The images of Afghan women presented in western media paint a picture of silent, ghostly beings, floating in shrouds of blue burqas, eyes hidden and faces closed to the world. But one brave woman's documentary is challenging these Western misconceptions to provide a face and a voice for the silent struggles of millions of Afghan women.
Twenty-four year-old filmmaker Mehria Azizi and Afghan radio-journalist Najeeba Ayubi came to the University of Calgary Thur., Nov. 23 to screen Azizi's documentary Afghanistan Unveiled. The film is the first made by Afghan camerawomen, and the pair used it as an opportunity to speak out about the importance of free press in a nation marred by five years of oppressive Taliban rule.
"From my side, it's more important that Afghan women should come to other countries," said Azizi. "If you see this movie you will find that Afghan people, still they have difficulties in the world. They are under the pressure of the culture, under the pressure of economic problems, under the pressure of educational problems. The men and women, both of them, but especially women. I do this for the poor people in hopes the international community, the media, they should help Afghanistan because, still, we need them."
Under the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban rule, which lasted from 1996 to 2001, women were not permitted to attend school or hold jobs. When they left the house, women were required to wear a chador, a long robe with only a mesh opening to see out of, and had to be escorted by a father, brother or husband. If women violated such Taliban decrees they faced public flogging or execution.
"When the Taliban was here I was 13," said Azizi. "When they left, I was 18. Before that I was in school, but when the Taliban came everything stopped. During five years all of the women were inside their houses. There were no jobs, nothing for them."
In 2001, after the September 11 attacks, the United States overthrew the Taliban government for supporting Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Since the fall of the Taliban, Afghan women have been allowed to return to public life.
During her five years of isolation under Taliban rule, Azizi had grown up. Now 18, she began a job as a children's announcer at Kabul National Television and soon enrolled in an all-female course to train women in film journalism at the Aina Media and Culture Centre, an Afghan NGO located in Kabul dedicated to independent media projects .
Despite these advancements, Azizi and the team of five other camerawomen making Afghanistan Unveiled came up against many difficulties while filming.
"In Afghanistan it's the first time we have camerawomen," explained Azizi. "Before that we had more journalists: writers, readers, announcers, some of the ladies work in radio and TV, but we had no camerawomen. That's why it's a little bit dangerous for us. The Afghan men, they think that it's a job for men, not for women."
To film Afghanistan Unveiled the team of six women traveled outside of Kabul--the country's capital and home to approximately 3 million people--to rural areas in four surrounding provinces. For many of the women, it was their first time out of the city and what they discovered was a lot less promising than the slowly reforming attitudes towards women in Kabul and other large cities.
The women discovered abject poverty and continued oppression. Interviews depicted entire tribes ravaged by Taliban soldiers, who killed all the men and many younger women, leaving a single old woman to water down the lentils that feed dozens of orphaned children. The filmmakers cried as they heard tales of a daughter not being sent to school for fear she would be kidnapped and killed. The six women were shocked to discover that in many rural areas women were still not permitted in the streets, and forced to hide under a chador or face beatings or death.
These were only the stories told. In many rural areas, local warlords continue to uphold the same laws the Taliban enforced, and would not allow the filmmakers to talk to anyone.
"It's not important for freedom to be just in the city," said Azizi. "I want freedom for women in the provinces. In these five years, it has not changed for them. In five years it's gotten worse."
But Azizi's work goes beyond the difficulty of just getting an interview, Afghanistan Unveiled can't be screened in Afghanistan and both she and Najeeba Ayubi are risking their safety, and that of their families, by talking to Canadians about their experiences. Such pressure was too great for many, and of the 24 original camera women trained at Aina, only two remain. While many of her friends have quit, Azizi presses on.
"We should stay and stay in more difficulties," said Azizi. "Me and the other girl who is a camera woman, we faced a lot of problems, we got a lot of threats, we got a lot of warning calls and still, it continues, but we are staying."
Ayubi shares the same sentiment and said, through a translator, that she will continue to work 16-hour days as the director of a women's radio station in hopes of bringing light to the Afghan situation.
"I am a journalist myself, but unfortunately the media goes to the negative side," said Ayubi. "The negative news is much more important than the positive news. That's very important to me, to inform the Canadian people, on this side it's a positive war. We are making progress."
Still, Ayubi insisted the current progress is not enough. Both women agreed that if the plight of Afghan women is to improve the international community has to reach out to Afghanistan and help rebuild the economy, which has been crippled by five years of Taliban rule and 20-odd years of Soviet intervention before that.
"Twenty-five per cent of [Afghanistan] MPs are women, that's due to the hard work of the women," said Ayubi. "Now the questions arise: is that enough? The answer to that is negative. Women in Afghanistan need more. Afghan women need to be educated. She needs to learn. She needs to learn to write, she needs to be financially independent. Unfortunately, in some parts of Afghanistan they don't look at women as human beings."
Albeit slow, progress is being made, according to Carolyn Reicher, vice-president of Women for Women in Afghanistan, a Calgary non-profit organization that raises awareness and aids women and girls in Afghanistan.
"Back 10 years ago it was a struggle just to get accurate information," said Reicher. "We have come a long way since then. We need to take a moment to celebrate that Mehria and Najeeba could be here tonight to discuss their experiences because 10 years ago this would not have been possible."