My guest today is Sahar Fetrat, a young Afghan living and studying in London. Born in Afghanistan but forced to flee when she was only one year old, Sahar returned with her family to Kabul when she was 10 and stayed there until graduating from university. She then moved to Budapest to pursue her first Masters at the Central European University before moving onto her second Masters in War Studies at King’s College London, where she is currently a student.
Sahar introduces herself as a ‘feminist who’s navigating her way between activism and academia’—a journey that has seen her produce short films as well as becoming a prominent social commentator. During her relatively short, but impactful career, Sahar has directed two short films, one called ‘- this is Kabul’ and the other ‘Do not trust my silence’, with the latter winning a best film prize at an Italian short-film festival. Both films seek to challenge the position Afghan women and girls hold in that society. More recently, Sahar has published articles that seek to highlight the struggle of women and girls in her homeland, an issue particularly relevant now that the Taliban has returned to power.
Some of the topics we covered are:
- Life of a child refugee
- Kabul during the ‘peaceful’ years
- Answering the call of activism
- Failure of ‘black and white’ narratives
- Defining feminism
- Role models that influenced Sahar
- The story of ‘Do not trust my silence’
- Lived experience of women and girls in Afghanistan
- Camera as a weapon against inequality and abuse
- Taliban attack on Sahar’s university
- Losing her mother and father
- Scars of war and importance of legitimising emotions
- The current situation in Afghanistan
- The power of individual action
Sahar mentioned a program, ‘Sahar Speaks’, that introduced her to the power of the camera. That same program has recently helped resettle two dozen alumnae in host nations around the globe. You can find out more about their struggles and help nurture their journalism careers at the following link:
Listen to the podcast here
Sahar Fetrat – On The Plight Of Women And Girls In Afghanistan
In this episode, my guest is Sahar Fetrat, who is a young Afghan living and studying in London. She introduces herself as a feminist who’s navigating her way between activism and academia. This journey has seen her produce short films as well as become a prominent social commentator. Sahar was born in Afghanistan but had to flee with her family when she was only one year old because of the war that had engulfed her country.
Her family returned to Kabul when she was ten and she stayed there until graduating from university. She then moved to Budapest to pursue her first Master’s in Critical Gender Studies at the Central European University before moving on to her second Master’s in War Studies at Kings College London, which is where she’s a student.
During her relatively short but impactful career, Sahar has directed two short films. One is called This is Kabul and the other is Do Not Trust My Silence! The latter won the Best Film prize at an Italian Short Film Festival. Both films seek the challenge to position Afghan women and girls hold in that society. Sahar has published articles that seek to highlight the plight of women and girls in her homeland, which is an issue particularly relevant since the Taliban has returned to power. Sahar, thank you for joining me on the show.
Maz, thank you so much. Thanks for giving me this platform to talk about my experiences.
What a turbulent life you have lived. Perhaps, that might be a good place for us to start. Can you tell us a little bit about your upbringing and how you came to live in London, which is where you are?
It’s a long journey. I have a very interesting journey because, in my life, I’ve lived in three different countries. Most of my life was in Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. I was in Iran until I was five. We went to Pakistan and stayed there until I was ten. When I came to Kabul with my family, that was the first time I was getting introduced to the society, home, and country that my parents would always talk about. There’s so much to say about Kabul because as I was growing up, I saw Kabul growing as well. There were lots of developments, activism, and activities going on.
You went to Afghanistan at about the age of ten. What year was that?
It was around 2006.
After the coalition forces beat the Taliban in 2001, it was under the American or coalition force governance in Afghanistan. Is that right?
Yes. I wouldn’t say peaceful but it was calm. The security situation was still good. You could move around the city. You wouldn’t be so worried about bombs and explosions from stuff. It was a relatively different time.
We’ll come onto that but I’d be keen to explore a little bit these early years because I suspect they would’ve shaped a lot of who you are as well. You weren’t in Iran until about five so I suspect you probably won’t remember too much of those years but in the later years, you were in Pakistan. Is that right?
You were forced to move because you fled from Afghanistan and first time to Iran. Why did you leave Iran to Pakistan? Did you also have to flee? What were the circumstances around that?
Yes, because it was a difficult time. My parents were hoping for a better future for us so they fled to Iran. There’s not so much that I remember from Iran but I remember the name of us as Afghans. With the financial situation of my parents, they were working, we were not pitted as badly as other Afghans. I remember the word Afghan used as a slur. From that time, I was experiencing or at least seeing inequality, injustice, and bad treatment. That’s something that I grew up thinking to fight with.
