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THE PERSONAL QUESTS OF SAIRA SHAH Zubeda Jalalzai
As the U.S. occupation of Iraq continues along its violent course along side the similarly tenuous nation building efforts in Afghanistan, Americans need only look to the very recent past for how the Bush administration has justified war in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Despite the possibility that public opinion may not have been able to resist the administration’s plans, in each case public opinion had to be employed (to varying degrees) on the side of invasion. Two documentaries on Afghanistan, Beneath the Veil and Unholy War, by Saira Shah, the Afghani-British journalist and winner of the Courage Under Fire Award have presented highly validated accounts of Afghanistan under Taliban rule and during the early days of the U.S. bombing campaign(1). Both documentaries, which present gorgeous views of the Afghan landscape and intimate and often painful portraits of Afghanistan’s people, had been in frequent rotation on CNN as part of its “CNN Presents” line-up after September 11. Shah’s films not only reveal much about how to win the “hearts and minds” of the American people in going to war but also more complicated issues of building an international feminist movement that is not coincident with western interests.
While the films emphasize the political turmoil in Afghanistan, their appeal to the West lies more in the subjective and emotional connections Shah makes to her Afghani roots and the connections she builds to her father’s homeland. In fact, the documentaries take as their raison d'etre not only the project of unmasking Taliban brutality but of fulfilling two specific personal quests for Shah that frame each of her films. Raised and educated in England, Shah first went to Afghanistan between 1986 and 1988 to cover the war against the Soviet Union. As Shah searches for the images her father impressed on her, the film juxtaposes the devastation of Afghanistan under Taliban rule with the lost grandeur of her father’s pleasure gardens. In her second film, Unholy War, Shah again employs this format, but this time she multiplies her quests. First, Shah seeks to cross the then-sealed border between Afghanistan and Pakistan in October of 2001. She then searches for a young Northern Alliance soldier, Usman, whom she met while producing Beneath the Veil. Lastly, she searches for the three Afghani girls (Amina, Fairuza, and Farzanah) whose sorrow haunts the conclusion of her first film.
Shah’s journeys appeal to western audiences in their perception of the danger she encountered as a woman in the strange and unknown Pashtun lands. Her interactions with Northern Alliance soldiers, however, are not tinged with any apparent discomfort, graphically presented by Shah’s casual dress of pants, jacket, and boots, with no scarf or other head coverings. Shah’s strategy in adopting this western and perhaps genderless style of dress is a good one, in that by marking herself distinct from local women, she might also avoid local restrictions. But her choice of dress also signifies a degree of safety and gender equality in the midst of this particular group of men. Shah, like most westerners, is particularly fascinated with the veil, a curiosity that has a long history in the contact between western and eastern cultures. In the orientalist tradition, the veil is a sign of both romantic exoticism and gender inequality. Though Shah must don the veil at certain points in her journeys (and underneath which she shoots some of her footage), she is never seen completely veiled in either of her films.
Shah’s intentions are noble: to expose the plight of women under unfathomable oppression. Still, in the glimpse she gives the viewers of the perspective underneath the veil, Shah also replays an old western fantasy of unveiling the Muslim woman. More importantly, her criticism of gender inequality and the destruction of Afghanistan is focused only on Taliban rule and never truly engages the historical context of their rise to power or the dangers experienced by Afghani women under other equally brutal regimes, namely the period of warlordism and conflict between the groups later called the Northern Alliance between 1992-1996. In the course of Shah’s trail to Paghman, her father’s hometown, the film presents the Northern Alliance in a kind of soft focus. The cruelty of their past, including ethnic violence, torture, and rape, does not enter the narratives of either film. Though in her travels Shah uncovers mass graves attributed by locals to the Taliban as evidence of their endemic violence, Amnesty International has also reported the existence of mass graves (near Shebarghan) in Afghanistan, but attributed them to specific Northern Alliance factions.
The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), who aided Shah in Beneath the Veil, swiftly expressed great opposition to the U.S. bombing campaign and to the installation of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan (2). Some of the most compelling footage of Beneath the Veil, in fact, belongs not to Shah but to RAWA, who captured the execution of a woman in the soccer stadium turned execution grounds. Since the West does have access to such graphic footage and to the stories offered by Afghani women, we must ask what Shah's films offer us that the undigested footage of RAWA cannot. Shah guides us not only in viewing the conditions in Afghanistan but in registering how we are to feel about the conflict and the major actors. While Shah devotes a significant portion of Beneath the Veil to RAWA when they were pointedly and quite single-mindedly opposed to the Taliban, she makes no mention of RAWA in the second film when they had developed equally acerbic criticism of the Northern Alliance. By the end of 2001, on the occasion of International Human Rights Day (Dec. 10, 2001), RAWA turned its criticisms directly to the Northern Alliance identifying its own bloody history(3). Such criticism sits uncomfortably alongside the generous depiction of the Northern Alliance in both Beneath the Veil and Unholy War.
