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Saturday, June 30th, 2018

SIFF Documentary Reviews: “Afghan Cycles” and “The Poetess” tell the stories of groundbreaking women in the Middle East

“We are the role mod­els for oth­er girls, show­ing them that they can live free,” says Frozan, a mem­ber of the Wom­en’s Nation­al Cycling Team of Afghanistan.

She is one of a small group of brave young women in Kab­ul who risk their lives by rid­ing bicy­cles in a coun­try where the large influ­ence of the Tal­iban cre­ates dan­gers for all, but espe­cial­ly for women. Their lives are very restrict­ed by extrem­ists bent on enforc­ing their ideals, with vio­lence if necessary.

Frozan and oth­er women cyclists are the inspir­ing sub­jects of “Afghan Cycles”, direct­ed by Seat­tle local Sarah Men­zies. The film had its U.S. pre­miere at The Seat­tle Inter­na­tion­al Film Fes­ti­val on May 20th.

I asked Men­zies how she first learned about these trail-blaz­ing women.

“A friend and col­league of mine, Shan­non Galpin, orig­i­nal­ly told me about the Nation­al Team in Kab­ul,” Men­zies said. “She had been doing dif­fer­ent types of aid work in Afghanistan and was inter­est­ed in shift­ing her focus toward sup­port­ing the groundswell of cyclists that was just begin­ning to gain momen­tum. That was back in 2013. That spring we went to Kab­ul to meet the women that made up the team and see if there was a sto­ry there.”

Men­zies was orig­i­nal­ly plan­ning on mak­ing a short film, but she real­ized almost imme­di­ate­ly that there was a much big­ger sto­ry to be told.  “Thus began our 5 year pro­duc­tion of Afghan Cycles,” she said.

Frozan and the oth­er mem­bers of the time face many chal­lenges to pur­su­ing cycling. The Tal­iban still con­trols much of Afghanistan, and even in those areas where there is not a strong Tal­iban pres­ence, the influ­ence of their extrem­ism is still felt.

Wom­en’s bod­ies must be ful­ly cov­ered, so the team mem­bers train in long sleeves, pants, and with their head­scarves under their helmets.

But even so, some peo­ple still find what they are wear­ing to be inap­pro­pri­ate and what they are doing indecent.

“Afghanistan is one of the most dif­fi­cult coun­tries in the world for women, there’s no ques­tion about that,” says Heather Barr, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch fea­tured in the film. She says there are large rur­al areas, con­trolled by the Tal­iban, where women don’t even leave their home.

Even in less-con­ser­v­a­tive Kab­ul and North­ern parts of the coun­try, women must have the per­mis­sion of their father or hus­band to go anywhere.

Bamiyan also has a wom­en’s cycling team, but one mem­ber had to quit because her broth­er did not approve of her being on the team. But despite the chal­lenges, these brave women are deter­mined to con­tin­ue in their sport, not just for them­selves but to break down bar­ri­ers for women in their country.

Says Frozan: “We want to bring a bik­ing cul­ture to all girls, so they are able to use the bicy­cle to go to school, uni­ver­si­ty, the city, the mar­ket, to get gro­ceries by themselves.”

Frozan’s moth­er remem­bers when there was peace in Afghanistan. It was a democ­ra­cy and women had free­dom to wear and do what they wanted.

She hopes things will change and be sta­ble again.

“My hope is not only for my daugh­ter, but for all the peo­ple of Afghanistan, espe­cial­ly for the girls and the women, to be able to stand on their own feet.”

When I asked Men­zies if she thought things in Afghanistan are get­ting bet­ter or worse right now, she was not optimistic.

“Unfor­tu­nate­ly things are get­ting worse,” she said.

“It’s been very dif­fi­cult to be so far away pro­mot­ing this film know­ing that many of our char­ac­ters are still there liv­ing in con­stant fear.”

I also Men­zies if she wor­ried about her safe­ty while she was in Afghanistan mak­ing the film.

“Being in Afghanistan cer­tain­ly has an inher­ent risk that I don’t want to down­play. How­ev­er much of my time there was spent in more pro­gres­sive areas where women are able to get on bicy­cles for the most part. In oth­er parts of the coun­try where the Tal­iban is the gov­ern­ing force, a woman on a bicy­cle would be a death sen­tence. While my expe­ri­ence was rel­a­tive­ly shel­tered, I cer­tain­ly kept my eyes open and remained focused on my sur­round­ings. Things hap­pen, you can eas­i­ly be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Afghans know that real­i­ty all too well.”