When we went to Pakistan, it was a different story. We wanted to go somewhere else where we could have easier access to education because, in Iran, it was not possible for Afghan students to get an education. We left Iran for Pakistan in the hope to go somewhere else, which didn’t happen. In Pakistan, it was also a very different life that we experienced because then my father could not speak Pashto or Urdu when we were living in Peshawar. Our life changed. In Iran, it’s possible for my father, who was a car mechanic, to work. In Pakistan, it was a different life experience, especially affected by poverty in that sense. Those early years shaped the way I see life, seek to question things and see my life journey.
Truth be told, I can empathise with that quite a lot. You and I spoke about this previously but I was a refugee myself from Bosnia in Germany for three and a half years. I can, in a very small way, empathise with that. It was the stigma that comes with being a foreigner and not speaking the language and the desire to fit in, belong, and realise that trying hard as you might is very difficult unless you spend a lot of time and get the chance to embed yourself in that society. I suspect you would’ve experienced something similar, particularly with the tarnished brush of being an Afghan. Is that what I’m hearing you say?
Yes. I’m sorry that you also had the same experience but as a child, as someone who is trying to learn about life and things that matter, to begin with, inequality, injustice, and that journey with having an identity problem is not easy. It’s very difficult. You always want to fit in but along the way, you accept your identity as well, which happened to me.To begin the journey with inequality, injustice, and identity issues is not easy. Click To Tweet
At first, people calling me an Afghan with the way it was used pained me so much. I remember in first grade when somebody called me an Afghan, I cried. A few years after that, I tried to see Afghanistan through the eyes of my parents and their experiences. I try to understand that it is the people who are wrong. It’s not my identity or where I’m coming from that is the problem. That’s how things started changing. It was always a hustle. It is something to constantly remind as an issue.
What was it like then as a ten-year-old, still very much a child? I can think of myself. To me, the world was still rather exciting as much as everything that was happening around me was falling apart. You went back to Afghanistan. You could perhaps get back in touch with your Afghan identity. How was that journey?
Going back to Afghanistan is one of the best things that happened to my family and me, especially. The years that we went, at first, it was difficult because we were in Iran and then Pakistan. These are our neighbouring countries but still, we are different. The access you have to things and the day-to-day facilities that you might have in Iran and Pakistan is very different than it is in Afghanistan, at least at that time. I remember in the area that we left in Kabul. That year, there were not so many girls going out or women participating in outdoor activities. In my family, there were girls who were going, trying outside, exploring things, and working. We’re not only staying at home. It was a very different society back then.
It was a return to the Afghanistan of the ‘60s and ‘70s in many ways. Did your parents recognise themselves in that re-emergence?
To be honest, no. It was very difficult for my parents. My mother comes from Parwan Province. She grew up in a small village that she loved so much. She never got the chance to get educated because in that area, even though my grandfather wanted to send them to school, nobody was sending their girls to school and the school was way far. It was only boys who would get an education.
My mother’s experience of Afghanistan is limited to her village and her life in that village, which has a lot of happy moments and stories but also is brutally unfair because her brothers could get an education but the girls could not. That was a defining feature of where my mother ended up in a sense and where my uncles ended up.
My father had a different life. He’s also from Parwan but he grew up in Kabul. He comes from a poor family. He had to work at such a young age because his father was not able to work at that time when he was a child. He would provide for the family like his brothers but he was deprived of education. That is something that always remained in my parents’ minds and memories. Although they loved education, they never got it.
My father had also experienced Kabul differently. There was a time when he was a teenager or a young man, he was going to the cinemas and watching Bollywood movies. It was a time when people in Kabul were not very conservative. He experienced that image of Kabul as well but when we came back, it was after the Taliban. It was a relatively peaceful and calm Afghanistan but it was not what my father had experienced when he was young. Society was still very conservative, especially with women.
Do you mean in 2006 when you came back?
Yes, although there were opportunities for women or people to talk about democracy. You wouldn’t see women’s participation and many women outside in the streets, in activities, ministries, and professional areas. If you would, a limited number of women could be seen outside.
Is this what then motivated, initially, your filmmaking? You saw this injustice around. You were quite young. How old were you when you released your first film?
The first one was a very interesting project. I was fourteen years old. That was me, my sister, and a friend of mine. We had two Norwegian producers who had this program called Global Video Letters or something like that. I don’t quite remember well. It was teenagers from war-torn or conflicted countries who would make a short video of themselves introducing their society, where they live, what they enjoy about their city, their activities, and things like that.
That’s the time when I also got introduced to this program. That’s how This is Kabul came about. Contrary to what they were thinking of us as young girls in Kabul, they were surprised to see a very different image of Afghanistan because we would go to concerts, volunteer activism, do a lot of volunteer work, and take part in everything cultural and anything related to environment and activism in Afghanistan at that time. We were quite active in everything and very excited.
What do you mean contrary to what they expected? That’s the words you used.
