Q&A: Filmmaker Roberta Staley on Women in Media and Gender Equality in Afghanistan

Afghanistan is not an easy place to be a woman—the war-torn Central Asian nation currently ranks 152 out of 155 countries in the United Nations Development Program gender equality index. But Roberta Staley, an award-winning Vancouver writer and editor, sees hope via the increasing participation of women in Afghan media.

Staley spotlights three dynamic women–a singer, TV reporter and activist filmmaker–in Mightier Than the Sword, her first documentary which completed her Master’s degree in graduate liberal studies at Simon Fraser University. Shot in Afghanistan in 2015, it’s currently under consideration for multiple film festivals and is nominated for Direction and Screenwriting at the Leo Awards, the awards program for the British Columbia film and television industry.

Ms. chatted with Staley about the film and the impact media can have on women’s lives in Afghanistan.

What inspired you to make Mightier Than the Sword?

I was in Afghanistan in 2012, doing magazine stories on women’s issues, culture, education and gender equality. I drove up into the provinces north of Kabul to see some school projects and teacher training programs, and I noticed this ubiquity of media. There were all sorts of TV and radio stations, mostly in Dari or Pashto. There were so many newspapers and magazines, and some of them were in English. I realized there was this incredibly dynamic media sector in Afghanistan—and I’d never read anything about it.

What struck you about the impact women were having on Afghan media?

I saw female anchors and newspaper reporters, and I said: “Wow! This is amazing that women are getting into the media. First and foremost, that puts them front and center, breaking down this cultural imperative.” I didn’t know about this, and I think it’s really important that people know about the big changes that have gone on in Afghanistan. I think there was so much disappointment in the West, so much dismay about our time and money spent in Afghanistan and whether it had just been a huge waste.

So I wanted this story to get out, and I decided that if I was going to do a story about modern media and changing media, I’d have to do that in another form than the one I usually use, which is magazines. We’re becoming so much more visual.

What was it like to shoot the documentary in June 2015 during Ramadan?

It’s extremely hot. It’s about 95 degrees. So everyone is dying of thirst and has really low blood sugar because they’re not eating. Everyone is in a really lousy mood. Of course you end up starving and dying of thirst during the day as well! So that took a month. I really probably prepared six months before that, from the beginning of 2015. To edit all the footage afterwards was a colossal undertaking.

You spotlight Mozhdah Jamalzadah, the Vancouver-raised singer who faced death threats as the “Oprah of Afghanistan” with her TV talk show in the early 2010’s. What impressed you most about her?

In the core of her being, she has this determination to help the women of Afghanistan however she can, by using these prodigious talents she has. She’s so inspiring, and that’s why extremist groups are so afraid of her.

As you document, Mozhdah did a song about Farkhunda, a Kabul woman who in 2015 was falsely accused of burning the Quran and then murdered by a mob. What effect did media coverage of that event have?

When the Farkhunda murder happened, there was a power outage. So the rest of the country didn’t find out about this right away. But participants in this heinous crime and onlookers recorded it on their phones and posted it to the Internet. That alerted international media as well as protestors around Afghanistan and the rest of the world. Certainly during the time of the Taliban, no one would even have noticed the brutal murder of a woman. Now, people see the reaction of the rest of the world to things like that and say: “Oh! It’s really not OK. Look at how people are reacting.” The whole issue of street harassment has become such a big thing. It’s one of the really despicable things over there. You see that in a lot of parts of the world where there’s repression. Sexual urges tend to come out in very deviant ways. Now there’s a web site based in Kabul where people can go and talk about what to do and report on cases. Women are generating action. Media has changed women’s lives.

Was there a moment that changed your vision of what Afghanistan could be?

Mozhdah and some other Afghan singers had an outdoor concert on the grounds of Khurshid TV in Kabul. It was very professionally done with beautiful lighting and a good sound system. All the women sat right at the front. They were dressed in beautiful traditional clothes, bright colors decorated with tiny bits of mirrors and glass. At the back were all the men. When night fell, the lights came on and people started singing. It was crazy! It was a different Afghanistan. All these young people were crazy with joy, dancing and clapping and waving their arms. It gave you hope and made you realize that if only the security problems could be brought under control, this is a country whose youth are so full of energy and latent joy that there would be no stopping them.

What does access to media mean for young Afghan women?

Even in those profoundly conservative areas, about 70 percent of girls have a cell phone or access to one. They have 3G and 4G in Afghanistan. So people can download videos from YouTube. Girls in these areas are also starting to use all these apps like FaceTime, Viber and WhatsApp to chat with other girls from around the world. It’s remarkable how media has opened up their world and their eyes. It shows them a different reality and the possibility of changing their lives. Their fate doesn’t have to be sealed by the traditions and conventions that they were born into.

What kind of wide-ranging impact do you hope your documentary will have?

If it actually shows the impact of what media has done for women in Afghanistan, it will also help the West to realize again how important media is. To some degree, the West has realized that, as a result of the Trump administration’s attack on the media. But I really hope it’s part of that movement to say, “Hey, the media is so important. It’s helping change women’s lives, culture and society in a way that’s really positive in Afghanistan, and it will continue to do that here in the West too.”

Lucas Aykroyd is a Vancouver-based writer and public speaker whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Globe and Mail. He has covered women’s sports at four Olympics and interviewed the likes of ABBA, Jennifer Garner and Katarina Witt. In 2017, he launched the Irene Adler Prize, a $1,000 scholarship for women writers.

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