This example of Shah’s selective opprobrium reveals the rhetorical role women’s rights has played within Afghanistan’s recent history and the degree to which such appeals do more to serve the interests of the articulators rather than Afghani women in general. We need only scratch the surface to find evidence of this bilateral violence, variously attributed to the "heroes" or "enemies." Rape, in particular, has played a fundamental role in the politics of Afghanistan. Literally, rape as a ritual of warfare taints the purity of female bodies and so despoils their value as Muslims as well as the property of other men. Rape also played a mythical a role in the Taliban’s very coming into power. According to Ahmed Rashid, the “most credible story” of the Taliban's originary moment was widely circulated about Mullah Omar’s consolidation of Taliban forces to retaliate against the abduction and rape of two teenage girls(4).
Saira Shah turns the specter of sexual violence back onto the Taliban and rape becomes the great unspoken terror of the three girls at the heart of Unholy War. Implicitly, Shah fills in the blank space of their terror and conjures up for the viewer images of two days of violence and rape. Because of other accounts of rape by Taliban soldiers, Shah's speculations are certainly not outside the realm of possibility, but the documentary answers definitively for the girls who, once again, become casualties of political rhetoric as well as whatever violence may or may not have occurred after the murder of their mother(5). I do not want to erase the possibility of sexual violence in that instance, but I caution against appropriating the silence of the three young girls, especially within a narrative that supports - to use Shah’s own term - “the west’s war,” and this war’s attendant political and economic agendas. For all our well-meaning intentions, western feminists must keep in mind the cautions that postcolonial critics like Gayatri Spivak have been considering for many years. In her 1988 essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak,” Spivak critiques imperial motivations inherent in the liberation of third-world women by first-world subjects, male or female. In our rush to save these silenced women, first world feminists, including Shah, need to perform fundamental critiques of our own motivations and the effects of what we require of these women—including the necessity ofng their worlds to western styles and markets, as well as proper gender roles.
In Beneath the Veil and Unholy War Shah does not allow the girls’ silence to stand without interpretation. While Shah never says the word "rape" in this context, their silence is given dramatic resonance and made to perform an indictment against the sexual crimes of the Taliban, even though the crime the girls seem most clearly fixated on is the brutal murder of their mother. The role their silence plays is indicative of the general dynamic in these films between the filmed subjects’ relationships to the journalist. Shah’s powerful narrative voice accompanied by the haunting sound-track place clear emphasis on certain information, on particular stories, and on selected moments of terror. The camera, itself, records critiques of the Northern Alliance and the U.S. to which Shah remains silent. For example, in Unholy War the Northern Alliance guide, Usman, takes Shah aside to express his concerns about what might happen when the Northern Alliance takes Kabul. In an intriguing reference to veiling and unveiling, Usman worries about the future when the Northern Alliance’s “veils will fall off.” He explains that they will only reluctantly give up war, since they know no other means of livelihood. Shah does not engage or contextualize Usman’s critique. Instead, the camera cuts to a magnificent sun-set and images of these Northern Alliance soldiers bravely looking off into the future(6).
Compare these moments of Shah’s own silence with others of specified emotional content. When Shah covers the anti-American demonstrations in Pakistan shortly after the first bombs were dropped by the United States, the camera focuses on a relatively small crowd, and in particular on a boy within this crowd whose voice is amplified by the film-makers to emphasize his cry of, “Osama bin Ladin!” Shah says of this group, “I find their anger terrifying.” There is an unmistakable imbalance here in what we as viewers should question and what we should fear(7).
If we are committed to combing through the complications of Afghanistan’s history and the West’s intimate role in that history, if we are willing to trust the challenging voices issuing from the Afghani people, critical of the Taliban, the Northern Alliance, and the West, our reporting and our art need to somehow engage those complexities Although complete objectivity is not possible, more even handed reporting must not allow for the easy appropriation of those images and voices we encounter along the way, either by powerful actors in the political arena or by our own narratives of loss and desire.
Footnotes: (1) Beneath the Veil was produced by Cassian Harrison, Channel 4, and Hardcash Productions in 2001. Unholy War was made six months later at the beginning of the U.S./British war in Afghanistan by the parties involved in the first film as well as CNN and CNN International.
(2) A RAWA activist named “Fatima” who was interviewed by Janelle Brown after the United States's formal collaboration with Northern Alliance forces remarked that “the Northern Alliance are the second taliban.” “Fatima” also asserts that “seventy-year-old grandmothers were raped during their rule, thousands of girls were raped, thousands were killed and tortured. They are the first government that started this tragedy in Afghanistan.”