In 2021, the world’s image of understanding life in Afghanistan and the lives of Afghan women is very limited. Back in 2010 and 2011, it was way more limited. The producers, at least, as far as I know, were doing this project in some other countries as well. They wanted to do it in Afghanistan. The image that we showed of our lives was surprising for them because they were not thinking that Afghan girls would have so much joy living in the society that they live in and fighting with the things that they fight against but also enjoying themselves, like any other teenager in other countries.
In that sense, it was very interesting and surprising for them to see or witness what we were doing. I’m not saying that this is all Afghanistan. We were a smaller group back then. This is Kabul explored how limited our understanding of each other and each other’s life is. We think that when people live in a conflicted zone or a war zone, they’re always in misery, and in that cycle while people are very resilient. People are finding many different ways of surviving that situation and making the most out of it.
In a conflicted area or a place where there’s a war ongoing, it’s about how the narratives are shaped by the media and oftentimes, removing the agency and victimising those who are in that conflict zone. I can think about the war in Bosnia and how it was narrated in the West. It was the poor Muslims that were being exterminated, which there’s truth to that. There’s no question of that but there were also other ethnic groups who were suffering.
There was resilience. There were still concerts. There was a huge underground scene of people living their lives. Some of them, even friends that I know, refer to their years in war-torn Sarajevo as some of the best years of their life. That makes sense. I’ve read this in one of your essays about this idea of victims or certainly Afghan women and girls being victims and needing to be rescued. I remember you reading something that you wrote about this. Can you talk about that a little bit?
From this, it’s narratives that are emerged, especially narratives that are narrated by media and especially Western media. It’s usually about this or that. It’s like black or white. Growing up, what I had a problem with was the way Afghan women were always portrayed in Western media either as victims who have no agency, power, or influence or it was those who were saved and then they were change makers.
As Afghan women, especially when I was living in Afghanistan, I would see it this way. On a daily basis, we get to be victimised. We get to survive, rescue others, and rescue ourselves. This is a very complicated notion. In this life, you can’t say, “They are not victims. They have agency. Everything is okay. We live them on their own and we have rescued them.”
It’s this notion that we saved Afghans, especially in 2021. The US left Afghanistan the way it did. The West should not ever talk about rescuing Afghan women. That time, going back to what I wanted to say, I was bothered by that binary narrative. That influenced me to think more about my activism, especially my feminist activism and documentary making, and trying to emerge everything together and bring them together so that I can use all of these tools and knowledge to tell a story that is different than what the Western media is portraying.
One thing that I still think about a lot is how much energy and effort we put in. I talk only about Afghans throughout these years, especially in these difficult times. How much energy do we put to educate our Western audience about our lives, pains, narratives, and sufferings? It’s also very unfortunate because the louder we get, the world is getting deafer.It's very unfortunate because the louder we get, the world is getting more deaf. Click To Tweet
That’s perhaps the most painful realisation. It’s one that I’m confronted with as well as much as I don’t have links to Afghanistan per se but I’ve deployed over there as a member of the Army with what I hope are the right intentions. Seeing what’s happening, the mind boggles. How could this have happened? I want to get to that. That’s a powerful point that we can’t avoid and that is the circumstances.
Before we get to that, I want to pick up on something. You describe yourself as a feminist. I want to hone in on that a little bit mainly because I consider myself a feminist as well. You and I spoke about this. I have a daughter. I want her to grow up to have the same opportunities as I’ve had and enjoy a life of equality in the broadest terms possible. In this society, our narratives are dominated by extreme and moderate voices. Probably like yours and mine, it’s very rarely heard.
It is those on the fire extremes of both sides of the political spectrum that dominate social media and mainstream media as well because that sells. The reason I want to hone in on this is because at the moment, certainly in some circles, the word feminism is almost considered a dirty word, which is not right. I also want to give you the chance to explain what you mean by feminism. Can you define feminism for me?
Let’s start with this. I agree with you. In this world that we live in, it’s very difficult to not fall into this narrative. It’s almost like a game that you need to survive and not fall. These wires are on both sides. Navigating a way in between requires self-reflection, energy, privilege, knowledge, and a lot of other things. For me, it’s very important not to fall into any of the extremes.
Talking about feminism, my understanding of it comes from the way in the early years of my life, I had heard stories of my grandmother that at the time, Mujahideen were coming to their areas. They were in conflict. In every war, there are women who are being sexually abused, sexually tortured, or abducted. That was the effect of war on women. My grandmother, at that time, was very brave. This is her taking a gun. It’s not something that I would be proud of in a normal situation but the way she took that to make it safe for my mother, my aunts, and all the women around her in her village is an act of bravery and courage. I admired that.
To clarify, do you mean to say that she took up arms to fight physically? Is that what you mean?
