Afghan filmmakers go behind, beyond the burqa

Nasima Mustafa wants the world to see Afghanistan through her camera lens, even if it means filming through the mesh window of a burqa.

"It was hard to see," says Ms. Mustafa, one of 13 women training to be Afghanistan's first broadcast camerawomen and documentary filmmakers. "But when I have a burqa on, I feel safe."

In a country where, until a year ago, photography was banned, and women and girls were forced to stay home from school and work, these are not exactly roles in which most Afghans are keen to accept women. The fact that many members of the country's press - both male and female - still practice self-censorship further complicates these budding journalists' challenge. Most days, though, shooting on location, the women's most pressing concerns are for their own safety.

"Unfortunately, when [many people] see a woman with a camera, they're seeing something new, and they don't like it," says Mustafa, taking a break from filming a group of Afghanistan's best musicians. "We can see it in their eyes that they're not happy with us."

The women - being taught by aïna ("mirror"), a French aid group dedicated to the development of independent media in Afghanistan - have taken on some controversial topics during the year-long course. In their first four television features, produced here and shown on French television, the women turned their cameras on child labor and teenage marriages.

Mustafa chose an even more sensitive topic: women held in a decrepit Kabul prison because they left home to be with a man of their choosing, not one their family chose for them. Authorities keep them in jail, in part, because they are in danger of being killed by a family member.

"I studied the newspapers for a long time, and I wouldn't see any mention of these things," says Mustafa. "And I always thought: If I could become a journalist, those are the things I would want to show." Almost a month ago, she decided to abandon her burqa, and has since been wearing a simple black veil, wisps of brown and gold-highlighted hair peeking out around her face.

Familiar dangers

Her family didn't like the decision to take off the over-the-head blue cloak - nor her insistence on taking this uncharted career step. "I told my family that it's not good to go around with the burqa and then suddenly take it off in order to film, so it's better not to wear it," she explains. "They agreed, but my brothers really don't like it."

This is not the first time that Mustafa has done something a little radical. When the Taliban government was in power, she ran an underground school for girls in her home. Taliban values and modes of oppression, she says, had an impact on the country that she's afraid will take years to reverse.

Even now, Mustafa says, "the security forces are made up of very conservative people who don't want to see us. Even the families of the filmmakers don't want their daughters to be dishonored, so some of them have to wear the burqa when we work.

"I'm happy to be doing this," she says, "but I'm also a little frightened because of the security situation."

Polly Hyman, a freelance camerawoman from London, is training the women and witnessing the challenges of going out to film in public - or even of doing a simple broadcast 'standup,' where a correspondent reports from a scene on camera.

"A big problem is that if we're out filming in the streets, it's very dangerous for them. We bring a bodyguard," Ms. Hyman says. "We have been in situations where we were scared."

From censorship to self-censorship

A burgeoning media corps around Afghanistan has been keen to make new voices heard since the stifling Taliban fell. A year ago, a person could count the number of newspapers and periodicals in Kabul on one hand; now there are 60. Television programming has been expanding in Kabul; radio reaches about 70 percent of the country, according to Kabul Radio and Television.

But, observers say, some of the country's most important issues are still going unexplored. "The journalists are practicing a kind of self-censorship, a certain political correctness," says Eric Davin, aïna's director. "You can't deal too deeply with warlord issues, women's issues, religious issues."

The unwritten rules among journalists, he says, dictate that the government is so new and vulnerable that it isn't ready to be criticized.

But Mary Ayoubi, one of the students, says even regular Afghans are not yet ready to view the material the amateur filmmakers produce. She prefers that their productions continue, for the time being, to be shown abroad. "If we show it in Afghanistan, it will create problems for us," says Ms. Ayoubi, a skinny 23-year-old with chiseled features and locks of fair hair slipping out of her scarf.

Women on women

As part of the year's course, the students are making an hour-long documentary about Afghan women. They will travel all over Afghanistan and interview 100 women, using the best segments to focus on the issues most important to Afghan women.

"The whole crew is made up women, and that makes it easier for women to talk to us about how they feel," Mustafa says.

Indeed, it is far from certain whether the finished documentary will be shown in Afghanistan itself. The country's state-run television has recently adapted a neoconservative stance, banning from the air any footage of women singing or dancing - especially in sultry Indian movies. The decision, says M. Alam Ezedyar, the deputy head of broadcasting at Afghanistan Radio and Television, was made to rob the out-of-power fundamentalists of new fodder for a campaign against the government.

"The important thing is that in the current situation, we should not let [certain] women appear on TV, because the Taliban and Al Qaeda are still around and could use it as propaganda," says Mr. Alam Ezedyar. "They will tell all the local people that it is not permitted in Islam and that this government is un-Islamic."

But women working in the media - including as reporters or camerawomen - is fine, he says. Of about 1,900 Afghanistan Radio and Television employees, he boasts, some 700 of them are now women. (Three of those are in the course.)

Still, he says, the station has "no need" to air documentaries by independent journalists and filmmakers - by the aïna trainees or anyone else. "For that," he says, "we have our own staff."

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