Speech voor PEN Spreekt: Afghan Stories

Hieronder vindt u de speech die is uitgesproken door PEN-voorzitter Sophie Zijlstra op 19 december, tijdens de ‘Afghan Stories’-bijeenkomst in De Balie.

Deze middag is terug te kijken via de volgende link: https://debalie.nl/debalie-tv/afghan-stories/

Dear friends,

Welcome! A special welcome to Samay Hamed, Jalil Azad and Shah Tabibi. My name is Sophie Zijlstra and I am the chairwoman of PEN Netherlands.


On November 21st 2021, the acting minister of the Taliban’s Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, Mohammad Khalid Hanafi, issued the heavily restrictive media guidelines during a meeting with Afghan journalists and representatives of the few remaining media networks in the country.

The guidelines seek to reimpose the Taliban’s ultra-conservative views on Sharia across Afghan civil society, severely constraining the space for free expression. Measures in the guidelines include the prohibition of drama series with female actors, the banning of any electronic media that portrays the Prophet Mohammad or other religious figures and the forbidding of any comedy or satirical program that may cause humiliation or insult. The guidelines also include a provision instructing female journalists to wear the ‘Islamic hijab’, although details on the specific veil required were not provided[1].

The days are short and it’s dark outside, my friends. Yet here we are we today to pay tribute to the writers, the poets, the essayists, the journalist and to all those who create new horizons with their words for Afghanistan.


I will dedicate the ‘empty chair’ as is the habit with PEN gatherings.


Empty chair

Worldwide there are countless writers who may or may not be brutally silenced because their pen is considered subversive. They are threatened, intimidated, forced into exile, arrested or killed. In all cases: prevented from being here today.

Next to me is an empty chair. The Empty Chair is a concept of PEN International, and it symbolizes the writer who cannot attend due to imprisonment or is otherwise not free to speak

Today the empty chair represents not just one individual but, today the empty chair represents all women in Afghanistan.


All women in Afghanistan who are now denied the ability to participate in gatherings like we have today and for whom it is impossible to freely express themselves without having to dislocate themselves from their homeland and live in exile. Women’s voices must be heard and respected. Not censored or dictated.


To honour the women in Afghanistan I’ll read some landays. Originating thousands of years ago, landays are usually anonymous, and composed of two lines of 22 syllables.

Landai are folk poems that can be funny, sexy, raging or tragic and have traditionally dealt with love and grief. The word landai means “short, poisonous snake” in Pashto. The poems are collective — no single person writes a landai; a woman repeats one, shares one. It is hers and not hers. Although men do recite them, almost all are cast in the voices of women.

‘Landai belong to women,’ said Safia Siddiqi, a renowned Pashtun poet and former Afghan parliamentarian. ‘In Afghanistan, poetry is the women’s movement from the inside.’


One notable example is by warrior war poet Malalai: ‘Young love if you do not fall in the battle of Maiwand; By God someone is saving you as a token of shame.’

Malalai, an Afghan heroine who famously fought during the second Anglo-Afghan war, called out this landay during the 1880 battle of Maiwand. Locals believe Malalai’s landay motivated the fighters to ultimately defeat the British invaders.

They often rail against the bondage of forced marriage with wry, anatomical humor. An aging, ineffectual husband is frequently described as a ‘little horror’. This is from Gulmakai, a 22-year-old woman in Gereshk, Helmand Province.

Making love to an old man is like
Making love to a limp cornstalk blackened by fungus.

“I know this is true,” she announced. “My father married me to an old man when I was 15.” She said she made up poems all the time, as she cooked and cleaned the house.

But Afghan women have also taken on war, exile and Afghan independence in poetry. I’ll read you some:

I Call. You’re stone
One day you’ll look and find I’m gone


May God destroy the Taliban and end their wars.
They’ve made Afghan women into widows and whores.


When sisters sit together, they always praise their brothers.
When brothers sit together, they sell their sisters to others.


Yesterday evening when we were having dinner, Samay Hamed recited a beautiful landai:

When my lover is laughing,

It seems like somebody is weaving a velvet cloth.


Meena Muska (Meena means ‘love’ in the Pashto language; Muska means ‘smile’) lost her fiancé last year, when a land mine exploded. According to Pashtun tradition, she must marry one of his brothers, which she doesn’t want to do. She doesn’t dare protest directly, but reciting poetry allows her to speak out against her lot. She has written:

My pains grow as my life dwindles,
I will die with a heart full of hope.


And finally, a beautiful landai by Lima Niazi, a 15-year-old Pashtun woman in Kabul who addressed her latest poem to the Taliban:


You won’t allow me to go to school.
I won’t become a doctor.
Remember this:
One day you will be sick.





[1] Information from: PEN International.org