She never had to but the fact that she did it scared people off. This is the story that I heard about my grandmother. I was lucky to see her when I was young. My mother, my aunts, and all the women in my family, with their limited access to everything, fought against patriarchy. For me, it was always very inspiring. They would see themselves as equal.
I’m not saying that it was as equal as we define equality or as I define equality myself but still, they knew that they deserved better and fought for it. They fought for a better future for us, the daughters, and the girls. In their ways, they challenged what they were brought up with so that they make a difference in our lives. For me, it was always inspiring.
From my family, I learned that as a girl in this world, you have to fight for things. Otherwise, nobody is going to give you that space and get the platform. You have to negotiate, fight, go for it, and challenge yourself on others. It’s never going to be easy. In the early years of my life, that’s what I learned about. I would always say women’s rights. What about women’s participation? Even in English classes, the school, or everywhere, it was my concern to push for equality.
The way I encountered feminism, the word or the concept, for the first time was very interesting. I was always challenging my teacher who didn’t want girls to stand up in front of the classroom and present in front of everyone. They would always encourage guys to do that and I didn’t like that. One day, I was very stubborn and he asked me to present my presentation from my seat. I said, “No, I’m going to come in front of the class.”
This is very interesting because another feminist I know has this story. He called me an ugly or an angry feminist. I had heard the word feminist before from my sister but it was not something that I would understand much about. I came home and took the dictionary. I’m looking. That time, we had this big dictionary. It’s a book. I was looking for a word feminist and feminism. When I understood the meaning, I was like, “This is not bad. I’m okay with it. I am this without having a concept for it or a name for it.” That’s how I got into this term itself.
This time is limited. I can’t say everything about what my mother did but the way she lived her life, my grandmother, and all of them when I was reflecting years as well was feminism itself. It can’t be named anything else. I have more privileges. I studied Gender Studies. I have been trained in a feminist discipline. I’m more concerned about women. Not only women’s issues but I’m concerned about everything, both political and personal. I’m concerned about politics, masculinities, and everything that is interconnected in this world.
There is a multitude of issues that are interconnected here as well. It does make sense to me, given the strong, powerful role models you’ve had in your life, why you’ve set on this journey, and why you’ve been set forth on this journey also from the roots that you’ve had. It also makes sense why, to use your words, you were stubborn and why you stubbornly persisted with your movie-making. Your second movie is Do Not Trust My Silence. Maybe I’ll ask you first what that movie is about because I don’t want to come on a question about that.
Before that, I want to say something more about feminism because of this definition. I remember you said the way it’s understood in some parts of the world. It will always be understood in the wrong way if we don’t try to understand it more. If we have discord and we say, “No, feminism is this. I’m not going to learn about it,” it’s always going to be an almost unachievable goal. Let’s open our hearts and minds and try to see the world from a different perspective.
I’m not saying that feminism is a movement or academic discipline. It doesn’t have issues or problems but the beauty of feminism, the way I have understood this is that there is always room for self-reflection and criticizing yourself and everything that you do. For me, that is a huge thing. Coming back to your question about Do Not Trust My Silence, the name is inspired by an Iranian song. That song is very political. In a sense, they talk about how Iranians have been suppressed throughout the years. At any moment, this nation could explode and things could change. This silence is not because people want to be silenced. It’s because they are silenced.The beauty of feminism is that there is always room for self-reflection, for criticizing yourself and everything that you do. Click To Tweet
What we understand is perhaps the silent majority in a different context.
For me, this song has been very inspiring. From a young age, coming to Afghanistan was not easy those years. I encountered sexual harassment and street harassment a lot when I was young. I am sure a lot of other girls did as well and they do at this moment. It was a pain in my chest that every time I wanted to talk about street harassment, I would get into tears and not be able to talk about it. I wanted to raise awareness and talk about it so that girls don’t think that they are the problem.
Every time I talk about one of the experiences I had, it would bring me to tears and then I couldn’t talk more about it. I decided what’s another way of dealing with this pain. The year of This is Kabul, I got into another training where I had more freedom to make documentaries on my own, think about the story, produce it, direct it, and do everything. I decided to talk about the street harassment because that was, honestly, paining me so much.
I was very young. I was seventeen. I made this documentary. Even if you watch it, it’s a letter that I’m reading. There’s not so much that you can show from what we experienced. What I show in that documentary and the way people talk to us is a very small portion of what we would experience in Kabul, at least in those years. To be honest, I have been travelling around the world, at least in many countries. I have been harassed in a lot of places but what I experienced in Kabul was another level of abuse. It was brutal.
I watched it before this interview. As somebody who’s got a daughter, I get such a visceral response from the language. For the audience, there was a friend of yours who must have been in the film as well, who was at least in the recording or helping record. You would walk along the street and through traffic. You would secretly record what the drivers of the vehicles are yelling out to you. These are some of the vilest sexually fuelled insults.
