Fighting injustices for Afghan women

Filmmaker Roberta Staley crouches near Shah-Du-Shamshaira mosque where Farkhunda Malikzada was killed. | Photo courtesy of Roberta Staley

Roberta Staley, magazine editor, freelance writer and filmmaker, honours Frakhunda Malikzada, the 27-year-old Afghan woman who was brutally beaten, stoned, and then set ablaze in Kabul, Afghanistan, in March 2015.

Staley’s documentary, Mightier Than the Sword, premiers on Saturday, June 17 at Simon Fraser University’s Vancouver Harbour Centre campus. It will also screen at the upcoming Female Eye Film Festival and the Regina International Film Festival and Awards.

The murder of the young Afghan woman outraged many people, like Staley, who felt compelled to fight the injustices threatening the lives of Afghan women.

“I want to show the West that our NATO participation, including Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan, has brought about tremendous positive change, despite Afghanistan remaining one of the most dangerous places for a woman to live in the world,” says Staley.

Murder urges a response

The film follows three Afghan women who are linked by their personal outrage and disgust after learning about the murder of the young woman. Through film, television, scribe and song, they encourage dialogue on social issues that endanger the lives of Afghan women.

Sahar Fetrat received numerous awards for her film on street harassment in Afghanistan. The film captures the verbal and sexual abuse women endure, which created space for families to discuss harassment at home, forming a new social consciousness that it’s not acceptable for men to harass women on the street.

Mozhdah Jamalzadah,who was born in Afghanistan but raised in Vancouver, went back to Afghanistan to produce a wildly successful Oprah-like talk show after completing her studies at the British Columbia Institute of Technology. After Frakhunda Malikzada’s death, Jamalzadah received death threats from conservative factions within Afghan society. She was forced to end her TV show and leave Afghanistan.

“Mozhdah eventually came back as a singer,” says Staley. “One of her songs takes on Frakhunda’s voice from the grave. Protesting against a mob of a hundred men who set her body on fire for no good reason,” says Staley.

Viewers also follow Shakila Ibrahimknil, a journalist who chases leads on terrorist attacks. In an interview with Staley, she expresses the real danger of being a female reporter.

“Normally, when this type of incident or a suicide attack happens, I go and interview the victims’ families. After that, the Taliban were threatening me because my reports are too strong and provokes people against them… I fear the Taliban, and I am scared of them, but I cannot close my eyes to victims’ rights by not reporting their stories. I will continue to report on the victims no matter what,” says Ibrahimknil.

Media a battleground for Afghan women

When touring Afghanistan in 2012 for a writing gig, Staley noticed many Afghan women reporters, anchors and hosts. These outspoken female journalists contradict the utilitarian, religious and authoritative regime that led to Frakhunda Malikzada’s death.

“It was obvious to me that the [media] had become a battleground for Afghan women who were fighting to conquer what I identify as a culture of silence and invisibility,” says Staley.

When Staley returned to Canada, she entered a master’s program in liberal arts at Simon Fraser University. She opted to produce a documentary on Afghan women in media.

“I spent the month of June [in Afghanistan]. It was Ramadan, it was so hot, and we shot the documentary from sunrise to sunset,” says Staley.

Staley and her crew were constantly aware of the dangers of filming in Afghanistan. She had just completed some b-roll at the parliament building in Kabul. The next day, six Taliban soldiers armed with AK-47s stormed the grounds killing a dozen people.

“The only time I felt scared was when staying at a residence of expats and NGOs,” says Staley. “One morning, a Dutch NGO was kidnapped from her vehicle. This was a road we go up and down about four times a day.”

Friba Rezayee is the chair of the Vancouver chapter of Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan (CW4WAfghan), a non-profit organization with the goal of providing sustainable education programs for Afghan women and their families, and to engage Canadians as global citizens. Rezayee and Staley join forces to present the documentary Mightier Than the Sword.

“We need more documentary makers, journalists and agents of change, who can create bridges between countries, as Roberta has done,” says Rezayee.

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