Kathleen Foster's film Afghan Women: A History of Struggle (69 min.) provides a refreshing and rare vision of Afghan women's complex and active roles in Kabul, Afghanistan, during the communist era prior to and after the Soviet invasion and occupation in the 1980s. The interviews with Afghan women from the diaspora who were actively involved in Afghanistan's communist party (the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan) provide a perspective that counters many prevailing representations of gender and of national and international politics in Afghanistan. This film offers an important and arguably necessary counter to the plethora of post-September 11, 2001, films about Afghan women that highlight their victimization under the Taliban and glorify the U.S.-led invasion and occupation and the so-called salvation/liberation of Afghan women. Conversely (and similar to many films on Afghanistan), the film's title and introduction promise a pluralistic reading of "Afghan women," while offering instead a specific and limited interpretation of historical and contemporary political events.
The narrative includes nostalgic representations of an imagined national past by Afghan women without addressing the geographic and class-based differences between the experiences of urban educated women in Kabul and of women in provincial rural areas1 . However, several poignant and important links are made between Marxist intellectualism and women's rights2 . The film documents three decades of political conflict and prominently concentrates on the perspectives of Afghan women from the diaspora and their return to Afghanistan after September 11, 2001.
The contemporary scenes address the role of the U.S.-based organization Women for Afghan Women and of local Afghan women leaders in the formation of the Afghan Women's Bill of Rights (2003). This part of the film subtly illustrates ideological and experiential differences between Afghan women from the Western diaspora and local Afghan women by juxtaposing their views on gender and society, including women's presence in public and political life. Several scenes explore the tensions between women's situated knowledge and conflicting experiences of communism, political Islam, and democracy along with disparate feminist and counterfeminist visions for the country's future. The film’s conclusion shows the signing and presentation of the Afghan Women's Bill of Rights to Afghan President Hamid Karzai with all the fanfare of political theater; while the efforts made to enforce these rights remain quietly on the back burner of state politics in Afghanistan.3
A decided contrast to Foster's film, Beth Murphy's documentary Beyond Belief (92 min.) also attempts to show an alternative vision of Afghanistan and of U.S. geopolitical intervention. Murphy's film focuses on two September 11, 2001, widows from Boston, Massachusetts, and their attempts to connect with Afghan widows by raising funds through Care International. This film's emotive framing focuses on the U.S. widows' belief in common grief across borders and their desire to reconfigure their economic privilege in order to raise funds to support widows in Afghanistan. The film provides examples of the gender politics and the social capital the September 11, 2001, widows harness to raise funds by way of a three-day marathon bike ride from lower Manhattan to Boston. The many interviews and discussions with the two women from Boston also illustrate their own ambivalence about using their social and political status as September 11, 2001, widows as a fundraising tool and their wish to move beyond this label. The naivete with which the Bostonian widows approach assistance in Afghanistan through Care International illustrates important albeit subtle critical moments. Conversely, the film assumes rather than questions the effectiveness of aid, and it does not attempt any critical analysis of the geopolitics, militarization, and neoliberalization of international aid in Afghanistan.4
Both Foster and Murphy include international and local Afghan women's voices and attempt to depict transnational connections and linkages between women across ideological, social, cultural, economic, and political boundaries. Afghan Women includes some of the tensions and divisions among Afghan women, which remind the viewer of the dangers of reducing analyses or visions of Afghanistan to a narrow gender categorization (i.e., women's abilities to overcome and meet across the borders/boundaries of masculine politics). Dissimilarly, Beyond Belief relies more strongly on a narrow reading of women's linkages across geographic and cultural boundaries, while simultaneously highlighting the differences in women's lives and experiences across geographic space. The September 11, 2001 widows travel to Afghanistan, and the film attempts to capture the emotional commonalities of grief and loss between the Afghan and U.S. widows, while highlighting the spatial and social divisions between these women's worlds. Both films provide narratives and illustrations of gender politics that could generate classroom discussions on gender roles and the use of gender as a political and economic tool. It is necessary to show multiple perspectives of Afghanistan; showing additional films such as A View from a Grain of Sand, directed by Meena Nanji, and Enemies of Happiness (Vores lykkes fjender), by Eva Mulvad and Anja Al-Erhayem, alongside Foster's documentary would provide different views of Afghan women's lives and social and political activism.
Jennifer L. Fluri (Jennifer.Fluri@dartmouth.edu) is an assistant professor in the Geography Department and Women's and Gender Studies Program at Dartmouth College. She received her PhD in 2005 from Pennsylvania State University with a dual degree in Geography and Women's Studies. Her research interests include gender politics, geopolitics, social justice, and economic development with a regional focus on south and southwest Asia. She has published articles on feminist nationalism, transnational technologies and political resistance, the gender politics of "western" modernity in Afghanistan, and the spatial and social structures of international aid/development in Kabul.
1Maliha Zulfacar, "The Pendulum of Gender Politics in Afghanistan," in Central Asian Survey 25, no.1-2 (2006):27-59.
2David B. Edwards, “Origins of the Anti-Soviet Jihad,” in Afghan Resistance: The Politics of Survival, ed. Grant M. Farr and John G. Merriam (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1987), 21-50; Valentine M. Moghadam, “Revolution, Religion, and Gender Politics: Iran and Afghanistan Compared,” in Journal of Women’s History 10, no.4 (1999):172-95; Valentine M. Moghadam, "Women, the Taliban, and the Politics of Public Space in Afghanistan," in September 11, 2001: Feminist Perspectives, ed. Susan Hawthorne and Bronwyn Winter, (North Melbourne: Spinifex, 2002), 260-84; Jennifer L. Fluri, "Geopolitics of Gender and Violence ‘from Below,’" in Political Geography 28, no.4 (2009):259-65.
3Deniz Kandiyoti, “Old Dilemmas or New Challenges? The Politics of Gender and Reconstruction in Afghanistan,” in Development and Change 38, no.2 (2007):169-99; Deniz Kandiyoti, "Between the Hammer and the Anvil: Post-conflict Reconstruction, Islam and Women's Rights," in Third World Quarterly 28, no.3 (2007):503-17; Rina Amiri, Swanee Hunt, and Jennifer Sova, “Transition within Tradition: Women's Participation in Restoring Afghanistan,” in Sex Roles 51, no.5-6 (2004):283-91.
4Sippi Azarbaijani-Moghaddam, "The Arrested Development of Afghan Women," in The Future of Afghanistan, ed. J. Alexander Thier, (Washington, DC: United States Institute for Peace, 2009): 63-72; Jennifer L. Fluri, "’Foreign Passports Only’: Geographies of (Post)Conflict Work in Afghanistan,” in Annals of the Association of American Geographers 99, no.5 (2009):986-94.