“When you go home, please tell them we are not terrorists,” said Flouran Wali, describing the sentiments of the Afghan women she has helped in Jalalabad over the last three years. Wali, a native of Afghanistan and involved with various relief organizations there, delivered her comments following the viewing of a documentary on the country last Wednesday in an event at the Institute for Peace & Justice Theatre sponsored by Voices for Women, a San Diego-based group that seeks to raise awareness of international issues.
The 2003 documentary that was at the center of the discussion, “Afghanistan Unveiled,” was created and directed by a group of young Afghan women immediately following the overthrow of the Taliban government in 2001. Freed from Taliban restrictions on the education of women, the film follows these aspiring journalists as they leave the relative comforts of Afghanistan’s capital city of Kabul and head out into the world of extreme poverty and religious repression that makes up much of the rest of the country.
In an early scene, the women travel to Bamiyan, the former home of two giant statues of Buddha that were destroyed by the Taliban for being “insulting to Islam.” There they speak with members of the Hazara community, an ethnic group with a long and bloodied history of being oppressed. One old woman, Zainam, describes in excruciating detail how the Taliban “came like a great plague” and murdered countless members of her community, orphaning a majority of the children. She describes the community’s abject poverty and lack of resources by recounting how “we eat lentils for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” and rhetorically asking, “meat, what is that?”
An issue frequently raised in the film is that of the chador, a long cloth that covers the majority of a woman’s body and face that was strictly required by the Taliban government. In the rural towns, which often lack proper housing, electricity and running water, women still typically wear the chador and are rarely seen in public. One man states that only a woman’s immediate family or husband should see her face, still an extremely popular opinion outside of Kabul. Despite the lifting of Taliban-era laws mandating the wearing of the chador and banning photography, many women refuse to be filmed, often leaving the directors scrambling to find a willing subject to interview.
Following the film was a discussion featuring Flouran Wali and Dr. Huma Ahmed-Ghoush, an Associate Professor in the Department of Women’s Studies and the Center for Islamic Arabic Studies at San Diego State University. Asked their opinions of the film, Dr. Ahmed-Ghoush, who just returned from Kabul, described it as an accurate depiction of the country, though she criticized it for portraying the oppression of women as solely to blame on the Taliban, which only came into power in 1996, and not on the thousands of years of tribal culture that existed before them. Ms. Wali, who met the directors, noted that they were “constantly getting threats” for their parts in the film, and that the situation in Afghanistan had significantly deteriorated since its release.
In a broad commentary about the situation in Afghanistan, Dr. Ahmed-Ghoush offered strong criticism of the United States’ reconstruction effort, noting that “things are developing in terms of massive buildings” in Kabul, but that outside of those enriched from the illegal opium trade and foreign aid, the rest of the country remained mired in extreme poverty. In her recent visit, she described what she saw as a “sense of hopelessness,” saying, “it was depressing this time.”
Asked how the United States was responsible for the current situation, Dr. Ahmed-Ghoush cited a poor reconstruction process that only enriched a corrupt few politicians and non-governmental organizations but neglected the rest of the country. She traced the current situation back to both the Cold War and the 1970s, when she claims the rival world powers began to show an interest in building oil pipelines through the country. “It’s really all about oil,” she continued, describing how concern over the control of the oil supply sparked the United States to fund the Islamic extremist mujahideen to fight the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the late 1980s – a group that included Osama bin Laden and would later form large parts of both the Taliban and al Qaeda. The combination of these “crucial mistakes” has resulted in what Dr. Ahmed-Ghoush termed a “much stronger anti-American sentiment… because nothing is happening” in terms of progress for the average person in Afghanistan.