What Afghanistan's Young Female Leaders Are Fighting For

Sahar Fetrat
“Feminism means the commitment to holding my camera and walking in the streets of Kabul. Feminism means to actively challenge patriarchy through my confidence,” says Afghan filmmaker Sahar Fetrat boldly. “It means the courage to raise my hand and use my voice on those bitter moments when sexism and inequality shout.” Through all the slogans, commerce and digital noise that contemporary feminism has been twisted to embody in the West, it is powerful to hear such an active answer to the question, “What does feminism mean to you?”
Given that the answer comes from Afghanistan, it is even more astounding. The country is widely regarded as one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman. Being outspoken in the name of women’s rights can cost you your life and even working can have dire consequences. In December of last year, five female airport workers were gunned down. Reportedly, they’d received death threats from those who disagreed with them having professions – this is now regarded as the motive for the attack. In March 2015, the brutal murder of Farkhunda Malikzada sent shockwaves around the world. She was beaten by a mob, set alight and thrown into a river in Kabul after a rumour circulated that she’d burnt the Koran. Many came to see her death as that of a martyr for women’s rights in Afghanistan.
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In the wake of Farkhunda’s murder, hundreds of women flooded the streets holding her coffin and pushing the hands of men away from her body. Among the protests, Afghan actress Leeha Alam reenacted the killing for all to see. These very visual acts of defiance contradict the narrow portrayal of the 'meek women' hidden behind blue burqas that was propagated by Western media and ultimately used as a justification for military intervention. Sahar agrees: “Most Western feminists think all Afghan women are suppressed, jailed in a burqa and not doing much. In some ways, this is true, as within this patriarchy we are oppressed. Yet I think it is worth recognising that we do fight on a daily basis.”
Sahar believes this fight is critically important. “At this point, our fight is not about wearing a hijab or not. At the [current] time, the hijab is not our biggest problem. Our biggest problem is to fight each day to prove our existence and capabilities. It is constant and takes a lot of energy but its importance is not really recognised or supported from the outside.” In Sahar’s film work, which challenges gender stereotypes through documentary, she seeks to alter larger societal problems by attempting to shift everyday attitudes.
Participant of the Sahar Speaks programme
Since the fall of the Taliban and the American invasion, there has been an internationally supported effort to fund women’s organisations and enshrine formal rights into the legislature in Afghanistan. And in a recent article for The New York Times, journalists Zahra Nader and Mujib Mashal point out that more Afghan women have begun to assert their legal rights but, still, it is the human attitudes that are toughest to change. In response to this, Afghanistan’s new generation of female leaders are taking to the streets to educate their fellow citizens.
Graffiti artist Shamsia Hassani does this by spray-painting the city of Kabul. Known for her bold imagery of women in burqas and use of symbolism, Hassani was inspired by a series of classes aiming to put art on the streets, refusing to be put off as an artist by Afghanistan’s lack of galleries. “People didn’t have money to visit galleries and exhibitions… I was inspired by giving everyone a chance to see your artwork, observe it and learn from it. This is what really drew me to the medium.” While graffiti is illegal in most of Europe, she believes that “artworks on the walls that once had bullets and ruins change the shape of the environment positively.”
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Despite Hassani receiving international recognition as the country’s first female graffiti artist, she still faced problems due to her gender. Her family has always been fiercely supportive of her but as she puts it, “Most of my audiences are ordinary people who believe I am doing something wrong just because I am a woman. They say bad things and try and make me feel bad for what I am doing. Their intention is to force me to stop doing it.” Clearly, the fight for women’s rights and visibility in the country is still far from mainstream.
In the case of Sahar, it was also her decision to work in plain sight that caused her problems. Despite personal risk, she believes that it is only by working in public that will change the hearts and minds of her society. “It was really challenging at first to hold a camera and go to communities or go into the streets,” she recounts. “People show different reactions when they see you with a camera; I have been hit by small rocks, tomatoes and fruit. I have also been harassed while filming and once a young man slapped one of the women in my film while she was buying a bicycle.”
Two participants of the Sahar Speaks programme shoot overlooking Afghanistan
Most people would be put off by flying fruit and the feelings of intimidation whereas Sahar managed to draw motivation from it. In 2013, she decided she wanted to highlight street harassment in Kabul because “people wouldn’t talk much about [it]” so she followed her instincts to use film to “force it out to show how it affects me every day as a young woman.” The film is groundbreaking and bold; her use of a hidden camera to showcase her own harassment demonstrates her innovation as a filmmaker but also her bravery as she places herself in the crossfire to better the lives of others.
After the film, Do Not Trust My Silence, won a prize in Italy, it was broadcast on Afghan TV and social media. Once openly in the public eye, Sahar was hit with abuse and people denying the problem of harassment. Yet for Sahar, this didn’t matter. “It created a vibe,” she tells me, “people talked about it and many young girls came forward about the issue. Due to my film, I have seen many more women and men talking about harassment and the intensity of it. People started doing more research about it and this has led to a decrease of it in Kabul.” Grinning, she adds, “This really showed me the power of a voice and a video. It showed me that, if others see one woman speaking up and doing something, they’ll believe they can do the same!”
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Sahar Fetrat
Fuelled by this realisation, Sahar decided to found a production company, for which she is currently raising funds. Her hope is that it can become a sustainable platform for other young female filmmakers, as “holding a camera and being able to tell stories has empowered me on a personal level and I want to do the same for others, so they can produce more work and tell more stories.”
I ask her what sort of stories she’d like her company to produce, and she’s quick to answer: “I want us to be able to tell the world about the Afghan women who are not just the ‘victims’ or the champions. I want to tell the stories that the rest of the world has missed when concentrating on war; the stories of the women who are survivors. The stories of women like my mother, who don’t know the term 'feminism' but live all their life in a country which consumes and produces patriarchy. Yet every day, they stand strong and have raised their daughters to become their voice.”
Of the future Sahar foresees for her own potential daughter, she is uncertain. Given that the Taliban recently killed 140 soldiers in an army base a few days after America dropped ‘the mother of all bombs’ in the country, this uncertainty is hardly surprising. In provinces such as Kunduz, where the Taliban has advanced, female activists have fled – but their husbands were still shot by association.
Wisely, she says: “I don’t want to leave my country because these backwards ideas will be able to take control again if all the women like me leave. Here, there are many things which I wish to see changed in our lives as Afghan women but I know this will take a lot of sisterhood, support and courage. For now, I just hope for and ask for that.”
Illustrating the article are photos from the Sahar Speaks programme that inspired Sahar Fedrat to set up her own organisation. In 2015, award winning journalist Amie Ferris - Rotman founded the programme to nurture the voices of Afghan female journalists. More of their work can be found here. You can help raise funds for Sahar's production company here.
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