(3) RAWA’s statement reads: “The ‘Northern Alliance’ need to remember the years 1992 to 1996 when they were in power; when the execrable Golbodin Hekmatyar gang (Hezb-I-Islami) turned Kabul to rubble with their daily indiscriminate bombardment and rocketing; when the infamous Mazari-Khalili gang (Wahdat-I-Islami) were gouging out the eyes of non-Hazaras; when the vile Sayyaf gang (Ittehad-I-Islami) were driving 6-inch nails into the heads of Hazaras and broiling them alive in metal containers; when the perfidious Rabbani-Massoud gangs (Jamiat-I-Islami and Shorai Nazar) slaughtered the inhabitants of Afshar and other residential areas in Kabul and whitewashed the faces of all murderers, rapists and looters in history in terms of the barbarity and infamy they perpetrated against countless innocent and defenceless women, girls, and boys. . . . Such posturing and talk of ‘democracy’ and ‘women’s rights’ cannot wash away or hide their innate fundamentalist-terrorist nature. . . The people of the world need to know that long before the Taliban, it was Mr. Mullah Younis Khalis (a confederate of the victorious jihadis) who ‘executed’ the Buddha statutes [sic] at Bamiyan by firing volleys of artillery against it. The people of the world need to know that in terms of widespread raping of girls and women from ages seven to seventy, the track record of the Taliban can in no way stand up against that of these very same ‘Northern Alliance’ associates.”
(4) Rashid writes: “In the spring of 1994 Singesar neighbours came to tell him that a Commander had abducted two teenage girls, their heads had been shaved and they had been taken to a military camp and repeatedly raped. Omar enlisted some 30 Talibs who had only 16 rifles between them and attacked the base, freeing the girls and hanging the commander from the barrel of a tank. They captured quantities of arms and ammunition. ‘We were fighting against Muslims who had gone wrong. How could we remain quiet when we could see crimes being committed against women and the poor?’ Omar said later” (25).
(5) The presentation of their experience is surprisingly similar to a rape recorded by Amnesty International, this time charged against the United Front (Northern Alliance)According to Amnesty: “In March 1994 a 15-year-old girl was repeatedly raped in her house in Kabul’s Chei Sotton district after armed guards entered the house and killed her father for allowing her to go to school. ‘They shot my father right in front of me. He was a shopkeeper. It was nine o’clock at night. They came to our house and told him they had orders to kill him because he allowed me to go to school. The Mujahideen had already stopped me from going to school, but that was not enough. They then came and killed my father. I cannot describe what they did to me after killing my father’” (Amnesty Women in Afghanistan).
(6) When Shah interviews the three girls, Amina, Fairuza, and Farzanah, in the second documentary, she asks if they are afraid of Northern Alliance soldiers. One sister responds in the affirmative, but the viewer is not sure about the emphasis in her statement, which seems to focus on their general hardships from war and drought. "We've lived through a revolution and war--that's why we're afraid. We're afraid of the Taliban. . . . Yes, we're afraid of [the Nothern Alliance] as well. . . .Who can be comfortable around foreigners? . . . There's nothing in this barren terrain. . . . We will just suffer in silence." When Shah interviews a refugee family in Pakistan, the patriarch comments on how the Taliban are inseparable from the general Afghani populace. Therefore, he says, the American bombs cannot distinguish between their enemies and the Afghani civilians: “The Americans say they are only against the Taliban, but they are wrong.” Again, Shah does not provide comment or context. Instead the camera focuses on the sorrow etched in individual family member's faces and then cuts to an image of a distant mountain range. Another refugee tells Shah that the first American food drops were appropriated by Northern Alliance soldiers. Shah provides no voiced-over concern. If these documentaries, like Peter Davis's 1974 Vietnam War documentary Hearts and Minds, simply, but deliberately, juxtaposed images, sounds, and texts with little narrative explanation, these moments of silence would not stand out. Beneath the Veil and Unholy War are not, however, constructed in that kind of documentary style.
(7) Just as these documentaries place their subjects in particular places, they also present Shah as a kind of character. I need, therefore, to distinguish between the Saira Shah of these documentaries and the journalist who, in interviews about her work, is more reflective than these filmic narratives allow. In Unholy War, Shah’s failure to persuade the father of the three Afghan girls to allow them to go to a local school is presented as her running against the brick wall of patriarchy and the inertia inspired by loss (the father says that after his wife’s murder he is unable to consider the implications of educating his daughters and leaving his home). But, in the interview with Janelle Brown, Shah reads her failure to save the girls as resulting from misguided western assumptions. She says, “That was a real revelation for me. I rather arrogantly, in a very Western way, assumed that I could solve their problems because I had good will and money. It taught me that their problems are more complex.” Unfortunately, these documentaries do not lend themselves to complicated interpretations of the crisis in Afghanistan, or to reflective critiques of western reporting or good will.
Zubeda Jalalzai is an assistant professor of English at Rhode Island College in Providence, Rhode Island specializing in early American Literature and postcolonial theory. She is completing a manuscript entitled "Embodying the Covenant," which deals with Native American conversion in 17th century New England. She is also the author of articles on Native American literature, as well as early America and postcolonial literature and theory.