Taking on the Taliban with Truth: Afghani Women Trade Burqas for Cameras
She is young, pretty, petite. She faces a hostile group of men who claim the Koran decrees that women should cover their faces, and dares to tell them they're wrong. A voiceover translates her commentary: "I will never accept that ignorance and intolerance should hide my face ever again." Later, she turns her uncovered face to the camera, and says in English, "I am not afraid. I am a journalist. I am brave."
It is one of the many riveting moments of the documentary Afghanistan Unveiled. And the young journalist, Mehria Azizi, is the new face of women in Afghanistan. She is one of a group of 14 young Afghan women who trained as camera operators and video journalists at AINA Afghan Media and Culture Center in Kabul. The 52-minute film, written and directed by French video journalist Brigitte Brault with the participation of the trainees, is the culmination of their one-year training course. It airs on PBS November 16, as part of the Independent Lens series. The trainees, who had never left Kabul before, traveled to rural areas of Afghanistan to talk to women about their lives during the Taliban's reign of terror, and afterwards.
Before the Taliban, 40 percent of Afghanistan's doctors, lawyers and teachers were women, according to PBS President Pat Mitchell, who is also a founding member of the US Afghan Women's Council, a State Department-led task force that works to improve opportunities for women in Afghanistan. During the Taliban era, between 1996 and 2001, women were banned from public life, except for providing health care to other women. They were forced to wear the all-encompassing garment called the burqa, or chadari, which covered them completely from head to toe, except for some netting over the eyes. And they were not permitted to attend school.
AINA, which means "mirror" in Farsi, was founded by an Iranian photojournalist in 2001, after the defeat of the Taliban. The French-run, Kabul-based organization's mission is to develop an independent Afghan media. The group trains Afghani journalists, and produces films and publications. One of its most intriguing projects is Mobile Cinema, which travels the countryside screening Afghan-made educational films for villagers. AINA estimates that less than 20 percent of Afghanis have ever seen a film. Films and most other forms of entertainment were banned during Taliban rule.
The women participating in the project were in their teens and 20s. Through Mitchell's involvement in the US Afghan Women's Council, two of them, Jamila Emami and Gul Makai Ranjba, had previously spent time in a mentoring program at various public broadcasting productions and facilities: PBS, the News Hour, NPR and WGBH in Boston. PBS also donated cameras and equipment to take back to Afghanistan.
The AINA training began soon after the collapse of the Taliban regime, and even though many women saw the burqa as a mark of shame and the symbol of women's oppression, few dared to abandon it. Nicolas Delloye, a French producer working with the students at AINA, says shedding the burqa was a challenge the young journalists took step by step. At first, they wore the burqas to and from the AINA compound, taking them off once inside.
"Going out in the streets was a key step," Delloye recalls. "You had to be very strong and proud to do it in February 2002." Unveiled women are now becoming a more familiar sight in urban areas, but outside of the cities, the trainees were sometimes nervous about being unveiled.
Shaista Wahab, an oral history specialist and professor at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, went to Kabul to help train the students to conduct oral histories. She had left Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion in 1979 and had not been back since, and she was stunned by the poverty and destruction. She recalls another challenge for the students—convincing their parents to allow them to travel to the provinces. She and Brigitte Brault, who was the primary instructor, spent hours with the girls' parents, trying to assure them that their daughters would be safe.
"We did not have any kind of security," she says. "Each trip we had three students, Brigitte, a guide, the driver and myself. We had no weapon with us." In spite of their trepidation, the parents agreed that it was important to allow their daughters to participate. In the film, the father of one of them says that educating women is "opening the way for freedom and democracy in Afghanistan."
Several of the students had lost family members to the violence their country endured for more than a decade, and the chilling stories the women heard touched them deeply. A mother whose baby was brutally slaughtered dispassionately describes the atrocity. A young woman who refused to marry a Mujahedeen officer now lives in fear because he threatened to kill her. "I want to study like other Afghan women have done," she sobs, "but I can't even go out in the street." The apprentice journalists are too tender, too close to pretend objectivity. They weep openly as they hear the horror stories.
Perhaps the most compelling story is told by Zainab, an older woman who huddles with other women and children in the caves of Bamyan, with barely enough food to keep them alive. "Where did the Taliban come from? Were they sent by God?" she asks. "They came like a great plague...they looted and killed." All the men of her village were killed, she says. "Hundreds of women; not one has a husband." These women have nothing but their dignity, and they're not asking for handouts.
Zainab wants the government to give them looms so they can weave, and support themselves. This, too, the young filmmakers understand. Delloye says it's been difficult to maintain contact with the women interviewed in the film. But when an American journalist who tried and failed to find Zainab berated the AINA staff for not giving her food, clothing and a cell phone to keep in touch, "I think the girls understood then the difference between journalism and politics, respect and shame," Delloye says.
There is sorrow in Afghanistan Unveiled, and pain and determination and defiance. But there is also the giddiness of young women tasting freedom for the first time, traveling and having adventures, crossing a river on a makeshift ferry, realizing childhood dreams of riding horses. It's those hopeful images they leave with viewers, and may inspire those who follow.
Since completing Afghanistan Unveiled in 2003, the women's film group has completed another documentary, Shadows, about women's rights in Afghanistan, and is working on two more, including a co-production with PBS on the social and political life of Afghan women. Several of the original group are still working full-time at AINA as video journalists. "These young women now have skills that will provide satisfaction, as well as a profession," according to Mitchell. "And putting cameras in the hands of indigenous filmmakers, and giving them these skills, is invaluable."
Wahab notes, "These women have a real task on their hands. It is not easy for them to make substantial changes. But I believe they could be role models for many more young Afghan women." And, Delloye adds, "They also made a great film, full of life, joy, tears, hope and humility."
Margarita Landazuri is a San Francisco-based writer and producer.