NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

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.

Adjacent posts

  • Enjoyed what you just read? Make a donation


    Thank you for read­ing The Cas­ca­dia Advo­cate, the North­west Pro­gres­sive Insti­tute’s jour­nal of world, nation­al, and local pol­i­tics.

    Found­ed in March of 2004, The Cas­ca­dia Advo­cate has been help­ing peo­ple through­out the Pacif­ic North­west and beyond make sense of cur­rent events with rig­or­ous analy­sis and thought-pro­vok­ing com­men­tary for more than fif­teen years. The Cas­ca­dia Advo­cate is fund­ed by read­ers like you and trust­ed spon­sors. We don’t run ads or pub­lish con­tent in exchange for mon­ey.

    Help us keep The Cas­ca­dia Advo­cate edi­to­ri­al­ly inde­pen­dent and freely avail­able to all by becom­ing a mem­ber of the North­west Pro­gres­sive Insti­tute today. Or make a dona­tion to sus­tain our essen­tial research and advo­ca­cy jour­nal­ism.

    Your con­tri­bu­tion will allow us to con­tin­ue bring­ing you fea­tures like Last Week In Con­gress, live cov­er­age of events like Net­roots Nation or the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Con­ven­tion, and reviews of books and doc­u­men­tary films.

    Become an NPI mem­ber Make a one-time dona­tion