Six years after Hardcash Productions’ Beneath The Veil, which examined the plight of women in Afghanistan, broadcast journalist Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy returned to the country. The resulting film, Afghan?istan – Lifting The Veil, offers a bleak insight into life in the country post-Taliban rule, as Obaid Chinoy meets women forced into marriage and living in poverty, but desperate to escape.
Born and raised in Pakistan, Obaid Chinoy this year became the youngest-ever winner of Broadcast Journalist of the Year at the One World Media Awards, celebrating coverage of the developing world.
Why did you return to Afghanistan to make Lifting The Veil?
There is a generation of women growing up in Afghanistan today who were made to believe they would grow up in a very different country, that all would be well when the Allied troops came into the country. But it isn’t so.
You know, women are being shot dead for working, schools are being burnt down, the Taliban is gaining ground, and a lot of this is being swept under the carpet because after Iraq, I don’t think the world has the stomach to take two wars going bad.
Do you think that international reporting of Afghanistan has improved?
I think that slowly, now, the shortcomings of Afghanistan are being reported. There was this hesitation to explore what’s going wrong in that country, especially what’s going wrong with the ordinary Afghans, and that’s what my film is about.
What’s happening to the ordinary Afghans? I think very often what you see on television, even in England, is the Taliban fighting or the British forces and you wonder what is life like for them? I think people forget, and want to forget, what life is like for the ordinary Afghans, the ones they are actually fighting for.
Is Lifting The Veil as bleak as Beneath The Veil, which was first broadcast six years ago?
It’s bleak because that’s how it is. As a woman, especially as a Muslim woman travelling through Afghan?istan, it was very difficult to see some of the things that I saw, because I genuinely thought that things were getting better for a lot of people.
You know, you heard about driving schools opening up for women, beauty schools opening up for women, but in my entire time there, I didn’t see a single woman driving a car. A lot of this is done for the show and tell of the western world.
The most extraordinary story you captured was that of the women who burn themselves in a public suicide attempt.
I actually physically thought I couldn’t go into the burns unit. Many of them were very disfigured and very shaken to speak, and I didn’t think I had the courage to spend so many days with these women.
There are many ways to die – you can take poison or jump in a river. But I think that if those women had died in that way, it would have been easy for the men of the family to cover it up, saying she had a heart attack, or she fell down or something.
But if you pour kerosene on yourself and you light a match, you’re making a statement. You’re saying look at me, I am in pain, I am in misery, I am not going to die quietly, I am making a point.
How did the women you met react to you as a Muslim woman?
What was most fascinating for me was the questions that Afghan women had for me. Because I’m Muslim and I’m from Pakistan, they couldn’t believe that I was travelling on my own with men; that I was travelling without my husband there.
I was working on television with nothing covering my head; how did I travel, what kind of restrictions did I have, where could I go and not go?
How difficult was it to interview the 14-year-old girl who was sold into marriage and who also tried to burn herself?
For me, the most revealing and most emotional moment with her was when the husband came into the room, and I had this intense urge just to free her.
He would come into the room to monitor our conversation, so every time I’d ask her a question, more often it would be something like, ‘What’s your favourite animal/colour?’ because I didn’t want to get her into trouble.
We had permission to speak to her, but I had to also be sure that the kind of questioning I was doing didn’t upset her family. So between asking her about being sold into marriage and her favourite colour being pink, I wanted to squeeze the answer out.
Can you remove yourself from the situations you have witnessed?
It’s very difficult to walk away from a situation knowing that you are going to leave and this person is going to stay. I have been known to give a mouthful to the men, and I’ve done it all my life. I try and control myself when I’m in these situations.
I feel that a good sermon to men in countries like Afghanistan does wonders, because women never talk back to men in those countries.
They don’t even know how to react to a woman talking back to them, or making intelligent conversation, and so sometimes I take advantage of it, and I tell the men, ‘what are you doing to the women? Can you not think straight? How can you have done this?’ And sometimes it works.