Rabia Balkhi is a semi-legendary figure known for being the first female poet in Persian literature. While very little of her poetry remains, her story of love, life, and death are symbolic in Afghanistan and the region. Daughter of either a king or a chief, Rabia lived in Balkh and wrote poetry in secret as it was prohibited for women of that time to do so publicly. Much of her poetry was about Baktash, an enslaved Turkic man she had fallen in love with, in defiance of all social norms. Legend has it that on one occasion, she rode into battle to courageously save Baktash’s life, winning his heart forever.
After the death of her beloved father and the rise of her brother Hares into power, Rabia’s poetry was brought to light allegedly by male poets at the King’s court who were jealous of her tact. To punish her for writing poetry and falling in love with someone from the enslaved caste, Hares cut Rabia’s veins and imprisoned her in a bathhouse where she bled to death. She wrote poetry until her last breath, using her own blood on the white tiles detaining her. For many women in Afghanistan, she’s a symbol of defiance against patriarchy and a continued harsh reminder of the price we’ve been forced to pay for freedom of speech and love.