Anybody who doubts what you mean by feminism only needs to watch that film and think about their daughters, mothers, and sisters going through something similar. It is a harrowing experience. I take my hat off to you for being courageous because that was a very brave thing to do, particularly at such a young age to step outside into that world, disguising a camera to capture the lived experience of Afghan girls in Kabul.
From 2006, it was rather peaceful. It was years when you used to go to concerts. There was an air of maybe liberation, change, or whatever it was. Underneath all of this, there’s another layer and this is what I particularly like when you say everything was black and white narratives of poor Afghan women who are victims but without any nuance who then need to be rescued without giving any colour to what happens on the ground.
Your movie does that exceptionally well because it brings to life the actual what, you, your peers, and women and girls, in general, would go through every single day on the streets of Kabul. It is horrible. Congratulations on the movie. As painful as the subject is, it’s an impactful depiction of perhaps even the trauma that you had gone through.
Thank you, Maz. People who doubt the way we talk about feminism need to watch that documentary. I would also encourage them, when they watch it, to think about themselves, their brothers, and their sons as they think about their sisters and daughters. At the end of the day, patriarchy, misogyny, or all of these horribly impacts all of us. It makes a society that is divided and vicious. I wanted to invite people to think about what kind of men we send to society.
I understand what you’re saying. What men are we producing and sending forth into the world? I couldn’t agree more. Thinking about it more broadly, habits in society are ultimately what form this big grand narrative of culture. That’s what culture is. It’s ultimately the habits of a particular social group that embodies its values, language, behaviours, and so on but it’s all changeable. It is through moving our understanding of somebody else’s lived experience that we can start slowly realising that maybe she’s not merely a radical feminist that wants to burn every man. The counter-narrative is thrown out so much and frequently.
Often, people stop and think, “What is the actual point here? What are we talking about here?” You’re not asking for anything apart from a little bit of dignity. I invite people to watch that film and be blown away by some of the vile stuff that is coming out of people’s mouths when a young seventeen-year-old girl walks past their car while they’re stuck in traffic. It is amazing. I want to zero in on the camera because what you recognise, perhaps at a young age, is quite powerful. That is the power of the camera and lens on people. What was it about it that caught your attention? Did you recognise that or was this an experiment? Did you realise the power this can have?
I was always amazed by storytelling. My mother could never write or read but the way she told us stories of her life and the way she narrated always amazed me so much. That’s something that I was always inspired by. Before the camera, I was also writing diaries. Whenever I go into this world or travel for a few years, I take all my notebooks, diaries, and everything that I’ve written. That was something. The passion was there but exploring or holding a camera for the first time was a different kind of experience because it was storytelling plus feeling powerful about it.
I remember one of the people who was in this documentary. She describes it in the best way because that’s what we all felt. We were all holding cameras and there were guys who come to say something to us or harass us. We would hold our cameras and tell them, “Your family will watch you on TOLO TV or this TV.” They would either apologise, run away, things like that, or would ask us to delete the videos. It was a very different experience.
You would feel, as you hold the camera, to talk about the inequality you are facing. With the reality of the society that you’re facing, you also have the power to change it immediately. Even if it’s not a long-term change but at that moment, you can protect yourself. Later, I realised it was not only for Afghanistan. There’s so much that we can do holding a camera and influencing the thinking of people, not only in Afghanistan but also outside Afghanistan. This was a very powerful way of getting introduced to storytelling through documentaries or videos.
The stories you do tell are very powerful and inspire an emotional response, which is what you want when you’re trying to change the world. You want people to recognise and be emotionally connected to what you’re experiencing. That’s what you’ve been able to tap into through your camera. I congratulate you on that.
While you were in Kabul, the trajectory was not in a happy ending for Afghanistan but also you. In the later years, while you stayed in Kabul, you’ve then experienced some further trauma at a personal level, with your parents passing away, both in rather quick succession. You were also very close to an attack by, I suspect, the Taliban at the time at your university. Could we maybe talk about those cases a little bit to invite more colour into the power behind your story?
In my teenage years, Kabul was still safe but then Afghans were getting unsafe in other provinces. If I bring it to 2017 or 2018, the danger and insecurity was growing closer to you. If it was 400 provinces, then it would come to closer provinces, in outer areas of Kabul, and then in the centre of Kabul. It was very personal to the university that I was studying. This is how I experienced the intensity of this conflict or the insecurity growing in this sense.
In 2016, there was an attack on my university. The Taliban came to the university at around 7:00 PM and fought until 4:00 AM. The students who survived were rescued. The last ones who stayed inside the building were hiding. I went with one of my friends to a restaurant. We left the university and were looking for a car. It was five minutes after we left when we heard a very loud sound.
