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Ten things I love about being an Afghan woman

Monday, 12 March 2012

by Noorjahan Akbar 

There are a lot of negative ways in which we treat women in this country. Child marriage, forced marriages, violence against women, preventing women from education, women’s harassment in public and at work, lack of women’s access to services, etc. All this makes life very dim and difficult for women in Afghanistan. I have written ten things that make me happy about our life with the hope that the list will grow and we will only have positive things to say about our lives as women some day. This list does not mean we have it easy; we have it really hard and things seem to be getting worse for women, but it is just a reminder of the fact that even in the hardest times, there are rays of hope if you search for them.

1. I love our physical and emotional strength and resilience of spirit. I have met Afghan women who work all day on the fields, pushing and pulling cows and weeding the land. They never complain about how heavy the work is and how hot the sun is. I have met women who have given birth to seven children and are looking forward to their eighth. Don’t you dare tell me women are physically weak, because I will believe that when I see a man push seven babies out and go work on the field next week. I know an Afghan woman who has lost her husband and her son but has been a champion at raising her daughter as a single mother. She has never given up on the education and wellbeing of her daughter and her resilience has never allowed her to believe that she should stop fighting because she is a woman.

2. I love our sense of humor. I know an Afghan woman who is able to make misogyny, violence, and heart break funny to not lose hope and to allow others to see the light at the end of the long dark tunnel. I love all the funny songs about forced marriages and being married to older men that serve both as advocacy and humor and point to the resilience of Afghan women.

3. I love our stories! Unlike Snow White or Cinderella, where the princess is saved by some magical prince, the stories that my grandma told us about those of powerful witches and queens. We have hundreds of stories about how women chose their husbands through having several conditions for the men and how the smart princess throws off an entire kingdom by marrying a shopkeeper that she picks.

4. I love our dolls. Growing up we made our dolls with cloth, instead of buying plastic Barbie dolls that are so thin that they look like they are on the verge of collapsing. We would spend days and days building these dolls from the old cloth that our mothers would throw away and the pieces of stick that we found laying around the street. We used pencils to draw eyes and eyebrows; they were not skinny, blue-eyed and blond, but creative and soft with dark black eyes drawn with color pencil.

5. I love that our beauty is not measured by our pounds/kilos. Weight has never been our unit for beauty and elegance; in fact we are always taught that a few kilos of fat here and there make you beautiful and healthy. We actually use the word “healthy” about women who are not thin or skinny.

6. I love our songs! Women’s Pashtu Landay, Uzbeki, Hazaragi and Persian Dubaiti, and the long story-songs in Badakhshan, are all so powerful. These songs focus on our lives as women and bring out our voices. They empower our little girls and keep our old grandmothers busy. They are written in the notebooks of every girl who can read and write and they will remain the feminist side of our history.

7. I love our history. While there are dark pages in the history of women in Afghanistan, the numbers of women (and some men) who have risked everything for us to be able to live a better life are living inspirations in our hearts. From Rabia Balkhi, who was killed for her poetry, to Anahita Ratebzada, who proved that women can be excellent ministers, to Mahmood Tarzi, who prioritized the education of her daughter, to Meena, who advocated for a free Afghanistan, to King Amanullah Khan, who started women’s freedom from his own family, to Setara Achakzai, who fought peacefully for women’s empowerment to her last breath, and Safia Ahmedjan, who never gave up no matter how much they threatened her, these women and men will remain with us forever reminding us of the risky journey that one must take for the worthy cause of freedom.

8. I love our sense of unity. I have talked often with my friends about how women in Afghanistan are much more likely to make friends with women of different ethnicities that most men are. There is a growing sense of solidarity that no matter where you are from and what you look like, if you are a woman; you should support other women- now there are exceptions to this, sadly. As a wise woman once said, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t support each other,” and I think most of us, Afghan women, understand that.

9. I love our diversity. Just traveling to a few provinces in Afghanistan you will witness how diverse women’s cultures are. Our stories, songs, gatherings, ceremonies, and clothing are so diverse and stunning. Walking through Kabul you will see another face of diversity. Women wear different things, talk in different accents, work in different places, believe in different ways of struggling for their rights, eat different things, but at the end of the day, they are all women.

10. I love our Afghan dresses. The colorful and embroidered dresses- short and long- are probably my favorite style of clothing. There are hundreds of kinds of dresses, from the long /hazaragi dress to the Kochai dress to the more modernized dresses that you can wear with leggings or tights and high-heeled boots and the long dresses that you can wear to a dance and shine like nobody’s business- they are all so beautiful! I am on a mission of getting one from every area of the country, so if you have one for sale, let me know! And if you don’t have one, you are missing out on elegance and beauty. Go, get one.

Happy International Women’s Day

Today I am thankful for women around the world. From my mother, currently working with USAID in Nairobi, to the mothers and daughters in Afghanistan, especially those who are juggling work, raising a family, and pursuing an education, while a whirlwind of political posturing and beating of chests plays out in the background. In Afghanistan and in other conflicted lands, women so often act as a mediating force of reason, likely to think of the greater good and of future generations before acting selfishly.

