Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Afghan Women Break out of the Mold

I recently came upon the film Daughters of Afghanistan in my local library. I wasn’t sure of what to expect, but upon watching it I was pleasantly surprised. The 2004 documentary is a refreshingly clear look at the lives of Afghan women following the fall of the Taliban after the 2001 American invasion.

Canadian journalist Sally Armstrong traveled to Afghanistan multiple times to interview women across the social and class spectrum and track the changes in their lives. She presents Dr. Sima Samar, who has served as a physician, deputy prime minister, and minister of the Department of Women’s Affairs; Hamida, the principal of a high school for girls; Soghra, a mother made desperate by poverty; Kamala, who fears her next pregnancy will kill her; and Lima, a young teenager who has taken on the responsibilities of her parents and grandparents, killed by war. The documentary intertwines the voices of these women with narration by Armstrong. The film aims to show the strength and humanity of the women of Afghanistan. In the opening credits, the camera pans over the faces of the main women interviewed. When one lifts her burqa to reveal her face, it’s shocking how much realer she becomes.

There are several pitfalls that tend to come with attempting a film like this. There’s the supremacist overtone that can often be heard when a Western journalist looks at the lives of women in a war-torn third-world country. It becomes an issue of cultural superiority, and the women discussed are reduced to objects of pity who desperately need the aid of the (usually American) guardian angel. Luckily, Armstrong doesn’t do this. She shows Afghan women standing up for themselves without relying on Western leadership. There still are, however, moments that hint of an “I know better than you” attitude, such as when she asks Kamala (spelled on the DVD case “Camellah”), who can’t imagine refusing her husband sex, “Kamala, do you know what ‘rape’ is?” The teacherly tone hints of condescension. I would love to see a similar film made by an Afghan woman, but I acknowledge the role of the privileged position Armstrong holds. If a white journalist were killed in Afghanistan, for example, it would make the news with a bigger splash than the death of an Afghan woman — assuming the latter would even appear on the radar.

Another potential pitfall is painting the situation in binaries. Islam usually becomes the antagonist of women’s rights. Although the documentary focuses primarily on women’s lives without deep analysis of the role of religion, Armstrong denounces the Taliban’s actions as “perversions” of Islam and never implies that Islam itself is the cause of the abuse of women as many American documentaries do. The burqa is decried for its erasure of women’s identity and, in its de facto necessity, as a symbol for the lack of safety for women in public. But Armstrong never gets hung up on the scarves all of the women interviewed wear draped lightly over their hair. Nor does she equate religiosity with adherence to the demands placed upon women by the Taliban.

While Islam is never painted as a source of evil, neither is the United States portrayed as a bastion of righteousness — an image that’s easy to find in discussions of the aftermath of the war on Afghanistan. Perhaps because it’s not American but Canadian, the film shows the self-serving choice of American congressmen to at best make empty promises to Afghan women and at worst attend photo-ops with American troops instead. It’s willing to criticize the invasion of Iraq, which was not as unpopular during the film’s release as it is now. Politics doesn’t dominate the film, but it gains a mention. Political forces fighting against women’s rights are addressed, and an Afghan woman notes, “Women’s rights is something that’s very easily negotiated out.”

The film also gets points for showing ethnic diversity in Afghanistan, and for including Afghan men — although the emphasis is on women — who aren’t women-hating and brutal, such as the husband who urges his wife to seek help at a widow’s shelter to keep her and their children alive.

It’s not a flawless film, and at just under an hour — 58 minutes — it’s quite short. But it succeeds in painting a picture of Afghan women as strong, resilient, and defying the molds placed upon them by the Taliban and Western assumptions. I hate to turn to the clichéd phrase “lifting the veil” — burqa in this case — but it’s rare to see portrayals of Afghan women beyond photos of burqa-clad crowds and horrifying reports of self-immolation, so I’m tempted. It’s that Daughters of Afghanistan does “lift the burqa,” both literally and figuratively. It shows the women with complex lives, personalities, and identities: women to look up to in admiration, not down upon with pity.