By M. Mursal
Two months into Taliban rule in Afghanistan, Manizha Bahra, a sociologist in the western province of Herat, decided to form a book club with four of her friends. On October 7, the five friends gathered in a cultural centre and discussed their first book, a Persian translation of The Clown, a 1963 novel by the German writer Heinrich Böll.
“In the darkest moments and when there is no hope, we tried to follow a path that can never be closed and it is [the path of] books,” said 26-year-old Bahra, who comes from a family of poets and writers and has a master’s degree. Her grandfather was the founder of the Bahra Cultural Centre in Herat, where the group holds its meetings.
When others heard about the group, by word of mouth, they joined too. Now Bahra’s reading group has over 40 members, some of whom follow the discussion on the Telegram account of the reading club.
In their meeting at Bahra Cultural Centre, around 10 to 15 members attend every two weeks, where they discuss and critique world literature. They choose books, like Oriana Fallaci’s The Useless Sex, that are both available in Afghanistan, and relevant to what is happening in their country. They come from different backgrounds and professions, from high school students to university lecturers, each eager to learn from each other.
“Since attending the meetings, I have told my friends that I am re-energised for weeks. The meetings give us motivation, where we support and inspire each other,” Bahra told Rukhshana Media.
“We mostly read books that illustrate the hardships women had to endure throughout history around the world, and what they did to make these days bearable,” said Nilofar, 36, a lecturer of Persian literature who asked that only her first name be used. The group also reads novels written in the wake of World War II. They can identify with the survivors of war in these books, said Nilofar, who is a regular member of the group.
“It is a struggle to keep the spirit of the women of Herat alive,” she said, adding that the book club meetings have become their “haven”.
Dr. Sara Haidari, a psychologist who researches the situation of women in Herat, sees the reading group as a kind of activity that can help women recover from what they are experiencing. “It is necessary to increase these kinds of meetings where women can talk and release the negative feelings they hold due to the current [restrictions on women],” Dr. Haidari told Rukhshana Media.
Since the Taliban’s lightning takeover of Afghanistan in mid-August, the majority of women have been banned from work, schools and universities. On Friday, December 3, the group’s leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, issued the Taliban’s first decree on women’s rights. It banned forced marriage, which was a welcome message, but it made no mention of work or education, the areas where women face the most restrictions.
For Bahra, the reading group is just the start. With support of the group members, she hopes to run a special magazine and invite poets and writers, in-person and online, to come and talk about their work.