issue 4.1 |  

Journal Issue 4.1
Spring-Summer 2012
Edited by Agatha Beins, Jillian Hernandez, and Deanna Utroske
Editorial Assistant: A.J. Barks
Editorial Intern: Vera Hinsey


Teaching Afghan Women: A History of Struggle

By Shoba Rajgopal

   The important film Afghan Women: A History of Struggle (69 min.) has recently been released with additional interviews, and I have had the honor of being invited to special screenings in New York City. This is one of the most intense and disturbing films I have shown in my Ethnic and Gender Studies classes, and it is among those that have sparked the most discussion too. It is not meant for the faint of heart, full of searing visuals, visuals that might shock and disturb the average viewer who has all too often put aside the Afghanistan issue as one that has been resolved with the arrival of US troops on Afghan soil. After all, wasn't our involvement with that unfortunate country all about rescuing its women? That was the discourse relayed on US networks by then President George W. Bush in his State of the Union address in 2002, barely six months after the Marines had been sent in to save the day. The script of his address is a stark reminder of the argument used to begin the occupation of Afghanistan: "The last time we met in this chamber, the mothers and daughters of Afghanistan were captives in their own homes, forbidden from working or going to school. Today women are free" (Bush 2002).
   The documentary disturbs this illusion right from the opening scenes as Afghan activist Fahima Vorgetts grimly intones, "Four years after the US invasion, the fundamentalists still control Afghan society." The only difference, as she points out, is that one set of fundamentalists, namely the Taliban, have been removed, but another has been set in its place. The outspoken former Member of Parliament Malalai Joya would agree, for as she states, the current government is "a puppet regime made up of 'warlords, druglords, and gangsters'" (Theilheimer 2010). That is, the women of the country are ruled today by the former warlords, whose sexist and patriarchal mindset have not improved an iota. The film is all the more important in the light of current geopolitics, where the United States and its NATO allies stand poised to pull out of the quagmire of Afghanistan. It is the story of a country's slide into anarchy after a brief glimpse of sunshine. Nevertheless, that sunshine is not the product of American magnanimity, as one might imagine, but was brought about by Afghanistan's own rulers. Afghan Women reveals astonishing facts, especially to an American audience that has been kept blindfolded by its own media. One fact is that the former king and queen of the country, far from being feudal despots, had created a constitution that granted equal rights to both genders. This constitution was in effect from 1964 until the country was overrun by the USSR in the late 1970s.
   However, the Afghans in the film refuse to condemn the Soviets outright. They did not support the invasion of their nation by the USSR, yet even then they acknowledged that the Soviets did support women's rights, and the number of women in universities and the professions increased during this puppet regime. It was only when the civil war began in the early 1990s that the infrastructure of the country was destroyed by warring factions, which took its toll on the most vulnerable of the population, its women. Filmmaker Kathleen Foster has utilized archival footage of those halcyon days when young Afghan women in Western clothes attended university and even posed beside the now defunct Afghan Airlines for which they had been flight attendants, a far cry from the images of the drudges in chadors that American audiences may assume has always been the case. The camera pans across urban landscapes crisscrossed by women in their shroud-like chadors, the reality not in the 1960s and 70s but in the 90s. Even today many Afghan women outside the capital Kabul are still afraid to drop the chador as the warlords and their henchmen continue to prey on them regardless of the media discourse on the liberation of Afghan women. It depicts, too, the activists from that most valiant of international women's organizations, RAWA (Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan), whose smuggled video tape of women being stoned to death had aroused the interest of feminists worldwide.
   The amazing courage of the Afghan women activists involved with the film is self-evident in that, just three years after the film had been completed, one of the key activists who attended the conference depicted at the beginning of the film, Safia Amajan, was assassinated by fundamentalists for the "crime" of educating girls. Through activists of their ilk the film undercuts much of the mainstream US media's representation of Afghan women as pathetic victims and represents them instead as valiant warriors battling sexism and racism simultaneously. The film is supported by a feminist troika: including award winning British director Kathleen Foster and interviews with Afghan activist Fahima Vorgetts and Pakistani academic Fawzia Afzal-Khan. They pull back the screen that shields us from the reality of "the Great Game," first played by the British, then by the Soviets, and with the final curtain coming down upon the Americans. The role of the CIA in the saga is not covered up either, for the creation of the Frankenstein monster of Islamic terrorism is laid squarely at the feet of the Western powers.

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