The teenager had just been rescued from weeks of imprisonment and torture at the hands of her husband’s family. Sahar Gul had been sold to the family to pay a debt but she refused to become a prostitute to bring in more money.
She was cut, burned with cigarettes, beaten to a pulp and many of her fingernails were ripped out. She was barely alive when police found her.
Across town, another teenager refused to look away and dismiss the attack as just another incident in a country where - even after the ultra-misogyny of the Taliban has retreated into isolated pockets - the plight of women remains desperate and downtrodden.
Noorjahan Akbar added Sahar Gul to her casebook.
“I think when you are born a woman in Afghanistan you are taught every day to hate yourself. We don’t know how to respect women, neither men nor women , no one knows it, women don’t respect themselves.” NOORJAHAN AKBAR, Activist.
When Foreign Correspondent’s Trevor Bormann accompanies Noorjahan on a visit to Sahar’s hospital ward a profoundly moving meeting unfolds. A deep friendship has developed between the two and Noorjahan spends time consoling and encouraging Sahar, even treating her mangled fingers to a manicure.
Can a 19 year old change an age old order in Afghanistan? Well, she’s not alone. Australian TV producer Trudi-Ann Tierney has witnessed a groundswell of aspiration and a push for change among the young women she encounters in her role as head of drama at Kabul’s Tolo TV and elsewhere in the capital.
“I see now a generation of amazing young women who are so progressive and smart and determined to make a change and to sustain change within society.” TRUDI-ANN TIERNEY, Head of Drama, Tolo TV
Nevertheless, when we visit Trudi-Ann she’s in the thick of a crisis. A leading actress has fled the country after threats from her extended family, embarrassed by her professional pursuits.
Through the eyes of the young teenager and those of the outsider this is a confronting but ultimately inspiring story of emerging female power in Afghanistan.
In 2011, Noorjahan Akbar and her friend Anita Haidary established Young Women for Change, an organisation dedicated to improving the lives and rights of Afghan women.
BORMANN: In the most dangerous country on earth for a woman, this is man’s world Afghanistan. It’s 15 years since the Taliban banished women and girls from public gaze and they’ve been slow to return. The hardliners of that regime made sure art would never imitate dreadful life – television sets were draped in the streets. But now ‘the box’ is making a comeback and it’s revealing every hidden taboo in the lives of women.
Every Friday night Afghanis tune in to their favourite soapy, Secrets of the House. It’s opening minds by tackling drug abuse, forced and under aged marriages and corruption. In every sense this is reality television. And from the sidelines, Tolo Television’s head of drama.
After a career in scriptwriting and production in Australia, Trudi-Ann Tierney moved to Kabul to work with this country’s emerging program makers.
TRUDI-ANN TIERNEY: “Love marriages is a huge one, women standing up to their families and saying no, I want to marry, you know, someone of my choosing and every season we have a love marriage because they’re so popular with our audience”.
BORMANN: Trudi Ann Tierney has a problem - she can’t hold onto actors. It’s hard enough being a working woman in Afghanistan, but it’s asking for trouble to be on television acting out the problems in someone else’s fictional life.
TRUDI ANN TIERNEY: “This is a beautiful actress called Azur, who has been with the series from the very start virtually. Two days before we started shooting we found out that she was going to India to live. She was ostracised by her family. Her mother was really the only person who stuck by her and she’s had an uncle who’s been threatening her for quite some time now, threats of physical abuse and threats of killing her. It’s a huge loss”.
BORMANN: All the goodwill and billions of dollars of foreign money pouring into this country has bought only limited improvement to the lives of the female population. More girls go to school here now, but still only 13 per cent of Afghan women can read and write. In the country especially, life can be miserable. More than two thirds of women endure forced marriages - most girls still marry under the age of sixteen. Brides are often purchased, sometimes in exchange for animals.
You’d be right in thinking it’s hard to shock an Afghan, through decades of war and turmoil, these people have seen everything. But something happened a few weeks back that made this country stop and reflect on what on earth was happening here. It was the horrific experience of a fifteen-year old girl and it moved everyone, right up to the President himself.
In the newsroom of Afghanistan’s Tolo TV, the first grainy and ghostlike images of a tortured teenager jolted hardened reporters. It was to become Shakila Ebrahemkhail’s story over the next few days.
