Chilling documentary reveals women's struggle for survival in Afghanistan

By Ollia Horton - RFI
Asia  ITV Exposure
© ITV Exposure

British-Iranian correspondent Ramita Navai was in Bayeux, Normandy on Thursday to present the première of her documentary "Afghanistan: No Country for Women", a harrowing look at life under the Taliban. Often using a hidden camera, she witnessed the daily struggle women face to stay alive.

“We're going to a place where women are disappearing,” Ramita Navai's voice says at the opening of the documentary. She is travelling at night in a car, and immediately we get a feel for the clandestine nature of her project.

It is one of several films screened as part of the annual week-long event, celebrating the work of war correspondents from around the world.

It's November 2021, just a few months since the Taliban took back control after the US-led military coalition pulled out after more than 20 years in the country. The economy is in tatters, most women have lost their jobs and only a few schools have reopened, despite promises made by the Taliban.

Wearing a veil over her head, Navai and her director-cameraman Karim Shah travel to Herat in western Afghanistan. They meet a family whose adult daughter has gone missing. She was last seen entering a police station to help her friends who had been arrested for so-called "immoral behaviour".

Under strict Islamic law, women must cover their faces, and especially their hair. Not a strand must be out of place. They are not allowed to travel without a male escort from their family.

The young woman, known as 'Maryam' is eventually able to send a letter to her family, describing the interrogation and abuse with a taser gun.

The investigation leads the journalists to a jail, where women are being held without trial or charge.

Secret camera

At first Navai and Shah are granted access to the men's wing, escorted by 12 armed Taliban soldiers.

The prison director insists that no one is mistreated and everyone gets the justice they deserve. The problem is that these women are not recorded in any formal register – it's as if they don't exist.

The journalists are not allowed to speak to the prisoners, but after some negotiation, Navai is granted access to the women's wing.

The guards don't know she has a hidden camera. She sidles up to the 30 or so women huddled in a courtyard. Maryam is among them and they are able to exchange fleeting words.

“My heart was beating doubly fast as that moment,” Navai told the audience after the film screening, recalling the emotions she felt at the time.

“Luckily, Karim, being a man, was able to chat to the guards and distract them so they didn't notice me turning on my equipment,” she explains.

The moral code of sharia law weighs heavily on the men, and those who refuse to give up information about the activities of women in their families face beatings, torture and imprisonment.

“The honour of a man, of his family, is valued above all else in the Taliban's Islamic vision,” Navai explains.

The women are even afraid of the men in their own families, she recounts. If a woman has been singled out or accused, she brings shame on the rest of the household, causing the men to resent them. Domestic abuse is rife.

Suicide on the rise

In the northern town of Faizabad, girls and women are being forced into marriage with Taliban soldiers, much older than themselves – “a fate worse than death,” one anonymous male witness tells the journalists, describing his cousin's experience.

Throughout the documentary, there are stories each more harrowing than the last.

Navai admits she is haunted by the story of a young woman who tried to commit suicide by self-immolation because she was beaten by her husband. The hospital treating her said records had not been properly kept, but female suicides are on the rise since the Taliban came back to power.

Fast-forward to March 2022, and Navai meets the chief of the Ministry of Vice and Virtue, which has replaced the Department of Women's Affairs.

He does not want to appear in the same shot as Navai, who very boldly confronts him with the allegations of abuse and torture she has uncovered.

Like all the other officials interviewed in the documentary, he insists any claims of abuse are false, and no man would mistreat a woman if he were following strict Islamic law.

Pockets of resistance

Navai says she and her cameraman were able to film and interview relatively freely because they are foreigners, and not considered to be under the same moral code.

However, with this form of freedom comes great responsibility, as Shah pointed out. “I was always fearful that the people who took risks to speak to us would get into trouble,” he told the audience.

The film cannot hide the desperation in the provinces, where sharia law is harsh, coupled with extreme drought, that exacerbates poverty and hardship. It seems that the only real hope is to leave the country – like the key women in the film – who find refuge in Europe.

Despite this bleak outlook, Navai reiterates that there are pockets of resistance, even in the tiniest of forms. Only time will tell if a new, more educated generation will help women and girls exit this dire stalemate.

The plight of women and girls in Afghanistan is also the focus of a free outdoor exhibition with photographs by Kiana Hayeri, until 30 October.