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  Curled Up With a Good Book
An interview with Peggy Kelsey, *Gathering Strength, Conversations with Afghan Women*

Tell us about The Afghan Women's Project and how your book, Gathering Strength: Conversations with Afghan Women, came about.

I began the Afghan Women's Project in 2002 when I met a group of Afghan women who came to Austin, TX, on a State Department tour. At that time the media portrayal of Afghan women was all about uniformly sad women and children in need of "saving." The women I met stood out in sharp contrast to this and I was struck with the idea that I, a professional photographer with connections in that part of the world, should go to Afghanistan to uncover and show a more complete picture. I went for six weeks in 2003, and again in 2010 for two and a half months. I started lecturing about Afghanistan in 2004, but by the end of my second trip I saw that a book could bring this information to a much wider audience.

How does Gathering Strength: Conversations with Afghan Women differ from other books about Afghanistan?

Gathering Strength focuses on issues facing Afghanistan's women. Although women were interviewed separately, I arranged their remarks to allow them to "discuss" issues in "virtual conversations." Because I want the book to be a resource for people seeking an unbiased picture of Afghan society, some educated Afghans who helped me, and myself, also offer occasional clarifications of things that some of the women said.

What will the reader learn from Gathering Strength?

I hope they will gain an understanding of the differing nuances, experiences, perspectives, and opinions of Afghan women as well as the culture around them. Gathering Strength is a unique book that offers, as Mavis Leno of the Feminist Majority, says, "[e]verything you need to know about the current situation of women in Afghanistan... through the voices of the women themselves… a first rate lesson in the complexity of the problems Afghan women face and of their unstoppable resolve."

What were your major goals in writing Gathering Strength?

First, I wanted to tell the stories I heard without any slant or agenda beyond being a voice for the women I interviewed, and asking people to support Afghan women.

Second, I tried to interview women from as many different ethnicities, age groups, environments, and social classes as I could, spanning the diversity of Afghan women.

Third, I wanted Gathering Strength to be a sort of primer on Afghanistan so people who aren't familiar with that ancient culture can get a tangible idea of it. To that end, I included a brief history, a glossary for vocabulary and another for people and groups, notes, a bibliography, and an index. I included my own story so people can see who is leading them on this journey, and make up their own minds about my reliability as a guide. The book has interactive sections of questions (and a few answers!) to deepen the reader's experience. These would also be useful for book groups.

Fourth, I want to break down stereotypes, especially around Islam, the Taliban, and Afghan men as well as women. In order to change society, it's important to look at it objectively, in its many diverse aspects, and to avoid blanket judgments.

What's your favorite line from the book?

At a 1987 press conference in Paris, Tajwar Kakar, a leader of the women's resistance against the Soviet Union's invasion, called on abused women in Afghanistan to strike against their husbands. She told them to quit cooking for them, washing their clothes, and caring for their injured if their men were treating them badly. At the end of her account she said, "We showed them the power of women."

What have you learned and what do you hope others can learn through your journeys?

The discussions I had with Afghan women and my experiences in getting there have opened my eyes to different ways of thinking and viewing the world. I've seen myself rise to the challenges that creating and directing The Afghan Women's Project has called for. I've discovered that I can have a much bigger effect in the world than I ever imagined. Through this, I've learned to trust my intuition and stand up for what I believe on a deeper level than before. Gathering Strength will, I hope, open people's eyes and hearts, inspiring others to take on idealistic-seeming projects that can have a profound effect not only on the world around them but on them as well.

What kind of books do you most enjoy?

I don't read according to genres as much as seek out books that expand my experience and awareness. In fiction, I like reading about characters who are very different from me or find themselves in situations I've never experienced. In non-fiction, I mostly read about Afghanistan and that region of the world. Outside of that, I read to expand my knowledge base, whether about how to be a more effective person or about some facet of the world that I find interesting. And I love a good mystery!

Who are your favorite authors?

Khaled Hosseini, Tamim Ansary, TC Boyle, and Mary Doria Russell to name a few.

What are your other interests?

I love exploring with my camera while traveling or in nature anywhere. I love being at home with friends or family, watching memorable films and reading engaging books. I get a big rush out of connecting people and doing things to make a difference in people's lives.

List five random facts about yourself.

  1. I like to discover things that I never knew before.
  2. I require harmony in my life.
  3. I love to dance but have a poor sense of rhythm.
  4. I lived in Iran as an exchange student in college.
  5. I've been happily married to a bush pilot for 35 years.

What is the best way to help Afghan women?

Afghan women can really use our support to help them create the kind of society they want to live in. There are many intelligent, skilled, resourceful women who are dedicated to rebuilding their country and we as individuals can be a part of making that happen by donating to organizations listed in Gathering Strength.

Where can readers find Gathering Strength: Conversations with Afghan Women?

Readers can purchase books on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other places online as well as from my publishing house, Pomegranate Grove Press.

For more on Peggy Kelsey's Gathering Strength: Conversations with Afghan Women visit Barbara Bamberger Scott's review of the book is available here.

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