Alka Sadat’s award-winning documentary Half-Value Life follows Maria Bashir, an Afghan female public prosecutor from Herat province, who deals with criminals, Mafia bands and narcotics smugglers. Bashir is the first female Afghan-Hindo women's rights activist; she focuses on eliminating violence against women. The film highlights several of Bashir's domestic violence and rape cases in families where the bride is still a child. IMOW interviewed both the director of Half-Value Life, Alka Sadat, and Maria Bashir, in this exclusive interview for Muslima.
IMOW: Alka, your film, Half Value Life, features Maria Bashir, the first woman Prosecutor General in Afghanistan, in Herat, a city known for its corruption and booming kidnapping and domestic violence. It’s a position that many felt a woman was “incapable to carry,” as you say. Can you explain more about how women are viewed?
ALKA: We've had more than 30 years of fighting in Afghanistan, and during this time Afghan women didn't have the chance to pursue their aspirations. Although things have changed in recent times and women have more opportunities, in many cases they still face threats to their lives if they step too far. In cities where the Taliban command more power than the government, women who wish to work face opposition from both the powers that be and often their families. There are changes, a lot of girls are going to school and we have women in government, but it's not enough. The years ahead worry me because it’s unclear what the future holds for women.
IMOW: Maria, considering this is the environment in which you earned the role and now work as the only woman Prosecutor General in Afghanistan, what an incredible accomplishment! Is this a blessing or a curse for you?
MARIA: Despite all its difficulties, being the first and only woman in the position of chief prosecutor of a province in history of Afghanistan is a blessing for me, not a curse. I consider this position a success for any Afghan woman.
IMOW: Maria, you’ve been extremely influential in guaranteeing women’s legal right to representation in Afghan courts and are working at great peril to your own safety to stamp out violence against women. In Alka’s film, we see an attack on your house. What drives you to keep doing this work even when your life is in danger?
MARIA: Whenever I ask myself where I get the energy to handle this job and withstand the threats, I’m reminded of how women suffer from injustice and have lots of problem in their daily lives. They must be protected according to the law. Instead of corrupted and incapable people enforcing the laws, educated and honest people must be in governmental positions—those who can do something positive.
On the other hand, I’m a mother of three children, and I know that children are the next generation. They will build the future of Afghanistan. I realize that if we do not sacrifice for them and the future of Afghanistan, who will? So I think anybody who loves Afghanistan and next generation of this country must work and sacrifice.
IMOW: Alka, you filmed Maria and got to know her, and saw the attack on her home. In your opinion, what drives her to keep doing this work even when her life is in danger?
ALKA: I met her some years ago. She has lived through the Taliban rule and an assassination attempt. At that time Afghan women faced very dark days; it was a particularly grim time. Everybody was scared to go to work. Now is the time for women to work and time for Afghan women to break their silence and raise their voices. As you said, Marya's life is in danger and she is doing a difficult job; it's a dangerous place to enforce justice. I am so proud of her. I believe now is the time for Afghan women to work and change their lives, and she's doing an incredible job. My hope is that she manages to improve the situation. The important thing is that she hasn't lost hope and she continues to persevere.
IMOW: Alka, by making this film—or just by being a filmmaker—are you putting your own life in danger, too?
ALKA: Sure. When I walk down the street I’m always afraid that someone may try to kill me. A year ago I felt safer than I do today, but I won't let that intimidate me from my work. I hope the security situation will improve, so I can have the space to perform my job even better. I love what I do and I trust that God will help me.
IMOW: How can the government of Afghanistan help women like the both of you to overcome the domestic violence and inequality depicted in the film and help keep women safe? It seems a natural right of all humans – to be safe in their own country.
MARIA: Unfortunately, the government of Afghanistan is facing severe problems such as lack of security, a weak economy, and lack of active and trained police officers. On the other hand, women’s rights, which are legal, are also not being totally respected in Afghanistan. Neither the government nor the people are willing to believe that women are important. Women are considered second-class citizens. Most of those who proclaim that they protect the rights of women and respect them never do so in reality.