We just left the university so we thought, “No, it can’t be our university. Maybe it’s the parliament or another place.” By the time we arrived at the university, I had received a call from my sister and then my friend received a call from her brother. They were asking where we were. The two of them were studying at the American university and the two of us were also studying at the American university.
My sister ran away. She survived, although the Taliban were opening fire on them. Her brother, which was my very close and dear friend didn’t survive. After that call, we couldn’t get hold of him at all. That night and those days take me back to that moment. That’s such a traumatic experience and very unfortunate. I don’t even believe how I survived that year. There was always survivor guilt. I thought I had survived it but my best friend didn’t. There are so many people who didn’t and things like that.
In January of that year, my mother passed from something very small. I’m sure if it was not a war-torn country, she could have been rescued and survived. She was 58 years old. She wasn’t very old, didn’t have a big sickness, or something like that. This is one effect of war that people usually don’t talk about, how every infrastructure and system in that war-torn area stops functioning as well.
If you don’t lose your loved ones directly from an attack, a shooting, or a killing, then there are indirect ways of you losing them. This is what people don’t talk or think about. Later that year, on August 20th, my father passed from something very small. It pains me that my parents are not alive. What pains me the most is the way they died of very small medical issues, something as small as a leg fracture.
Something that was not even peaceful but a merely stable place with sufficient resources would’ve been treated with relative ease.
When I think about war, I try to think about every way it affects people’s lives and well-being. In a psychological way, most of us are traumatised that might take years until we feel like we are healed. Also, as an indirect effect of war, we are very much scarred.An indirect effect of war is we are also very much scarred. Click To Tweet
How do you feel about this imposed experience on you? You never asked for this. War was never something that you wished or hoped for but it’s something that occurred to you. Tragic circumstances followed as a result of that war. Not least as a refugee but with the loss of your parents and your best friend, the fear and the anxiety, how did you deal with all of this being relatively young and arguably quite alone in the world?
It’s legitimate to think about it and have so many different feelings about it. One of them is rage and anger. The other is you feel at times lonely, miserable, and helpless. All these emotions are legitimate. I allow myself to go through these emotions. One feeling or emotion I have most of the time is anger, rage, and power dynamic in the world. In an equal system or world that we live in, what can you do with that emotion? I can be angry all day and night. I understand it.
Sometimes, when I have the time or space, and privilege, I try to use that anger and make sense of it in a world that is more productive. It’s either writing an article or my dissertation or studying, in the sense of applying to study more or get more educated. In the past, it was about making documentaries and raising awareness.
For all of these, you need to have some space to first make sense of things for yourself. All I’m trying to say is that it’s not like a lot of people talk about change-making and things like that. It’s as if you wake up in the morning and then you go into the world and change things. I disagree with that. That’s a very neo-liberal understanding of change and impact. For me, if you have all these, you first need to absorb some of it and understand what’s happening in your life. For all of that, you need privilege, time, and space.
I say that because when I was in Kabul, many things happened in my life. At the same time, I was living through this but I also was fighting as Sahar but also as a lot of other women who shared the same kind of life. We were also fighting with patriarchy. When my parents were not alive, it was hard to rent a house. You don’t have a husband or a brother. There’s no male relative in your family or someone you could be connected to. Something as easy as renting a house is impossible for you.
If we understand conflict, war, and inequality, we should think about it in many layers. If you’re impacted by war in one way, it doesn’t mean that other things are okay. Some of us are fighting several fights at the same time. It’s very tiring. It doesn’t give you a chance to understand what happened in your life. When I came to Budapest for my Master’s, the program was intense. It was huge for me to change from business to Gender Studies. At the same time, with all of that, I had some time to understand what happened in my life in the past years.
In Kabul, it was always survival. If you survive this, you try to survive some other things. Everything happens at a very fast pace and some of them happen altogether. In Budapest, I was overwhelmed with a lot of emotions with everything I hadn’t tackled and didn’t have time to reflect on. That’s why, for me, it’s always important to mention the privilege of having time and space to understand your pain and what you have gone through.
While you were talking, you’ve taken me through a journey of my life and I agree with that. I sometimes feel like I’ve lived three lives so that’s how I described them because they were so vastly different. It took years for me to understand. You mentioned identity at the start, what my identity is and to not be either ashamed of the identity that I had or the identity that I was trying to become or consume. I remember being a raging young male, angry on many levels about what I had experienced, what I had gone through, and what my family had gone through.
I was not being able to firstly communicate that to anyone for the first reason being that I didn’t speak the languages of where I was, firstly German and then English. For example, on my first school day in Australia, I had a physical fight because I didn’t understand English. All I could understand was a couple of derogatory terms that were being pointed at me by one of the school bullies.