Yet the women of the cycle team face the risks every day and to blaze a trail for all the women of Afghanistan.

Fol­low the film on Face­book to find out about their upcom­ing screenings.

Anoth­er very dif­fi­cult coun­try for women is Sau­di Ara­bia. It is the home coun­try of Hissa Hilal, who in 2010 became known through­out the Mid­dle East, and indeed the world, not just for being a woman break­ing ground in an are­na dom­i­nat­ed by men, but for direct­ly call­ing out reli­gious extrem­ism while doing it.

Her sto­ry is the sub­ject of anoth­er film fea­tured at SIFF this year, “The Poet­ess.”

On screen for almost the entire film, we nev­er see more than her eyes and the skin just around them, as she wears a niqab, a type of cov­er­ing not just for her head but her face as well. Women in Sau­di Ara­bia must remain cov­ered at all times when out­side the home, or face arrest from the extrem­ist reli­gious forces empow­ered by the King to con­trol edu­ca­tion, cul­ture, and the media.

To even leave the home, women must have per­mis­sion from their husbands.

In “Mil­lion’s Poet,” a show made in the Unit­ed Arab Emi­rates and immense­ly pop­u­lar through­out the Arab world, Hilal was the first woman to advance to the finals. Called the “Amer­i­can Idol” of poet­ry, con­tes­tants on the show read the poems they have com­posed in the tra­di­tion­al Nabati style.

Judges on the show praised Hilal for her impres­sive skill in this respect­ed Arab art form. While a few oth­er women had been on the show before, Hilal was clear­ly the most tal­ent­ed and advanced fur­ther than any women had in pre­vi­ous sea­sons of the show. But what made her achieve­ment even more amaz­ing was the top­ics she addressed in her poems.

She spoke of the rela­tion­ship between men and women, and their roles in Sau­di soci­ety. In the third round of the com­pe­ti­tion, her poem, titled “Fat­was”, attacked the repres­sive edicts issued by reli­gious lead­ers. It was after a jour­nal­ist wrote an arti­cle about Hilal and this poem that, in Hilal’s words, “every­thing exploded.”

Media from all over the world were inter­view­ing her and doing sto­ries on her and the show. While Hilal, who describes her­self as a mod­er­ate Mus­lim woman, used the inter­views as a vehi­cle to con­tin­ue to speak out against reli­gious extrem­ism, she also start­ed receiv­ing many threats.

“If they kill me, I am a mar­tyr for human­i­ty,” said Hilal.

Coun­ter­ing the threats, Hilal was also con­tact­ed by Arabs and Mus­lims around that world who thanked her for speak­ing out and to voice their sup­port for her.

Hilal said that the fat­was and rules imposed by reli­gious extrem­ists are not true Islam, but “polit­i­cal reli­gion.” She notes the his­to­ry of wom­en’s attire such as burqas, which made sense when Bedoin women wore them to pro­tect them­selves from the dust and sun of the desert, but which extrem­ists start­ed forc­ing women to wear as they gained pow­er in the ear­ly 1980s.

There aren’t just strict rules on wom­en’s dress, but on social inter­act­ed between the sex­es. Women and men can­not gath­er in the same place in Sau­di Ara­bia, and the rules are so rigid that a woman can­not even walk into a room and greet her male relatives.

“When you iso­late women, you iso­late the soul of the whole soci­ety,” said Hilal.

While Hilal did not win “Mil­lion’s Poet”, she placed high­er than any woman ever had, and drew great sup­port and atten­tion to the fight against reli­gious extrem­ism in Sau­di Ara­bia and through­out the Mid­dle East.

It is not­ed at the end of the film that in 2016, the King stripped the reli­gious author­i­ties of pow­er, so they can no longer arrest indi­vid­u­als for things like vio­lat­ing the dress code.

How­ev­er, women still must get per­mis­sion from their hus­bands to do things like work or trav­el. If more women like Hilal (and men, too!) start to stand up, speak out, and push back against reli­gious extrem­ism, more sig­nif­i­cant progress can be made towards full free­dom for women and all mem­bers of Arab society.

Hilal and the women cyclists of Afghanistan are tru­ly pas­sion­ate, brave, and ded­i­cat­ed women who were inspir­ing sub­jects for these excel­lent documentaries.

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