The truth behind a masked Afghanistan

May 06, 2013, 14:49 IST | Hassan M Kamal

In a country where human rights are often compromised in the name of religion, Afghanistan's women face daily struggles from all quarters. Afghan TV producer Sami Mahdi's path-breaking show, Neqab (The Mask), includes women who wear masks to face the TV cameras where they share stories of their trauma, thus putting women's rights violations in full global view. In a candid interview with Hassan M Kamal, Mahdi talks about the bumpy road he has had to tread to make this happen

She appears in a black burqa with her face covered with a two-faced mask — white on one side and blue on the other. She was married at the age of 15 to a man three times her age and known to be violent.

We see her, for the first time, in a recorded episode of the Afghan TV show, Neqab. She is sheepish but once she overcomes her initial reluctance, you hear about a life where violence was the only thing that never changed; throughout her married life she was beaten, often deprived of food and forced to have sexual relations with her husband. The woman in the mask, Mrs Yasmeen (name changed), complains to her father about why he put her through this, on television.

One of the victims of domestic violence appears on the show Neqab wearing a two-faced mask.

This is just one of the many stories that unfold on Neqab (The Mask), a path-breaking TV show in Afghanistan, that airs every week on 1TV, a private network in the country. The show, created by a young producer named Sami Mahdi, aired its first episode in 2010, and despite threatening phone calls to stop the show, it has aired three successful seasons, and is getting ready for the fourth season. So far, the show has uncovered cases where women faced domestic violence, were sexually abused and forced to marry to keep up the old traditions.

The panel on Neqab includes religious figures as well as human rights activists

Sharing lessons in pain
“Violence and discrimination against women start from the day she is born. With Neqab, we wanted to create a tribune for women who have been subject to domestic violence, to share their stories and experiences of violence. They will get sympathy from society and people will get to learn from these stories,” says Mahdi.

Although women have made significant political, economic and educational inroads since the Taliban rule was uprooted in 2001, even the Afghanistan Constitution recognised women’s right to education and voting. In 2009, the government even passed a decree banning violence against women, but that has failed to prevent violence towards women.

Sami Mahdi, producer, Neqab

According to an Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) report published in 2012, 3,331 instances of violence were reported between March to August 2012; 70.1% of the perpetrators were husbands followed by fathers. The report also cited that, in Afghanistan, women are considered as property (often sold and bought to settle disputes). The situation becomes all the more alarming when one finds out that 70% of women in Afghanistan are under the age of 30 (Afghan Mortality Survey, 2010).

It took Mahdi more than a year to find the first woman who was willing to appear on the show. “It was (and is) taboo to talk about domestic violence in public and they were concerned about the results (public reaction) of telling the story on television. For example, if a woman is a victim of sexual abuse like rape, nobody will be ready to marry her,” says Mahdi. In worst-case scenarios, rape victims also end up being punished for committing adultery; some even have to serve time in jail. 

Beneath the mask
“Finally, we decided to use the mask to conceal the victim’s identity. One part of the mask is blue, which is the traditional colour of the burqa (called Chaduri) in Afghanistan. The blue colour represents the violence, torture and painful stories of the women in my country. The second part is white which represents the innocence of the victim,” he says. Besides domestic violence, forced marriages were another big problem that surfaced on the show (according to AIHRC, 80% of marriages are forced). Mahdi says that most problems in Afghanistan have roots in old traditions and ignorance of basic rights, and he believes that shows like Neqab will create awareness about such issues. “In Afghanistan, the literacy rate is very low, most adults didn’t get a chance to go to school and don’t know the basic human rights. In such an environment, visual media can play a significant role in creating awareness,” he says. Mahdi believes that some changes can already be observed. “A new research shows that 53% of viewers for this show are men, who are our target audience.” 

To have a greater impact on viewers, Mahdi brought in human rights activists and professors from various universities to talk about human rights and laws of Afghanistan that govern people’s rights and women’s rights. He also included religious leaders, who Mahdi believes, play a very important role in the show. “We are a very religious country, the Constitution says that all laws should be in accordance with the Shariat and the Quran. Our experience shows that when a Mullah or a religious person comes on the show and talks about violence against women (that it’s against the Shariat), it has a larger impact on the people,” he adds.

Hope for a better future
In 2001, there was not a single school for girls in areas controlled by the Taliban (they were controlling almost 90% of the country). Now, according to independent studies, four million girls are going to school (40% of all children going to school in Afghanistan). Currently, 25% of the country’s Parliament is made up of female members and 750 female journalists are working in various media. “Now, the big question is regarding the sustainability of all these achievements,” says Mahdi.

As the government of President Hamid Karzai continues its peace talks with the conservative factions, and with the foreign troops ready to leave by 2014, some sections have raised concern that the progress achieved so far could be sacrificed for overall peace. However, Mahdi says, “A peace that doesn’t guarantee basic rights and freedom will never be accepted by the people.”

Facts and Figures:
>More than 76% women between 12-49 are illiterate
>70 to 80% marriages in Afghanistan are forced
> By 2012, 400 women and girls were in prison and juvenile detention for the ‘moral crime’ of running away from home or sex outside marriage. 

Afghan television: timeline
1964: Television was first introduced in Afghanistan with the government-owned Radio Television Afghanistan (RTA) founding two channels: RTA and Afghanistan National Television.
1996-2001 (Taliban rule): Television banned under Taliban rule. Stores were not allowed to sell TV sets, satellite dishes, VCRs, DVD players or video cameras. Anyone owning or watching TV was arrested and punished. RTA continued its services.
2001: US-led troops topple Taliban.
2002: RTA and Afghan National Television were launched again.
2005: Ariana TV, a private TV channel starts operations.
2005-2013: Private TV channels and independent programmes grow in size. Over 78 channels on air.
April 23, 2013: President Hamid Karzai passes a decree to ban un-Islamic programmes on television. 

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