Just Something Women Do Here
I am caged in this corner, full of melancholy and sorrow.
My wings are closed and I cannot fly.
I must wail because I’m an Afghan woman.
Early in Lifting the Veil, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy spots a woman sitting on a curb in Kabul. The woman is hunched over, dabbing at her eyes with her pale blue veil. Obaid-Chinoy decides to talk to her. She and her crew cross the street and sit down with the woman, to ask her name and how long she spends each day, begging. Bibi Gul tells her she begs every day, “from morning until evening.” Looking defeated, especially when a group of young men gathers to taunt her, Gul says she’s a war widow, one of more than a million in Afghanistan, Obaid-Chinoy adds. Without male relatives, unable to work because she is a woman, 40-year-old Gul, looks 20 years older when she removes her burqa at Obaid-Chinoy’s request. Her daughters, aged 14 and 16, want to go to school but she can’t afford the pencils and paper.
This is not the way it was supposed to be, Obaid-Chinoy says more than once during the documentary. Airing as part of CNN’s Special Investigations Unit, the film is a dynamic follow-up to a film she made back in 2001, at the start of the U.S. invasion. Back then, despite decades of war and poverty exacerbated by the Taliban’s oppressive rule, promises of freedom and aid brought hope. At the time of the invasion, the new film recalls, President Bush declared that women who were once “captives in their own homes” would now be “free.” Obaid-Chinoy counters this “confident” display with her own observations: “Now we’ve come back six years later,” she narrates, “to ask if life for women in Afghanistan is any better in a liberated country.”
The answers are complicated, but one overwhelming truth is grim: this “newly democratic state” has not made life “better” for enough women, who still face conservative men, horrific poverty, and an often overwhelming sense of helplessness. Obaid-Chinoy, a documentary maker who was born in Karachi, looks beyond usual Western assumptions and determinedly pursues stories that take her off standard tracks. Charismatic and almost conspiratorial in her asides to the camera, Obaid-Chinoy’s work refreshingly activist, in the sense that she doesn’t stop at the first answer, but seeks out complications. She dons a burqa to sit on the street and beg with Gul for an afternoon, and listen to the verbal abuses hurled by passing men. At the end of he day Obaid-Chinoy turns to the camera and sighs. “Let’s face it: this issue of the burqa is just the tip of the iceberg. Afghan women face far graver issues than whether to wear the burqa or not.”
Issues like destitution, rape, disgrace, and frankly monstrous family members—in-laws who beat them, husbands who terrorize them. Issues like lack of health care, due to underfunding and ignorance, as well as the fact that, as one doctor puts it, “It’s mostly mother-in-laws and husbands involved in making family decisions,” so that some 50 pregnant women die in Afghanistan every day (according to UNICEF). (For more on this topic, see the documentary Motherland Afghanistan.) Obaid-Chinoy visits a village hospital, where she sees rooms full of women who have tried to burn themselves to death. Their faces peeling and features deformed, the women she interviews seem frail and despondent. A doctor suggests that burning is a favored form of suicide because it’s a “poor country, so kerosene is widely available.” But Obaid-Chinoy has another idea. “I think these women wanted to make a point,” she asserts, “They didn’t want to die quietly, but in a way that let others know they suffered in life, a reflection of deep-seated issues in Afghan society that need to be addressed.”
It’s a grand assessment, but the documentary makes it seem simultaneously obvious and perceptive. Obaid-Chinoy puts together the pieces that too many journalists leave hanging apart, making an argument, a passionate argument, based on what she’s seen. Still, she’s less interested in self-promotion than in bringing her subjects’ sagas into the foreground. It’s not just that Hamid Karzai is having troubles coordinating his government or that warlords are in bed with the Taliban. It’s that beautiful young Shahnaz was sold into marriage by her drug-addicted father when she was just seven years old. “I felt depressed when I found out,” says Shanahz, now 14 and utterly polite. The camera cuts to her husband, skulking in the doorway, as Obaid-Chinoy speaks out on the girl’s behalf: “It’s difficult for us to talk to Shahnaz because her mother-in-law and her husband keep coming into the room.”
This is Obaid-Chinoy’s genius, the edge that makes her work both entertaining and astute. While the husband probably could care less that she’s called him out—in his world, she is a mere woman, after all—she invites her viewers into the storytelling process, working with recalcitrant subjects and difficult truths. When Shahnaz admits that she too burned herself three years ago, Obaid-Chinoy asks to see her scars. She raises her pants leg to show painfully thin legs, covered with burn marks. After learning that Shahnaz wants to be able to go to school, Obaid-Chinoy concludes this segment by walking out of the village, past sheep and a fairground Ferris wheel, a little bit of absurdity plunked down inside the nightmare. “Often,” she says as she walks, “child brides are little more than servants at home and virtual prisoners in marriage.”
Those who do speak out, like the poet Nadia Anjuman, are also at risk; as Obaid-Chinoy reports, she studied literature in secret and published a book before she died at age 25. Obaid-Chinoy tracks down Nadia’s husband, Farid, accused of her murder but never convicted released from jail after just two months. Though Nadia’s brother says his family “forgave” Farid, “because of our religion,” they remain distressed. For his part, Farid insists that the bruises on his wife’s body were not causal in her death. Yes, he beat her that night, but she killed herself. “She was trying to put pressure on her family to make them love her more,” he says, his hands suggesting he simply doens’t understand it, but, oh well. “It’s just something women do here.”
“Just something women do here.” Obaid-Chinoy doesn’t believe it any more than you do, and her film makes clear all the ways that such self-justifying is wrong. But she never lets the West generally, or the U.S. more specifically, off the hook. This makes Lifting the Veil those documentaries that purport to be “objective.” This film means to make you worry about the women you meet (even the young men who appear oblivious to the cruelties they inflict), and to make you mad that “billions of dollars in promised aid have failed to arrive or to reach those most in need.”
“As a Muslim woman,” Obaid-Chinoy says, “I know attitudes like these are not inherent in our culture, that there are places in the world where we can walk around freely.” The film makes clear her feelings of oppression and frustration in Afghanistan, in close or canted frames and handheld footage of passersby staring at her, sans burqa. It also shows the shafts of hope that surprise and move her, including the father of an eight-year-old girl who saw her mother murdered six years ago. Though their village has no piped water, her father is proud that little Rukhsana is attending school, and hopes that one day she might “study to be a doctor or engineer.” This from a guy who looks as old-school as any of the men Obaid-Chinoy interviews. He looks forward to a future beyond himself, one premised on his daughter’s achievements.
“Afghanistan’s problems were not fixed by the invasion,” says Obaid-Chinoy. Lifting the Veil makes clear the unmet obligation of the invaders and the obstacles that lie ahead. It also argues, passionately and shrewdly, that the women of Afghanistan are more than ready to do their own work.