Back home safely from Afghanistan after filming with Shugufa for Time For School. A trip I must admit began with ambivalence about going. It was almost seven years since my last trip there and much had changed. The Americans and the coalition forces have all but pulled out, and I wondered if it was just too dangerous to risk my life. There had been several bomb explosions recently, and all my family and friends thought I was crazy to even contemplate going to such an unstable country.
After some thought I decided I needed to go and finish the project I had started. I was curious about how my character Shugufa was doing after first meeting her as a 15-year-old in a village in Kapisa province, a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Kabul. I decided to risk it and go. I thought, if I take all the normal safety procedures and risk assessments and keep a low profile then like the majority of people who live there, I should be relatively safe.
To my horror on the day of arrival I was met by one of the worst multiple bombings in Kabul killing 80 people and injuring many many more. Bomb explosions and attacks in Afghanistan are not new, but unlike the previous ones which had targeted hotels or restaurants aimed at Westerners, or a random explosion in traffic, this one was all the more devastating because it was an attack on democracy. People had taken to the streets in peaceful protests as a way of exercising their democratic right and holding the government accountable. So the attack on an organized peaceful demo of some two thousand people jam packed like beans in a tin, with local and foreign media present, was all the more significant. This was a warning message to a young generation inspired by images on social media of other young people going out in mass demonstrations from Greece to France to Kiev. For them this is about practicing democracy and not just turning up to vote. The fragility of life and circumstance was brought into sharp focus but more importantly an awareness of the backdrop to Shugufa’s life in present day Afghanistan. I began to understand why the family had been so reluctant for us to come back to film with her. They explained that giving Shugufa a high profile like this made her more vulnerable to personal attacks on her either physically or on her character.
Meeting Shugufa and her family again was wonderful, they all remembered me well from the previous visit in 2009 and were pleased that I had come back. Shugufa has turned into a beautiful, bright mature young lady. But I very quickly found that my filming with her would be acutely restricted compared to the last time I was there. Then I was able to film her walk to school, in class, with family at a wedding in the neighborhood. This time I was relegated to two rooms in the house, not even in their lovely courtyard garden where a natural stream runs through. At their front door I was asked not to speak English, and my camera equipment had to be brought in under cover by the brothers and my driver. The reasons given were that Shugufa is no longer a teenager but a young lady, she is engaged to be married and so her honor is all the more important to be protected. They also did not want their neighbors knowing and talking behind their backs.
I was happy to oblige particularly because I respect this family. Her father, a doctor, is open, kind and intelligent, he has fought against the odds to educate all his 11 children, 6 of whom are daughters. They have encouraged others in the village to educate girls, and have always welcomed me and been the most hospitable hosts I can hope for.
Compared to the other children in this project from the more challenging countries in Brazil, Benin, Kenya and India, Shugufa seems to be a success story. At the age of 21 she is still in full time education at university in Kapisa where she studies Islamic law. Financial reasons meant she couldn’t follow her dreams and study to be a doctor or an engineer, but studying Islamic law is seen as an honorable study for young ladies.
Getting permission to film her at university was challenging and on the agreement that we wouldn’t particularly focus on Shugufa separately but rather film her as one in a class. She did not want undue attention a camera would invoke amongst her peers. When we joined her class of girls led by an educated looking professor to film, several girls walked out refusing to be captured on camera. A little disappointed, I tried to persuade them that this was a good thing to show how girls are in education. My fixer Mariam Alimi, a photographer, continued in Dari to persuade them. I set up my camera not following the chat but pleased enough that about 8-9 girls chose to remain.
At the end of filming the scene, Mariam didn’t look happy. She explained how one of the students had verbally attacked her for bringing foreigners and said that she was nothing but a ‘servant’ for working with the likes of me! Mariam rebuked her for breaking the very Islamic law she was studying – by judging her with no evidence or knowledge. But Mariam was even more upset by the professor for not challenging the student, and according to Mariam continuing to ‘teach’ about rights for women under Islam. They talk about rights yet still keep women back, give them limited freedoms and when women like her are trying to break down barriers they are rebuked.
I came away with mixed feelings as usual about Afghanistan, there is sheer beauty and hospitality in one breath and in the next there is hostility and in what I can only describe as a medieval male dominated culture, the airport arrivals and departures makes this all the more evident.
But whilst capturing GVs of Afghanistan for the film and spending time with the kids on the hilltop, the ones swimming in the stream, the melon sellers, the kind families like Shugufa’s and Mariam’s, I just hope for better for these people who have suffered for far too long. With so much money poured in in the last decade, progress it seems is still slow and ordinary good people certainly deserve more. It takes 10 years to turn a country backwards but could take 50 or more to go forwards. The politicians and the international community who has once again abandoned them are to blame. But I firmly believe the people have to challenge and struggle against so called culture and tradition that does nothing but hold them back, especially the women. I can only hope that young women like Shugufa can be pioneers in changing attitudes towards working women who can also be good homemakers. Shugufa is hoping to continue her education to masters level, and as yet has no fixed date for her marriage.
Click here to read more field notes from the producers.