.

I can tell you that once I was only one lonely person, alone with my pains and my words and now I am part of a world.

A girl at an AWWP women

 

Clarion: There were recently elections in Afghanistan. Are women's rights going to be rolled back under the new Afghan government?

Noack: This is one question for which there is no definitive answer. The new president himself does not hold the power to confirm the answer although his stated intent includes keeping women’s rights as a key agenda item of his presidency and all indicators in these first moments look positive. There are too many variables to know how the coming days will play out.

 

Clarion: What is typically the reaction from Afghan men who hear about your project? Are they supportive or highly critical?

Noack: I hesitate to generalize because I can only speak of the actual experiences we have known. These include reactions that are entrenched on both sides of the question. Several of our writers have experienced negative reaction on a first-hand basis. The outcome has included mild annoyance and ridicule to threats from the Taliban that they must stop writing, to extreme measures being taken to preserve their safety. One young woman was surprised that after her wedding, her husband no longer allowed her to participate in any AWWP activities. Another writer received a “night letter” – a threat to frighten her so that she would stop writing. These women are fighting against restrictive traditions with their pens. Not to say, in any way, that all traditions are restrictive. We are talking about punitive and oppressive traditions that restrict basic rights and freedoms. The right to have a voice. The freedom to express one’s own thoughts and opinions.

Having said that, it’s the other men that most fascinate me. There is one common thread in the lives of each of the strong and determined Afghan women whom I have had the pleasure to meet in person — they had a father who believed in their worth as a human being and who fought for their right to education, even if it was in a secret school. Women and girls who have enjoyed this luxury have such a sure strength of spirit. They have great respect for their fathers who taught them that they are capable of anything if only they will reach for the opportunities that come their way.

Many of the writings on our website speak to this. Look at these small excerpts:

Saifora in “A Father’s Love”:  My father had a very sweet scheme of encouragement for us and, in return, we all would indirectly pay him our respect by respecting his desires for us…

Mahbooba in “My Grandfather’s Gift”: My grandfather has six children: one daughter and five sons and my father is the oldest son. There are thirty-seven grandchildren. He loves all of his grandchildren, but he loves me so much that he named me Mahbooba, which means beloved. He always says to me “You’re my Mahbooba.

Norwan in “My Dearest Angel Father”: You empowered me when you said, ‘If I die, I am sure you will find your way, my wise daughter.’ I am so very thankful for your kindness—a gift that now, since I lost you, feels like a dream.

Hila G. in “My Father, My Hero”:

You faced many difficulties because of me, worked through the cold and hot weather
with tears in your eyes and calluses on your hands.

You took my hand and walked with me
showed me how to smile, and to defend against disaster.
You supported me when the world abused me.
You didn’t leave me alone.

Oh my Father, my hero
I will go forward and fight for my rights. I will be a listener for others.
You showed how to find the light even in a dark room.
How to walk in the desert under the scorching sun.

You made me hopeful when I was lost
You showed me how to live in this dark world.

A street scene in Kabul. Photo by AWWP photojournalist Roya.

 

Clarion: Do you receive negative reactions about your project? Please elaborate. 

Noack: Is there any action in this life against which there is not an equal and opposite reaction? This is part of doing any kind of public work and we forge ahead, continually assessing whether we are staying on track and serving our mission to the best of our abilities. I spoke at an AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) conference last spring and someone got up and left the room early on, just after someone read a poem of hardship by an AWWP writer. Later, he told me that he’d had enough of portrayals of Afghan women as victims. What he missed, had he stayed for the hour, was the transformation that was presented as the readings and discussion expanded to show how women have gained a voice, are gaining strength in their very souls, even when conditions are not improving as rapidly as any of us would like. It is a very complex situation and our goal is always to nurture the creative spirit in the writers, that source that connects us as humans, the expression of which can be validated by others and therefore strengthened.

 

Clarion: As Western forces pull out of Afghanistan will women's rights and their safety be threatened?

Noack: This, too, is a question with an unknowable answer. There is only conjecture in this time of change and shifting roles. I believe, however, that those of us who have a job to do must forge ahead with gumption and persistence, doing all we can to protect the writers while strengthening the power and reach of their words.

One of our writers says in a video that she is regularly threatened by the Taliban. Her response?

When the foreigners leave Afghanistan we will keep AWWP going on… Myself is ready to fight with any kind of challenges…even if my life is under threat. But I never give up. And after foreigners leave Afghanistan, we will continue to write.

For those of us working behind the scenes, our role is to continue sharing the writings with an ever-widening audience (we just had our 2,000th submission!) in order to validate the spirit and voice of Afghan women one by one. At the same time, we seek to nurture the spirit that connects us to one another. For us, this happens primarily through that other mystery that connects us called the Internet. It’s quite amazing, really, the AWWP community around the world, through which we strike up relationships, friendships if you will. It’s important because it speaks to the fact that we all have something to contribute whether we are readers or writers or commenters or funders. AWWP enriches not only the 200+ writers in Afghanistan, it connects thousands of us around the globe, transforming each of us one word at a time.

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David Harris

David Harris is the editor in chief of Clarion Project.