Sarajevo Film Festival 2024

Ending the gender apartheid

AFGHANISTAN / A film full of controversies, from hunger, child malnutrition, natural disasters, and the declining national economy to the totalitarianism of the Taliban regime.

An Unfinished Journey, a film that had its world premiere at the FIFDH, Film Festival, and International Forum on Human Rights in Geneva, is an important political documentary. Its central theme is Afghanistan, one of the many world conflict zones: not in the spotlight but full of controversies, from hunger, child malnutrition, natural disasters, and the declining national economy to the totalitarianism of the Taliban regime that is systematically violating women’s rights.

The directing duo Aeyliya Husain and Amie Williams set out to investigate what happened after «the world’s attention has turned to the following headline.» Exploring the plight of Afghan women following the Taliban’s return to power, they concentrated on documenting the experiences of Afghan women leaders forced into exile. By doing so, they also introduced a different discourse. Against the common talk about the world leaders and superpowers, international conferences and declarations that usually accompany contemporary war zones and contribute to the comfortable perception of these wars as distant events that, to say with Baudrillard, «did not take place,» Husain and Williams gave a voice to the real people on the ground, the ones who are the most involved and affected, but also vitally interested in making the things better.

An Unfinished Journey Amie Williams, Aeyliya Husain
An Unfinished Journey, a film by Amie Williams, Aeyliya Husain

Different kinds of war

«In Afghanistan, in order to have the right to a job and the right to an education, you must first start a war with the men of your family. First, you have to fight with your father and then your husband. (…) After that (…) you have to go to war with society.» There are a lot of different kinds of warfare, we learn from the film protagonists at the very beginning. Not all of them have the same experiences because of different jobs they held in their home country before the Taliban seized power for the second time in 2021: Homaira Ayubi, a former math teacher, was a Member of Parliament from Farah Province, Zefnoon Safi was a Member of Parliament from Laghman Province, Nilofar Moradi was a TV reporter and journalist, and Nargis Nehan, former Minister of Mines and Petroleum, held many different posts in the government of the ousted President Ashraf Ghani. They are also of different ages, and not all of them can remember the first Taliban rule during the first Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (1996–2001).

Information that Afghanistan has had a tumultuous past can only vaguely represent the complex history of this country that in its past witnessed numerous military campaigns, including those by the Persians, Alexander the Great, Arab Muslims, the Mongols, the British, the Soviet Union, and a so-called US-led coalition. Afghanistan is also the home of two of the most proverbially totalitarian political groups of the second half of the 20th Century – Mujahideen, who fought against the Soviets in the Soviet–Afghan War, and the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban. Given all this, a single uncontested narrative about this country is highly improbable. However, despite all the differences, the protagonists of this carefully composed documentary have one thing in common – they had to leave the country to save their lives. The story of the young journalist who refused to do so is tragic proof. And they are firmly dedicated to yet another war – to fight what they named «gender apartheid.»

«In Afghanistan, in order to have the right to a job and the right to an education, you must first start a war with the men of your family.»

Gender apartheid

Apartheid was the legal system for racial separation in South Africa from 1948 until 1994. The word, meaning «apartness» in Afrikaans, is derived from the French term «mettre à part,» literally «separating, setting apart,» and is to this day associated with a policy that is founded on the idea of separating people based on racial or ethnic criteria. Through the subtle narration of the intimate memories of its protagonists, An Unfinished Journey outlines another equally abhorrent mode of setting apart and eliminating a large group of citizens from the decision-making public of the country: the separation of women. The facts are hard to believe: the Taliban regime introduced several different measures to deprive girls and women of the right to education and work, and even to restrict the presence of girls and women in public spaces. For example, female employees in the Ministry of Finance were ordered to send a male family member to work in their place; media outlets are not allowed to broadcast the voices of women; women are prohibited from appearing on television shows and are not allowed to travel more than 72 kilometres if not accompanied by a male guardian.

An Unfinished Journey Amie Williams, Aeyliya Husain
An Unfinished Journey, a film by Amie Williams, Aeyliya Husain

Actants

These measures, which evidently created conditions similar to the former racial apartheid in South Africa, were what forced the film protagonists to flee. Some escaped in a larger group, some with just the closest family members. Moradi found her refugee in Greece; Ayubi, Safi, and Nehan in Canada. Their destinies are far from typical «success stories.» On the contrary, the emigration was a loss for all of them, a forced interruption of their professional and intimate life journey. Yet they also have no desire to be the victims. Due to the distanced but also highly concerned approach of the two documentarians, we get a privileged insight into their struggle to give their life a new meaning – to prevent their displaced families from falling apart, to reconstruct their professional path, and, first of all, to build a network that can help newly arrived Afghan exiles and make them join the struggle for women’s rights in their home country.

Some escaped in a larger group, some with just the closest family members.

Representative democracy

The protagonists of this documentary are also very successful in establishing international collaborations. Ayubi starts attending protests and meeting Canadian politicians the moment she arrives in Canada. She uses these meetings to pressure the international community to denounce the Taliban’s restrictions and provide aid to the millions of Afghans struggling to survive below the poverty line. The meetings between the female Afghan activists in exile and the Canadian politicians we follow in the film manifest a clear division of competencies but also a firm determination of Afghan activists to have the decisive role. They are going to be the lead protagonists of their plans. This is very promising, given that in the past, in the global south, and in Afghanistan in particular, foreign interventions clamorously failed. And since we know too well that representative democracy is also not without flaws, it is a relief to see female Afghan politicians and activists eager to represent the interests of the Afghan citizens, regardless of the difficulties.

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Melita Zajc
Melita Zajc
Our regular contributor. Zajc is a media anthropologist and philosopher.

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