Shaista Wahab, the oral history specialist on AFGHANISTAN UNVEILED, talks about the making of the film, the difficulties of finding women to interview and the shock of returning to her native country after more than two decades in the United States.
Oral History Specialist for AFGHANISTAN UNVEILED
Wahab was born in Kabul, Afghanistan. She graduated from Kabul University’s department of history and geography and was awarded the Colombo Plan Scholarship to pursue graduate studies in India, where she earned a master’s degree in library and information sciences at the University of Delhi. She returned to Afghanistan and worked at the Kabul Public Library and the United States Agency for International Development for a year before immigrating to the United States in September 1981.
In October 1981, Wahab began her work at the University library at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where she also earned a master’s degree in history. She is now a professor at the university, and her most recent publication is Beginner's Dari (Hippocrene Books).
How did you get involved with AINA and AFGHANISTAN UNVEILED?
I got involved with the documentary through the Asia Foundation… [which] partnered with AINA to train Afghan women journalists. The Foundation was looking for an individual with some experience in oral history to teach the students and help them gather first hand factual information. They contacted me and agreed to help with the project.
Editors Note: AINA, the Afghan Media and Culture Center in Kabul, provided a one-year training course for the 14 young women filmmakers of AFGHANISTAN UNVEILED. The Asia Foundation, a non-governmental organization, provided financial support for the filmmakers’ training and transportation.
What was your role on the film?
I spent about nine weeks with students—November/December 2002 and February/March 2003. I trained the students on how to gather information through interview, how to conduct an interview, what questions to ask. Brigitte [Brault, the film’s director and writer] and I also made contacts with interviewees.
I traveled with the students to several provinces and conducted several interviews for the documentary while the students were watching me to learn how to conduct an interview. The first interview in the documentary with Zainab was mostly conducted by me.
What did you and filmmakers hope to achieve with the film?
I wanted to reach those women that lived in remote parts of the country. They are often forgotten. Most women that we interviewed told us that we were the first group to talk to them. I wanted to listen and to bring their stories to the world’s attention. We hoped that the documentary would help to improve the situation for women in Afghanistan.
The students felt that they were responsible to use their training and to document the real stories of Afghan women and bring the stories to the attention of others. It was the first time that they had left their homes without a family member. Women in Afghanistan are often not allowed to travel alone. Brigitte and I spent several hours with family members of each student trying to convince them that their daughters would be safe with us. I am glad that finally the students were allowed to travel. It was the greatest achievement for the students and it boosted their self-confidence. I hope they continue traveling and prepare more documentaries.
How were the journalists that were involved in the film chosen to participate in the training? Did they receive any pay for their work?
The training program began in mid-2002. AINA had advertised that they were planning to train Afghan women for a yearlong program and students came to AINA and were interviewed by Brigitte and were selected for the program.
Some of the students were the only breadwinners of their families. The students did get paid in U.S. dollars while they were in training. The amount that they were receiving was more than double than that any Afghan government officials would receive.
What were some of the challenges involved in making the film?
We had not arranged any of the interviews in advance. We had no means of communication between Kabul and the other provinces to which we traveled. When we arrived in a province, we had to find women to interview. We did not know anyone and had no idea where to start searching. We went to places where we thought that we would be able to find women: refugee camps, ruined buildings, schools, government offices, etc. I was talking to people most of the time since Brigitte did not know the Dari language. The interviews were conducted in Dari (or Persian, which I myself spoke) and Pashto, the two official languages in Afghanistan. Women were eager to talk to us.
I was very pleased that the women we interviewed were mostly very open, willing to talk to us and told us all about their lives. Most of the women thanked us for talking to them, and they told us that they feel a burden had been taken
off their shoulders after they shared their stories.
Tell us more about the interviewing process used in the film. How did you gain access to the subjects and gain their trust?
It was not easy to contact women. Sometimes men would not allow us to talk to women and would talk to us on behalf of them. Of course we did not want that.
On each trip we took three students, accompanied by Brigitte, a guide/contact, a driver and myself. During the actual interview only the three students, Brigitte and I were present. One student or myself was asking questions, another student was filming and the third was taking notes and preparing the tapes.
Were there any situations that you felt were dangerous? Any especially memorable situations?
We were often in areas that we had never been in before, not knowing if there were Taliban members or fundamentalists nearby who would attack us for not covering our faces.
The most touching situation was that when we were in Herat talking to people in a refugee camp. I noticed an older lady sitting in front of a wall, facing the street. She must have been in her late 70s or 80s. I went and sat next to her and started talking to her. She seemed to be suffering from some kind of mental disorder, which I assumed was the result of wars. She had no recollection of any thing. She was all messed up, but she would not let me go. She wanted me to talk to her more. I could never forget her face.
When was the film shot? What was happening in Afghanistan at the time? How were women being treated in general?
The film was shot in November and December 2002. It was about a year after the Taliban had been removed, and people were glad that the terror was over and they were happy with the international attention and help given to Afghanistan. They were pleased with the government of Hamid Karzai. Women had begun to participate in various aspects of social, political and educational affairs of Afghanistan. Some women were still afraid to remove their chadri [the full-body veil also known as a burqa] and were not sure if the Taliban were still around. We had a few students that were wearing chadri when they were coming to class. They would remove their chadri when they were inside the AINA building.
Women were treated with respect. However, in some areas people had not seen women without chadri and also holding a camera. They were crowding around the students to find out what was going on.
Do you feel that your position as an Afghan American oral historian gave you a unique perspective in working on this film? If so, how?
For the film, I returned to Afghanistan for the first time after 23 years. I believe that I lived in Afghanistan during the country’s best years. There was no discrimination against women at that time. Women dressed in western clothes and no one questioned or cared. In my life, I have never worn a chadri. I attended Kabul University and rode my bike to school every day.
Going back after 23 years and seeing how things had changed was shocking to me. Seeing how women were struggling to establish themselves in society was hard to believe. Some students were not aware of how things were for women 23 years ago.
Working with this documentary brought me to the bitter reality of women's life in Afghanistan during the oppressive regimes. I feel fortunate that I was able to listen to people, but I hope that I could change anything to make life better for them. The situation for women has changed after [the Taliban came to power], and in less than ten years women have lost most of their rights and were treated as second-class citizens.
What else had changed in Afghanistan since you left in 1979?
Everything was completely changed. I was very unfamiliar with my surroundings. The first shock was the Kabul International Airport. As I remembered it the airport was nice, modern, with a nice cafeteria on the second floor. When I got there I did not see a second floor. It was winter and there was no heating. Some windows were broken. Abandoned military equipment was scattered around the airport.
Coming out of the airport, the street that I had traveled many, many times before looked different, dirty. There were ruined houses. Extreme poverty was noticeable all around me.
I tried twice to find the house that I used to live for many years. Things had changed so much that I did not recognized the street and could not find the house. Kabul was completely destroyed. Returned refugees lived in ruined buildings, or were still living in tents.
What are you working on now?
I am a librarian at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and the curator of the University library’s Arthur Paul Afghanistan Collection. Beside my library work, I am doing some research on Afghanistan for my personal interest. I am not working with AINA or with any journalists at the moment
What do you think are the most pressing concerns for Afghan women today, in 2004? Do you feel there is hope for a brighter future for Afghan women?
As long as warlords remain in positions of power, things may not change much… Women have begun to work, attend schools and participate in politics. But to change their situation back to where it was before the Taliban may take a long time.