SHAKILA EBRAHEMKHAIL: “As a woman, when I first heard about Sahar Gul I was shocked. I felt really sad. When I was watching that video and writing the report tears were coming from my eyes”.
BORMANN: Fifteen-year-old bride Sahar Gul was rescued by police after weeks of imprisonment and torture at the hands of her husband’s family. It’s claimed her mother in law and sister in law brutalised her more than anyone. She’d been sold to the family to pay a debt, and had refused to become a prostitute to bring in more money.
SHAKILA EBRAHEMKHAIL: “It was a painful event – and it’s not just Sahar Gul. There could be many more women facing extreme family violence that we’re not aware of”.
BORMANN: Across town was someone else who cared.
NOORJAHAN AKBAR: “In the case of Sahar Gul her in-laws all had psychological problems. They tortured the girl only to gain pleasure from it”.
BORMANN: Nineteen-year-old student Noorjahan Akbar has struck up a special relationship with the tortured teenager, raising money for her, and offering what was lacking in her recovery - emotional support.
NOORJAHAN AKBAR: “There is violence from women against women in this society. And of course they’re not going to beat up men, they’re going to beat up other women when they’re angry because we never teach them to be peaceful expressive. We never give them the chance to be productive”.
BORMANN: We’re coming to see Sahar Gul a month after she arrived for treatment at this hospital in Kabul.
NOORJAHAN AKBAR: “The last time I came to visit they didn’t let me see her so I hope this time it will be easier”.
BORMANN: “So how is she psychologically?”
NOORJAHAN AKBAR: “The last time I saw her not so good. I think she’s still in a state of denial. She’s not able to talk much. When I ask her if she’s okay..... she talks very little. Her fingernails were pulled out, her hair was pulled out. She was burned with cigarettes. Parts of her body meat were taken off and some other things. She was beaten up repeatedly every day”.
BORMANN: “And starved?”
NOORJAHAN AKBAR: “Yes”.
[by Sahar’s bed] “Her hair is recovering well. Your hair has become so beautiful, girl. Should I put some nail polish on you?” [Sahar nods]
“Beating is still very common. I remember my grandfather used to have two whips on his wall, one for his dog and one for his wife. I don’t think that has changed much outside Kabul in the remote areas. Maybe not all of them receive that much torture as Sahar Gul did but I think it’s still very prevalent. I think the good thing is that if this had happened five years ago nobody would have heard about it. If this had happened during the Taliban, nobody would have known about it”.
[painting Sahar’s nails] “Have you ever polished your nails before? No? Is it your first time? Congratulations! Does it look good? do you see your fingers? Does it look nice? Don’t worry, everything will be fine [kisses Sahar on the forehead] One day you’ll start a new life”.
BORMANN: [as they leave Sahar’s room] “So what will become of her now?”
NOORJAHAN AKBAR: “I don’t know. Originally the plan was to send her to India like we did with Mumtaz, the girl who had acid sprayed on her face, but I think now what is going to happen is that after her recovery they will send her to Badakhshan to live with her brother”.
BORMANN: “Will she be okay with her brother though?”
NOORJAHAN AKBAR: “Yeah I think so now the brother has learned his lesson - maybe too late but yeah, I think he has. When I talked to him he felt a lot of regret, remorse for what he did”.
BORMANN: With her mother in tow for security, Noorjahan Akbar is out and about again. She’s not from a privileged background, nor did she grow up in the west like many educated youngsters her age. As a true Afghani she’s attached to her country but appalled by what’s become of it. Noorjahan has founded her own lobby group to fight for the rights of a new generation of modern Afghan women. Their goals are hardly lofty – they simply want to reclaim the streets and be able to walk unhindered to work or study – and do so in the clothes they choose.
BORMANN: Noorjahan has arrived at the office of her Young Women for Change group. Her volunteers are planning a survey to gauge the extent of street harassment.
NOORJAHAN AKBAR: “It was brought by the Taliban in the first place, because they beat up women in the streets if they were alone and now we have a less extreme version of it, where local people do the same thing if a woman is out on the streets alone”.
BORMANN: To show me what it’s like to be a woman and alone on the streets, Noorjahan takes me to a shopping precinct in Kabul. Just out of range, but captured on a camera hidden in her handbag, she’s accosted by a stranger.