ALKA: The problem with the government is corruption. We need a transparent and honest government in order to have peace. We want to feel protected when we leave our homes, unafraid that when we say goodbye to our families it won’t be for the last time. A lot of people in politics abuse their power, thinking no one can stop them because they have the upper hand. This mentality needs to change.
IMOW: What do both of you think are the top issues facing women in Afghanistan? Education? Work?
MARIA: The top issues facing women in Afghanistan are a weak economy and limited access to income. Women are mainly suffering from illiteracy, joblessness, and lack of knowledge about their rights.
ALKA: Education is much better these days—we have many more girls going to school and college. The Afghan people know the threat they face from the Taliban and extremists, but they won’t let it stop them. We’re implementing democracy in Afghanistan, and our aim is to educate our girls. We have two problems that stand in our way of this—the Taliban, and family pressures from people who believe their daughters should stay at home until they marry. We have a lot of underage marriages and we have girls who are out working on the street to earn an income for their families. They don’t receive any support from the government.
IMOW: In what ways do you think women in Afghanistan can help to address these issues and bring about change?
MARIA: First of all, I believe women must know their rights and have the confidence to believe that they have a key role in life. They should also believe that as a complete, independent human beings, they can and should use their talents and abilities, according to Sharia Law, in all walks of life.
ALKA: We need a women’s movement—women helping themselves and each other to achieve their rights, by reforming family law and other areas. I also think peace will bring equality to Afghanistan. If we have peace, it means more people can get an education and learn about women’s rights, amongst other things.
IMOW: Maria, working with the UN, you’ve been giving lectures at high schools and universities called, “If I Did It, You Can Do It, Too.” In brief, what is the message you’re giving to girls and young women?
MARIA: The message that I give to young girls is that there is no career that they cannot do as long as they are equipped with the knowledge. I also make them aware of their rights, and I tell them that if they work in the government of Afghanistan, they can have significant role in rule of law, and specifically justice for women. I believe it so important to lead society toward justice!
IMOW: Alka, I found it interesting in your film that the most common media in Afghanistan is the radio. Why do women listen to the radio all day? What are they hoping to hear?
ALKA: The radio was our connection to the outside world during Taliban rule. We weren’t allowed TVs or access to the Internet, or to magazines or newspapers, and so the radio was our only means of hearing the news and listening to music. It’s an excellent way of staying informed. It’s amazing how you can walk down the street here and strike a conversation with anyone and you’ll find them knowledgeable on politics and all sorts of topics. This is because they stay informed through the radio. Also, we would hear broadcasts of attacks in other areas, where we knew people—family, friends. So we were able to call them, check on them to see if they were okay. The radio was our lifeline.
IMOW: Maria, despite all the positive changes you’ve brought about, one of the criticisms against you is that your province is at the top of the list for jailing women on adultery charges. The UN estimates that close to 100 women have been convicted and jailed, some of who were rape victims. How do you respond to this? [Manizha Naderi, executive director of Women for Afghan Women says, “If she didn’t do this, she would be thrown out of office. The law is the problem, and not Marya Bashir.”]
MARIA: According to Sharia Law and panel code, adultery is a crime and has punishment accordingly. Arrests in adultery cases are made by the police, the police send cases to the prosecution office for further investigation, and then the case goes to the court. According to the law, the prosecution’s office must take action to investigate and follow the case. In short, when an action is against the law, it is absolutely a crime and prosecutors must ask punishment for perpetrators.
We enforce the law and our function must be according to the law as well. For example, we are enforcing the Law of Elimination of Violence against Women. Since the beginning of this year, we’ve handled more than 275 violence against women cases and have jailed about 191 men for committing crimes against women.
As I mentioned, before, we are enforcing the law and the one who breaches the law, must be punished according to the law. Gender is not an exception in this matter.
Special thanks to Women’s Voices Now for the use of HALF-VALUE LIFE and for introducing IMOW to Maria Bashir and Alka Sadat, who participated in Women's Voices from the Muslim World: A Short-Film Festival (2011). See more incredible films here http://womensvoicesnow.org/watch