To me, it was like red to a bull. I was the one that instigated it but that was this rage that I had within me, mainly because I did not have the ability to communicate. I remember crying, jumping on this guy, and fighting but tears were jumping out to my eyes from pure rage and anger for not being able to communicate to tell him to stop. It was something very simple that I would’ve hoped to have been able to say but I didn’t have the means to say it.
People don’t see this when they see a refugee or somebody who’s from a war-torn country. They don’t necessarily see what that person has experienced or gone through, and what life has been like for them, particularly when they have had the great fortune and luck to have been born in a stable society where they haven’t lost family members, never heard a gunshot fired, or never beg for their life. It’s a difficult thing for people to understand and connect with when they haven’t experienced and felt that.
Thank you for sharing that. I appreciate it. You did take me on a journey of my life. I do agree with how important it is to reflect. I speak my case. It took me years to reflect to start finding some meaning and sense in my experiences to then hopefully turn those into something that has some positive energy. This project is very much part of that same motivation. I suspect for you, your movies or your writings are.
When you were talking about this rage and not being able to communicate it, I understand that. Rage and anger, because of the brutal journey that most of us experience, are very not justified. We are not taught how to deal with those emotions. The whole society or the other people who don’t go through this are not also taught or they’re too privileged to think about how they can empathise, understand, and be more welcoming. Also, not to bully, make fun of other people’s pain, or mock them for what they have gone through.
How to be part of a solution rather than the problem is ultimately what it is. That’s wonderful. I do thank you for that. That was a powerful summary of the lives that many of us have lived. I say us, although I haven’t experienced anything like you have but there are certainly certain emotions that I’m sure I’ve experienced as you have.
Here, I always talk about empathy and I teach empathy in various courses. I usually take Brené Brown’s quote, “It’s about connecting to the emotion, underpinning an experience, and not connecting to the experience itself.” None of us can experience the same things but we’ve all felt the same emotions like fear, joy, sadness, and anger. That’s what your summary has done. I thank you for that. Maybe we can pivot to the inevitable fact that we need to talk about the situation. This is a hard question to even ask but how do you feel about the situation?
I opened my Instagram and WhatsApp messages. I received so many messages from some of the girls I know in Kabul and the videos that they have been sharing. I have a second cousin who is a cousin of my cousin. We know each other from Kabul but I was friends with her older sister, which is about my age. She’s younger than me. She grew up in this time when the US invaded Afghanistan.
She has been joining the protests in Kabul. She’s very brave. She sent me so many videos and told me, “Sahar, I scared the Taliban off.” It was so inspiring. That is very courageous of her because I can assure you that this is the first time she has ever gone to a protest. They’re shooting, the Taliban are beating women on the streets, and all of these. You must be very courageous to do that if that is your first experience of any kind of protest.
I do have so many different emotions. In many ways, I’m proud of what I see. I am feeling very helpless because I’m not there and I can’t do anything. That’s on a personal level but on a bigger political level, I am very angry with the world, especially the US and the Western allies and those who, in many ways, used Afghan women’s names to justify their fight.
I know people who made a career out of an Afghan woman’s name. Journalists are spending many hours left and right because of what they did in Afghanistan. I’m not taking away from them but I’m saying that it is time for them to use their voice and platform for Afghanistan and Afghan stories. They don’t. Some of them divert attention from Afghan women in Afghanistan to themselves for self-promotion and self-branding. These are individuals or journalists.
If I talk about the US, it is very heartbreaking the way they dealt with this issue. I’m not saying that people wanted them forever but it is irresponsible and not accountable for what has happened. People need to question their conscience and humanity. The next time they ever say Afghan woman, they need to know that it’s Afghan woman who is saving their conscience and humanity.
Watch the videos and see how Afghan women are being beaten every day. It’s Afghan journalists, male and female, and all people who work for freedom. If you think that is normal and it’s boring to talk about Afghanistan, then there’s something wrong with the way you understand the world and your humanity. I don’t know what to say. It’s very painful. It’s so normalised for the world to see Afghan suffering. It’s such a normal thing to see them being beaten in the 21st century.It is painful to see that it's so normalized for the world to see Afghan suffering. Click To Tweet
In 2021, Afghan women and our journalists are being beaten in the streets. All this brutality happens. People are having their end-of-summer parties and all the social media you see. I’m not saying that they shouldn’t but it’s just that you see the pain from one side of the world that is not paid attention to at all, is so normal, and it’s okay.
What I’m seeing and hearing is that very same child that I described, screaming, raging, and angry but doesn’t have the tools and means to communicate, even though in this instance, we might have the tools to communicate. The more Afghan women, girls, people, men, and boys scream, the more death the world becomes. That’s the question of conscience that you bring up. That’s the question of the morality of the way this story has unfolded.