I was invited to screen my film yesterday for the FTC’s Office of Equal Employment Opportunity in honor of Women’s History Month, and for the first time it struck me how none of the women mention politics or war as a solution to anyone’s problems. It’s quite amazing, in this time of international belligerence made worse by electoral politics, to think how many voices for peace and sensibility are silenced because of their gender. So let’s be thankful for the women who have made their voices be heard. And let’s hope for more civility from our elected leaders when it comes to women’s issues. I’ve heard Americans, politicians and pundits alike, proudly spouting hateful agendas recently that seem to contradict the moral reasons the same people claimed were the grounds for war against the Taliban just a decade ago.

We can do much better than that! To close, I’d like to share my favorite Beastie Boys quote: “To all our mothers and our sisters and our wives and friends, we’d like to offer our love and respect to the end”. Have a great week!



2011 Wrap-Up


It has now been a year since I left Afghanistan. I had hoped to return in 2011, but a production I was supposed to join up with fell apart days before I was meant to leave. Let’s just say a type-A producer who thought he could bluster his way out of any problem pushed his luck too far with his funder, and I had to come up with Plan B. The upside was that this allowed me to take “Waterwheel” around to more screenings in Santa Paula and St. Helena, California, and accompany it to the Alexandria Film Festival in Virginia, the Reel Independent Film Extravaganza in Washington, DC, and send it off to the Napa Valley Film Festival, which I wasn’t able to attend in person.


My mother and I capped off the exhibition tour with a screening at the Avalon Theatre in Washington, DC, which was well attended and raised over $10,000 for the Afghanistan Women Council. Not too bad. My mother has superior fundraising and organizing skills, without which this documentary might have just been a conversation piece, but she helped turn each screening into a successful fundraising event.


Finally, I was thrilled to sit down for an interview with Voice of America’s Philippa Levenberg for their weekly special broadcast on Afghan TV. They profiled the AWC for 5 minutes, which is wonderful exposure, especially for the female audience. I’d love to know what kind of conversations this sparked about education in Afghan households! The video can be found here.


2011 has been a great year for the AWC, and I look forward to continued partnership with them. I am going to try to visit Afghanistan again in 2012, both to revisit the AWC and hopefully to find some new organizations and people to talk to. I look forward to sharing their stories with you.

Festival Time!

It’s hard to believe that almost a year has passed since I began filming for Weep Like The Waterwheel! I have received such positive feedback at screenings in Santa Paula and St. Helena, California, as well as other private showings. Now the time has come to show it to a wider audience. I am excited to announce the upcoming lineup for Waterwheel’s festival appearances this fall:

October 22: WLTW will be showing at the Reel Independent Film Extravaganza at 4PM at THEARC Theater, 1901 Mississippi Ave. SE, Washington, DC 20020. FILMMAKER IN ATTENDANCE

November 6: Alexandria Film Festival at 2:45PM in the George Washington Masonic Temple, which is worth seeing on its own. My film will be followed by another excellent documentary, Weapon of War. After the screenings I will be a panel featuring the other filmmakers and acclaimed Afghan-American author and humanitarian Suraya Sadeed.

November 12: I’m heading back to California to present my film as part of the Napa Valley Film Festival. It will be showing in the Lincoln Theater in Yountville at 11AM, so make sure your lunch reservation at the French Laundry doesn’t conflict (just kidding; you probably made that reservation at least a year in advance!).

November 20: While I love festivals, I wanted to give WLTW a big homecoming and a chance to shine on its own. So I’m putting on a fundraising event at the Avalon Theatre, 5612 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20015. The program will begin at 5:30PM with a brief introduction to be followed by a Q&A. Space is limited so please RSVP now to waterwheelmovie@gmail.com!

That’s all for now! I never thought this little film would generate as much interest and support as it already has. Thank you to everybody who has donated to the AWC, and even those who just watched the film; the fact that so many of you have taken time out of your busy lives to listen to these Afghan women is truly moving.

About the Film

My name is Alex Footman, and I am a documentary filmmaker currently based in Washington, DC. This winter I made a documentary while living in Afghanistan for two and a half months about an amazing group of women who work and study at the Afghanistan Women Council, an organization founded in Peshawar, Pakistan in 1986 by Mme. Fatana Gailani to provide training to thousands of Afghan women refugees in literacy, livelihood skills, child care, and family health and hygiene.

The film was shot in and around two AWC vocational centers which train 150 Afghan women annually. At the end of the 12-month training, each woman receives a microfinance loan of $130 USD to start a small business. Literacy and microfinance are known empowerment tools, as women who become literate and generate family income are better able to nurture and educate their children and steer a path away from extremist elements.

The stories these women share show that beyond the constant reports of war coming from Afghanistan, there is a breadth to daily life there which is largely unknown to outsiders. Many of these women have experienced abuse, repression, and poverty; the simple act of going to school puts them in danger every day. But there is hope for a better future, and many women have already seen the benefits in their homes and communities that education can bring, especially for the youth.

The resulting documentary film captures the challenges and achievements of Afghan women struggling against custom and tradition to claim their rightful places in Afghan society. It features an original soundtrack performed by musicians from the National Academy of Music in Kabul. The film will not be shown in Afghanistan in order to protect the identities of the courageous women who shared their stories.

Their hope is that exposure in the United States will allow viewers to see them and their country in a new light. If you would like to host a screening or have questions about the AWC, contact Alex Footman today at alexanderfootman@gmail.com.