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Narrating a Pandemic's Panic- What Women's War Resistance Can Teach Us

Ayesha Ahmad
April 29, 2020
Adult literacy group in rural Nepal.  Economic and educational programs are increasingly endorsed to promote "women's empowerment" in the Global South, but do they deliver on their promise?

image: © Nocem Cocello

Currently, as country by country, the pandemic plunges our societies into crisis, our collective experiences are threaded through a global narrative of trauma. Yet, whilst we are defined by the human-ness that exposes our fragility to the patterns of fate and fatalism of living and dying, our solidarity is hindered by vast vacuums of distances and spaces between the public and the private. Fortunately, we are realising that the phenomenology of illness hooks onto a treasury of stories that may have been dormant and dusty for some time. Revealing the passages of our experiences and the shadows that they bring to light shapes the prism through which the pandemic is perceived. 


Whilst we may be imprisoned because of a virus that escapes our sensory experience and negates the capacity or conscience to perpetuate harm, there remains scope for ways we can find solace.


During some of the harshest times of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, the members of the Golden Needle underground literary network were resistors and revolutionaries of an imposed lockdown of women and their voices. In an image not too dissimilar to present-day city streets around the world, women’s faces covered by cloth, quietly meander and avert the gaze or gait of lone passers-by. Once they reached the discreet and non-descript building, their outward attire presented a scene of a sewing-class. Their true mission, though, was to embroider their visions for their lives and society as if their chapters could unfold through a carpet woven of stories. They spoke their poetry, permeating their silencing with shattering truths and antidotes to the violence they were enduring. Instead, their voices protected them, carved and constructed into two-line structures of a traditional poetic format called a Landay – a Pashto word that means ‘short, poisonous snake’. Emblazoned by births and deaths of war, these Landays refuted the metaphor of war, and so were not weapons, but shields. The imprisonment of the body, the capturing of their freedom, did all but serve their destiny. 


Rather, the symbolism of the women’s resistance to war created a passage for the self and imagination that survived by falling into immediate legacies. Whilst a virus’ survival depends on transmission, women’s war resistance liberated their identity and even in solitude, with an unknown audience, their stories were created from afar. Thus, during these times of suppression, and oppression, to quell the body to kill a virus, the story of ours and of humanity remains, and continues as a mode to create. Through resisting the infiltration of ideologies, these women have formed a legacy, a chain of connections to the embodied traumas that bled and where wounds are imprinted with the words that witnessed their sufferings. 

There remains the weight on voices, the voices that speak through silences and songs and soliloquies and stories. Yet, we must remember that these voices are there. When we emerge from our cocoons, may we find the ways that stories survive. Our words become our freedoms. Resisting war, then, is a narration, a narration of who we are and who we were to be. 


A pandemic is merely a message; within the veins of our verses and of the poems that provide passages to the women who spin stories through silencing, there is a woman censored yet free and silenced yet spoken. May we find our ways to receive her story; to breathe through an imagined freedom and to navigate a conflict that seeks peace through its narration, and this is what women’s war resistance can teach us about a pandemic’s panic.


Dr Ayesha Ahmad is a lecturer in Global Health at St Georges University of London, where she established a Global Health Humanities Hub, and also is an honorary lecturer at the Institute for Global Health, UCL, and fellow of the Centre for Gender and Global Health. Her background is in philosophy and medical ethics and her research interests are in psychological trauma, gender-based violence, and conflict. She works on developing trauma therapeutic interventions based on traditional storytelling and is co-investigator on a five-country project called Storytelling for Health: Acknowledgement, Expression, and Recovery (www.shaercircle.com).

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