“This guy just grabbed her. Down there [points down street].”
NOORJAHAN AKBAR: “Yes he tried to grab me so I hit his hand with my bag”.
BORMANN: “What was that about?”
NOORJAHAN AKBAR: “It’s just about, you know she’s a woman, she’s alone so she must be a prostitute otherwise she wouldn’t be in the streets. And you know if she’s a prostitute she’s ready to be grabbed to be groped, to be touched, her breasts to be pulled – it doesn’t really matter – she’s a prostitute”.
BORMANN: Misogyny runs deeps in this country, but sometimes women have little support from each other. A minute later, Noorjahan is set upon again, this time by an elderly woman.
OLD LADY: “Son of a bitch… you prostitute!”
NOORJAHAN AKBAR: “Are you talking to me?”
OLD LADY: “Yes, you”.
NOORJAHAN AKBAR: “What’s the problem with you?”
[back home] “I think when you are born a woman in Afghanistan you are taught every day to hate yourself. When I was born my grandmother didn’t talk to my mum for two weeks because she had given birth to a fourth daughter in a row”.
BORMANN: I’m back on the streets with two of Noorjahan’s volunteers, Nasima Zeerak and Shahr Bonu. They want to talk to men as well to find out why they harass. The men we meet are mostly agreeable and polite in front of our cameras. It shows that if men do harass, many of them at least know it’s wrong.
This man says men are frustrated because they’re not marrying early enough.
AFGHAN MAN: “The basic problem is that young ones are not getting married when they should – they can’t afford to get married. So that’s why they start to interfere with women when they go out”.
BORMANN: Many women wouldn’t dare tell their families about being harassed. Fathers, mothers and brothers could blame them for attracting attention. Harassed women are often grounded by their families - no more working or going to university, but despite the enlightened views of some men these women speak to, the research volunteers are themselves constantly harassed.
NASIMA: [standing on street together, group men walk past and hurl a comment at them] “See they were harassing us”.
BORMANN: “What kind of things do they say?”
NASIMA: “It is an Islamic country you should change your dressing, you should be covered”.
SHAHR BONU: “Others are like what a beautiful girl, what a good figure and this kind of stuff – would you take my number, can I have your number? These kind of things”.
BORMANN: On the scales of injustice street harassment might not seem the greatest abomination in this country, but it’s symptomatic of a society where there is chaos, corruption and no equality anywhere. I’ve come to meet those who form the inner circle of the traditional establishment here. Businessman Ahmad Sha Ahmadzai was a one time close friend of Osama bin Laden in the 1980s when they both fought against another foreign invader, the Soviet Union.
By his reckoning, the likes of Noorjahan and her Young Women for Change are under the influence of westerners who want to implant new values and morality here.
AHMAD SHA AHMADZAI: “The westerners they want Afghani women to dress and then work and then act like a western lady and this is not possible in this country”.
BORMANN: “Would you accept that domestic violence is a big problem in this society as well?”
AHMAD SHA AHMADZAI: “Like what?”
BORMANN: “A man beating his wife?”
AHMAD SHA AHMADZAI: “This is not allowed. This is not allowed in human rights, this is not allowed in Islam. Beating is completely out of the question. When two couples marry men and women they are the closest people to each other. This country is a Muslim country and Islamic women must be respected very much and nobody can touch, nobody can do anything wrong to a woman”.
BORMANN: ‘But it might be wrong but it still happens, doesn’t it?”
AHMAD SHA AHMADZAI: “Of course, of course”.
NOORJAHAN AKBAR: “When you are born a woman in Afghanistan every day you just fight, you don’t live, you just fight, every day is a fight. Women are rarely asked by their husbands if they would like to have sex. It’s always.... almost always imposed. They are taught to be ashamed of being a woman, so a woman’s sexual desire is wrong”.
BORMANN: It’s only a recent innovation, but victims of domestic abuse now have somewhere to escape to. A patchwork of women’s shelters reside in secure and discreet locations across Afghanistan. I visited one in the backstreets of Kabul. Most of these women are running from families who want to marry them off, or the families of prospective husbands in arranged marriages they want no part of. Eighteen-year-old Naghma escaped a man she was promised to when she was thirteen.
