After decades of war, Afghanistan remains a turbulent place to grow up for many women and girls. But a number of determined and irreverent women have emerged from the conflict there. Though women are still a minority, they are increasingly being recognized in non-traditional roles and striving for greater freedom of expression. French photographer and filmmaker Delphine Renou is aiming to tell their stories.
Renou first entered Afghanistan in 2012 with the French NGO Mothers For Peace, and was drawn to the women she met. Her latest project “Kabul Women” spotlights women who are striving not only to express themselves, but also to contribute meaningfully to Afghanistan’s future. Women in the World corresponded with Renou over email about the project, which is still in progress.
Women in the World: Where did your interest in the “Kabul Women” project begin?
Delphine Renou: During that first trip, I was impressed to see how the Afghans managed to live a “normal” life and be active while, all around them, fighting was going on. I was also surprised to see women driving, and boxing. I had heard of a female rap singer, a graffiti artist … I discovered a sort of Afghan woman I had not known about. In the media, we only hear of attacks, the Taliban, and the burqa in Afghanistan. And during this mission with the NGO, I had the chance to meet Habiba Sorabi (former Governor of Bamiyan province). Her charisma was so impressive that on returning to France, I decided to deepen my knowledge about these female fighters who are moving society forward. So I went back to Kabul in 2013 and 2014 to film women who are still exceptions across Afghanistan.
WITW: What response have you seen in Afghanistan to women in non-traditional roles?
DR: In big cities, there is no specific response since people get more and more used to it. But in the provinces and more specifically in villages, there are many different cases. Sometimes it can be surprise, anger and even aggression.
WITW: What do you think is preventing more women from pursuing non-traditional careers or an education in Afghanistan?
DR: In the upper and middle classes, nothing prevents women from engaging in non-traditional career or education, maybe just themselves by lack of idea or imagination. But in lower class and poor families, the families themselves will want their daughters to get married young and leave home. I’m confident that with a better economic situation this could change rapidly.
WITW: What’s the biggest obstacle for a woman looking to enter a male-dominated field in Afghanistan?
DR: There are a whole bunch of obstacles hindering the emancipation of women, all mixed in one concept: tradition. Shamsia Hassani, a graffiti artist who I followed told me “In Afghanistan, there is no museum, at least on the walls, my message will be seen by all.” But after receiving threats, she had to accept tagging in closed spaces, protected from view. The emancipation dreams still knock on the walls of prejudice. Fahima, a boxer, could not have exercised this discipline without the favorable agreement of her family. And Zohra (pictured above) must sometimes face stern looks when she is driving.
The emergence of this urban class is not without tension: disapproval of “the elders” who are very influential in the society, insults and threats from ultraconservative neighbors. The Taliban are also a concern for women. And the difference between the provinces and Kabul is very clear: in the provinces, women cannot emancipate themselves like women in large cities. In short, it is quite complex; there are several barriers that Afghan women must overcome.
WITW: What areas of Afghan society are still lacking women?
DR: The areas are many and extremely diverse to tell the truth: for instance, in Afghanistan, a woman riding a bicycle or a horse will be frowned upon, but sport is opening widely to women. Furthermore, I will highlight some unexpected areas open to women such as news or politics in which more than 27 percent of MPs are women, more than the world average (21.7 percent). Recently, Niloofar Rahmani became the first female airplane pilot in the history of the country. There is a willingness to put women on the front of the stage, with the first lady Rula Ghani expressing herself in the media, which was not the case before. Women occupy more and more space, whether artistic, media or sports. Even if it is still a minority who can do so, this minority is growing constantly. All of them hope this new visibility will protect their progress from backtracking.
WITW: What do you think this next generation of women can contribute to Afghanistan
DR: The new generation has experienced exile and war. Young people are exhausted by violence; they do not want to hear about combat anymore. They want to work, open themselves to the world and work for their country. I was impressed by the strength of these young women who carry a project of peace and emancipation on their shoulders. After school, a young woman like Shabnam, a journalism student, was active in NGOs fighting for the rights of women and against corruption. This “Hope Generation” as the media have dubbed it, has a head full of dreams. They want to show the world that they have hope and want to live at 100 miles per hour because they know that everything could stop suddenly.
WITW: What are your hopes for the project “Kabul Women”? What’s next for the project?
DR: I would like this project to show that there is more to Afghanistan than the Taliban, the burqa, the war … to show the strength and courage of these young women but also of the men who support them in this momentum of emancipation. I will soon return to Kabul to finish shooting the film. This project is realized and financed independently and unfortunately it advances slowly. I hope it will emerge by 2016 on an accessible-to-all website. I want to show people a side of Afghanistan that is seldom seen. I want to let people discover this young generation of women in a different, imaginative and artistic way.
Below, watch the trailer for “Kabul Women”:
This interview was translated from French to English by Dominique Dupuy and condensed and edited.