We’re normalising that the Taliban is back in power because it was inevitable. We’re normalising the narrative that the Afghan Army collapsed and didn’t want to fight that war or stand up for its women, which is the counter-narrative that we are starting to hear. That narrative is becoming normalised but at the cost of those who are the most underprivileged and victimised in any of those societies. Your film is about life on the streets of Kabul in 2000. It was 2013. In the “relative” stable piece, we will show people what life was like then. I can only imagine what life is about to become or has already become for women and girls in Afghanistan.
I found women are protesting in every province as much as they can in Kabul. For many reasons, it can show more courage. What I see a lot of people don’t see is as Afghan women are protesting at the Taliban, they’re also protesting patriarchy, a lot of other problems, and limitations. I’ve been in protests in Kabul.
When you go to the protest, the same person who’s protesting with you in one way or the other harasses you as well. I want people to understand that these things happen together at the same time. Let’s say men are only oppressed by the Taliban. In their regime, women are facing double, triple, or multiple oppression. All I can say is more power to these women. I’m amazed and so inspired. I wish this is not how it ended up.
What support would you like to see from the regional and global community?
I have no hope for the global community. After many years, there is no hope left. We are just on our own on this but from people, I have seen a lot of kind gestures. In these evacuations, there were people who didn’t sleep for days and nights, I’m sure people like yourself. There are so many people that I know who put their minds, hearts, and everything they had to help people get out. That’s one way of doing it. I don’t have belief or any faith in institutions. I have faith in human beings but we are very scattered.
We are in different parts of the world. It’s hard to make it a collective power sometimes. That was one way of doing it. The least people can do is to raise awareness, share what’s happening in Afghanistan, talk about it, donate, and contact their MPs and the representatives in the States that they can. These small things that we can do can be very impactful. Empathise, share, and help people who have evacuated everything. Hear their stories and understand their pain. There’s so much that human beings can do to help each other if they care.
Part of this discussion is to inspire that emotion and drive people to do whatever they can. Maybe I can ask you if there are any charities or particular projects that are going on at the moment that people can support. The crisis is happening.
One of the fundraisings I support, I know that the initiatives of this are people who cared so much about Afghanistan. It’s a program called Sahar Speaks. That’s where I learned about writing and journalism. It’s not my program. It just happens to be Sahar Speaks. The journalists are all female. They’re out of Afghanistan. They’ve been evacuated, most of them.
As they’re starting a new career and life in the host countries, the people who started this fundraising tried to get them laptops, cameras, and tools to continue journalism. I would appreciate it if people could contribute to that because that is where I started journalism and writing. That was very liberating. It will do the same for the alumni who are not living in Afghanistan anymore but want to talk about their stories, concerns, and things that they’re facing. I would be very grateful if people could contribute to that.
If you could speak to those perpetrators of violence in Afghanistan, the Taliban, what would you say to them?
I want them to know that they’re so cruel. They know that they’re so powerless because all they can do is create and inflict fear and rule by making fear. That shows how weak they are because they cannot communicate with people’s minds and hearts. They have no capacity and capability of doing anything beyond creating fear. I don’t want to deceit from this perspective because war itself is a business. I don’t want to make it only about these Taliban fighters on the ground because the Taliban is a bigger project.
We should not forget who initiated and funded them, and everything around it. What I said before is how I would talk to a Talib soldier. Beyond that, they need to know that we will not forget and forgive. We know who is connected to this misery and who created this mess. It’s not that we are dumb just because we don’t have the opportunity or the resources to talk about it very openly but we know what’s happening.
I have to follow up with that question. Who created the mess?
Let’s not forget that the US was very much involved in initiating the Taliban and funding them. Pakistan still is very much relevant. Think about all superpowers. Think about Russia, Iran, and many more countries like that. I would be minimising the entire Taliban project if I would make it about Taliban soldiers on the ground. Those who kill people and beat people on the street, it’s much more than them. It has always been bigger than them. War itself is a huge business. There are people who actively benefit from the mess that has been created in Afghanistan.
The great game continues and unfortunately, it is never those who make the big moves on that great chess board that pay the price. It’s always the people on the ground who have never elected and chosen that particular path to pay the price for it. Sahar, it has been an emotional, deep, and insightful discussion.
We finished on a slightly sad note but I do want to say that I respect what you’ve done so far and what you’re doing. You deserve to have a voice and be heard. Your voice deserves to represent those loved ones of yours who are struggling in Afghanistan. I congratulate you on everything you’ve done. I wish you all the best. I will certainly keep an eye out and look forward to helping in any way I can.
Thank you so much, Maz. It is indeed was a very emotional conversation. I thank you for providing the platform and for the very heartfelt question, follow-up questions, and conversation. One last thing I want to say before I go is that anyone who’s reading this understands that we are doing everything to make you hear us. All you have to do is to start hearing.
Thank you, Sahar.