NAGHMA: “Almost five years ago my father engaged me to a strange man I never knew. I didn’t agree. He even stopped me going to school. He wanted to marry me but I was not happy with him, so I left home”.
BORMANN: Some of these women have children born here, who’ve never known what life on the outside is all about. In a country blighted by heroin addiction on a dreadful scale, families are so easily fractured. For this woman, it was a do or die escape.
WOMAN WITH CHILD: “I have family problems. My husband is a drug addict. He beats me and wants to kill my son – so I escaped from home and came here”.
NOORJAHA: “The mullah beats up the boys in the village centre, and the boys come home and beat up their wives and the wives beat up their children and the children beat up other children. It’s a cycle”.
BORMANN: Well meaning campaigns of the international community have yet to reach many areas of rural Afghanistan – unlike television. Toto TV reporter Shakila Ebrahemkhail is out on the streets covering the latest corruption scandal. A developer has been accused of building illegally, the site has been locked down while police investigate. Shakila covers everything from corruption to women’s issues and the fact that she’s a female television reporter is an issue itself.
The widow with three children is working full time to place food on the table. But female television presenters have been murdered in this country, just because they are women, and Shakila’s family has persuaded her just to voice her reports and not show her face on local TV.
SHAKILA EBRAHEMKHAIL: “It’s even worse in the provinces. I don’t think women could work in media there because of the lack of security. In the capital, the danger is enough to make families stop their daughters working in media”.
BORMANN: Across in the drama department at Tolo, TV Australian producer Trudi Ann Tierney is still looking for an actress to replace her star who fled to India because of death threats from her uncle.
Her schedule and story lines in chaos, Tolo’s team of writers need to think about writing the character out of the script in a plausible way.
TRUDI ANN TIERNEY: “Well if worse came to worst and we couldn’t find an actress we could kill her”.
TRUDI ANN TIERNEY: “For our female actors I wouldn’t say it is akin to being a prostitute but it almost is, it’s considered a very, very lowly line of work to be in. A lot of women suffer ostracism from their families. They can be abused when they are out in the community so it is a difficult choice to make as a career choice”.
BORMANN: But the men of Tolo TV are stepping in as well for some ground breaking television. This is Afghanistan’s Dr Phil. Each afternoon at two, medical doctor and counsellor Yasin Babrak sits in the chair to offer advice to mainly women callers who phone in. They talk about problems they’ve never discussed openly before and some of the new possibilities in life.
TRUDI ANN TIERNEY: “Women having the freedom to work outside of the home, women having the freedom to marry who they want to marry, women getting an education, yeah there is not a lot that we haven’t covered in terms of pushing the boundaries on Afghan television”.
BORMANN: The home grown women trying to change this country are making their own leaders stand up and take notice. President Karzai has now picked up on the case of tortured bride Sahar Gul. He visited her in hospital and ordered police to take the investigation more seriously. Sahar’s mother-in-law and sister-in-law have been arrested, her husband is still on the run.
And Noorjahan Akbar is about to leave for a few months to take up a university scholarship in the United States, from where she’ll still run her Young Women for Change group. She leaves behind a band of volunteers who’ll forge ahead with the campaign against the harassment of women on the street. She’ll also leave a mother won over by her daughter’s convictions.
NOORJAHAN’S MOTHER: “I’m proud of her. Women in all families had to be covered by a burqa during twenty years of fighting. The situation was dreadful if they went out”.
NOORJAHAN AKBAR: “Most men who harass women don’t allow their own women to be on the streets, don’t allow their own women to be active in society, so they view every other woman who is active as bad or a prostitute and that’s because they can’t visualise their own daughter or wife being on the streets because they are just that strict”.
TRUDI TIERNEY: “I see now a generation of amazing young women who are so progressive and smart and determined to make change and to sustain change within society. There’s this other extreme where I just see that in some ways men are going a bit backwards. You know a lot of the freedoms that were afforded to women in the early days are slowly being eroded away and I see a lot of men becoming much more conservative”.
NOORJAHAN AKBAR: “Almost every woman you ask in Afghanistan if she would rather be a man she would say yes. I wouldn’t, because now I realise that even though I am a woman in Afghanistan, there are many things I can do”.