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Escaping Afghanistan: Refugee Filmmaker Nelofer Pazira Pens a Letter of Hope to the Endangered Afghan Women

As a teenager, Nelofer Pazira fled Afghanistan. But while she may have left a nation in turmoil, her attachment to her roots and homeland has been unwavering. A journalist and filmmaker, Pazira co-produced, co-directed, and starred in the 2003 documentary Return to Kandahar, which tracks her journey trying to return to Afghanistan to save her childhood friend. In 2006, she released her award-winning memoir, A Bed of Red Flowers: In Search of My Afghanistan. She also founded a charity to help educate Afghan women in rural areas. Amid the Taliban takeover, Pazira reflects on the strength and resilience of Afghan women, who are gravely anxious to see what the future holds for them under this repressive regime.

Nelofer Pazira filming Return to Kandahar. Photo: Supplied

“I grew up in Kabul during the Soviet war and Russian occupation of Afghanistan. The wars were starting in the countryside, and we would hear about them from BBC Persian services, which my father would listen to at 8pm every night. The signal was very bad, sometimes it would disappear, but that was the only source of real information we had.

I was in high school, and at that time how we wanted to dress and whether we chose to study was left up to women and their families – there was no government interference in any of those matters. I joined an Islamic youth group to resist the occupation of the Russians, because as Afghans we don’t like any occupying forces. Within the group there was no religious dictate or suggestion of any kind of dress code – there were more young women involved than men.

By 1989, the situation had become so difficult that my parents didn’t want to stay in the country anymore. We wore the full burkas to conceal our identities, and left early morning with a smuggler, by foot. We had a small bag with us that had some dried fruit, blankets, and candles. I was 16. I took a pen I used to write with a lot, and my books – at that age small things can be precious to you – but we left everything else behind. We walked for 10 days across the countryside, passed through the government checkpoints and got to Pakistan, and lived there for a year. My father got accepted to go to Canada as a refugee because he was a medical doctor, and we ended up living in that country.

Pazira [in red vest] with her parents [Jamila and Habibullah Pazira], her younger brother [Hassibullah], younger sister [Mejgan] and a cousin in Kabul, 1980s. Photo: Supplied

I had a close friend in Kabul and when I arrived in Canada, we started writing letters back and forth – they would take three to four months to arrive; it was never quick. It’s almost difficult to understand that concept now in the age of technology where we just message instantly. My friend lived through the civil war, and I have letters from her that describe the gunmen in the streets fighting against each other, with civilians caught in the middle. Then in 1996 the Taliban came to power, and everything changed – for the worse. She couldn’t leave her home, became depressed, and only after the Taliban had gone, I discovered she had killed herself. Unfortunately, a lot of Afghan women took their own lives during that period, because there was just nothing left.

As women we have the strength to endure and tolerate a lot, but that doesn’t mean we have to. You could have all the strength to fight, but when you take away hope and close that door completely, that strength runs out.

I started a charity, Dyana Afghan Women’s Fund, in memory of my friend. I wanted to help with educating women, but in a sustainable way. I’ve traveled across Afghanistan and everybody I talked to would complain that NGOs just come, give them one class, and then disappear. We worked in remote parts of Afghanistan through local teachers – we would start with one woman, pay her rent for the use of her house as a classroom, and the women in her surrounding would come for two to three hours a day. We also established a small daycare center there so the women wouldn’t be criticised by their families for not looking after their children. We taught them literacy, numeracy, female hygiene, and reproduction – some also wanted to learn how to use computers if they had hopes of getting jobs. But since the return of the Taliban, the teacher has closed her home and our supervisor was just evacuated from Kabul.

My hope is that once we have a bit of certainty about this political situation, we’ll be able to continue the work, because you can evacuate a few thousand, but the country is still there with millions of people. Days and weeks go by, and a girl who was six when the Taliban entered, soon enough is going to be seven, and what happens to her future?

From the moment the Taliban entered Kabul, the impact on women was clear. My aunt in Kabul is a schoolteacher: she says that if they reopen schools to female teachers and students, she will go back – she loves her job. But what about the burka? She’s a modestly dressed woman, and she wears a scarf over her head, but she doesn’t like wearing the burka, she finds it difficult for breathing.

Pazira in Kabul, winter of 1989. Photo: Supplied

There’s a real fear right now for women’s safety, security, and freedom. It’s fear of what the Taliban did before – if someone has done something so brutally wrong to you, how can you trust that they will not do it again? Women, especially in Kabul, want assurances. But what kind of assurances can you give them, besides what you show in practice? Everyone’s waiting to see if the Taliban will be how they used to be, or if they will modify and give us some degree of opportunities as women – but even if they do, will their soldiers comply? How much power can they exert over this group of young soldiers who only know how to fight?

If there’s a civil war, what choices will women have? Either flee the country, or hide in their homes. It’s heart-breaking, and this is why I feel angry as a woman: we talk about women’s rights and equality in a kind of polemic, academic way but when it comes to the reality of it, there is not enough we do. That’s my plea to the outside world: instead of just talking about it, find genuine and meaningful ways to provide some degree of support for women. Afghan women are resilient – but they will not be able to survive without any kind of hope or practical support.

You could say that a lot of people didn’t know about it back then, but now, this time around, we have a sense of it, we know what happened in the past. Our hope is that it will never get to that.”

As told to Hafsa Lodi

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