In 1980, Nadia Anjuman Herawi was born in the city of Herat in northwestern Afghanistan. She was one of six children, raised during one of Aghanistan’s more recent periods of tumult. In September 1995, the Taliban captured Herat and ousted the then-Governor of the Province, Ismail Khan. With the new Taliban government in power, women had their liberties drastically restrained. A gifted student in her tenth year of schooling, Anjuman now faced a future with no hope for education, as the Taliban shut the schools for girls and denied any instruction to her and her peers.
As a teenager, Anjuman rallied with other local women and began attending an underground educational circle called the Golden Needle Sewing School, organized by the young women and mentored by Herat University professor Muhammad Ali Rahyab in 1996. Members of the Golden Needle School would gather three times a week under the guise of learning how to sew (a practice approved by the Taliban government), while in actuality the meetings enabled them to hear lectures from Herat University professors and lead discussions on literature. If caught, the likely punishment was imprisonment, torture, and possibly hanging. In order to protect themselves, the attendants had their children play outside the building and act as lookouts. They would alert the women of approaching religious police, at which point the students would hide their books and take up needlework. The program continued through the entirety of the Taliban governmental rule.
The Golden Needle School was not Anjuman’s only creative outlet while the Taliban were in power. She decided to approach Professor Rahyab, in hopes of having him mentor her in writing and literature. In a time when women were not permitted to leave their homes alone, Rahyab began to tutor the sixteen-year-old Anjuman, and helped her find the voice that would soon captivate thousands of readers. He also exposed her to many writers that would greatly influence her work including Hafiz Shirazi, Bidel Dehlavi, Forough Farrokhzad, and others.
The citizens of Herat suffered the abuses of the Taliban for six years before their purported liberation by the United States-backed Northern Alliance in 2001. Anjuman was 21 and, as she was free to pursue an education, applied and was accepted to Herat University, where she matriculated in 2002 in the department of Dari Literature and Languages. While earning her degree in literature, Anjuman published a book of poetry entitled “Gul-e-dodi” (“Flower of Smoke”) which proved popular in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran.
Anjuman’s husband, Farid Ahmad Majid Neia, graduated from Herat University with a degree in literature and became the head of the library there. Anjuman’s friends and supporters are of the opinion that Neia and his family believed her poetry to be a disgrace to their reputation. Anjuman continued to write despite, and was set to publish a second volume of poetry in 2006 entitled “Yek sàbad délhoreh” (“An Abundance of Worry”) which included poems expressing her isolation and sadness concerning her marital life.
On November 4, 2005, Anjuman and her husband had an altercation. According to Neia, Anjuman wanted to go out and visit family and friends, a common practice during Eid al-Fitr (the final day of the holy month of Ramadan). Neia said he would not allow her to visit her sister’s. Anjuman protested, and they began to fight. That night Neia beat Anjuman until she was unconscious, causing severe bruising and a cut to her head. Hours later, as Anjuman was apparently still unconscious, Neia took her to a hospital by rickshaw. The driver later told authorities Anjuman was already dead when Neia placed her in his carriage. Soon afterward, a senior police officer, Nisar Ahmad Paikar, stated that her husband had confessed to battering her, following a row, but not to killing her. Neia claimed she took poison and confessed to doing so before she died.
Anjuman is said to have vomited blood after having lost consciousness, which doctors believe was the most likely cause of death. Neia claimed that Anjuman had taken poison after their row and had asked him to tell family and friends that she had died of a heart attack. Neia and his family barred doctors from carrying out an autopsy, so no definitive evidence of the actual cause of death was found. Neia and his mother were both arrested for the possible murder of Anjuman.
Neia was convicted of murder for Anjuman’s death and subsequently incarcerated. Tribal elders in Herat began to lean on Anjuman’s ailing father, asking that he forgive Neia for her death in order to shorten Neia’s prison sentence. With the promise that Neia would remain in prison for five years, Anjuman’s father relented. Anjuman’s death was officially deemed a suicide by the Afghan courts, and Neia was released just one month later. Her father died shortly after from the shock, according to Anjuman’s brother.
Anjuman was survived by a six-month-old son, who is now in Neia’s custody. Both "Gole Doudi" and "Yek Sabad Delhoreh" were first published in Agfhanistan. “Gole Doudi” has been reprinted in Afghanistan three times and sold over 3000 copies.
The United Nations condemned the killing soon afterwards. Their spokesperson, Adrian Edwards, said that "[t]he death of Nadia Anjuman, as reported, is indeed tragic and a great loss to Afghanistan... It needs to be investigated and anyone found responsible needs to be dealt with in a proper court of law." Paikar confirmed that Anjuman's husband had indeed been charged. According to friends and family, Anjuman was apparently a disgrace to her husband's family due to her poetry, which described the oppression of Afghan woman.
Poetry in translation
Diana Arterian has translated several of Nadia Anjuman's poems, in collaboration with Marina Omar. Excerpts can be read in Asymptote, The Brooklyn Rail, Circumference, Exchanges, and elsewhere.
A selection of Nadia Anjuman's poetry in English translation appears in the book, Load Poems Like Guns: Women's Poetry from Herat, Afghanistan (Holy Cow! Press, 2015), edited and translated by Farzana Marie. The book includes both Dari and English versions of the poetry of eight Afghan women poets including Anjuman. The introduction also tells the story of Anjuman's life and death in detail, based on interviews with the poet's family, friends, classmates, and professors and research on the ground in Herat.
Cristina Contilli, Ines Scarpolo, and M. Badihian Amir translated Anjuman's work into Italian in a volume entitled Elegia per Nadia Anjuman, published by Edizioni Carte e Penna, from Torino, Italy in 2006.
- Synovitz, Ron (March 31, 2004). "Afghanistan: Author Awaits Happy Ending To 'Sewing Circles Of Herat'". Radio Free Europe. Archived from the original on July 8, 2004. Retrieved July 29, 2010.
- Lamb, Christina (April 26, 2009). "The defiant poets' society". The Sunday Times.
- More details on Nadia Anjuman's story as told by her friends, family, classmates, and teachers can be found in the introduction to the anthology, Load Poems Like Guns: Women's Poetry from Herat, Afghanistan edited and translated by Farzana Marie.
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