Before US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton left the podium at the International Conference on Afghanistan in London on 28 January 2010, she pointed to four women wrapped in green scarves and clustered together in the corner of the crowded press conference room and asked them to stand up.
“They are among the women who have been working in Afghanistan for the last years on behalf of expanding opportunities for women and protecting human rights and women’s rights,” Clinton said. “They’re also very committed to making sure that women in Afghanistan play their rightful role in that country’s future. And I just wanted to thank them for being here and for speaking out.”
The four women, members of the Afghan Women’s Network, had apparently crashed the conference since no Afghan women had been invited, and that moment provided the impetus for PBS’s new documentary, “Peace Unveiled.”
“When I heard that Hillary Clinton asked them to stand up, I thought, ‘Wow, who were these women?’” Gini Reticker, the director of “Peace Unveiled,” told MediaGlobal. After some research into the Afghan Women’s Network, Reticker, a renowned documentary filmmaker who most recently directed the acclaimed “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” realized she’d found her next project. She brought aboard journalist Claudia Rizzi to produce.
“Following the London conference, we didn’t know what was going to happen, but it seemed to be the obvious case study,” said Rizzi. “It took a while to choose the women and make sure we could negotiate access to their lives.
“It was not a business transaction; it was about slowly gaining their trust. They were very open, but at the same time, they had to deal with the realities of having to explain to their husbands and family members why there was a camera person running around their house. We got lucky given the circumstances.”
Navigating through Afghanistan’s cultural barriers and daunting security issues posed major challenges for the filmmakers. To show the range of contexts within the country, “Peace Unveiled” deliberately juxtaposes images of Afghanistan’s more cosmopolitan capital, Kabul, where women loosely don head scarves or hijabs and wear open-toed shoes, with the restrictive atmosphere in Kandahar, where women quickly scuttle across streets lined with military tanks in floor-skimming burqas.
“We wanted to show the complexities of being a woman in Afghan society,” said Rizzi. “At the same time, we wanted to see the more human side of their lives.”
In order to film one of Kandahar’s more outspoken female activists, Shahida Hussain, the production team had to employ a camerawoman, who still chooses to remain anonymous for her own safety. Hussain, a former midwife with eight children, routinely opens her home to local women seeking counsel on legal to property issues and then meets with officials on their behalf. Her role is rare in Kandahar, which makes her both a saving grace and a target.
“All of these women who are speaking out are taking an enormous risk,” said Rizzi. “They’re incredibly brave.”
That risk often seemed like an afterthought for the film’s intrepid central characters as the camera followed five months of strategic meetings and secret discussions as well as their participation in President Hamid Karzai’s peace jirga in June 2010. One woman, Shinkai Karokhail, also campaigned for re-election into parliament during filming. Another, Hasina Safi, was chosen to take part in a meeting with Secretary Clinton while she was in Kabul.
“In all the images I had seen of Afghan women, they were always portrayed as victims,” said Reticker. “But to see these women sitting in a room strategizing…it’s not the image that we’re used to. The women that we saw in Afghanistan wanted to be part of the political process.”
“I think the women’s movement is the fourth character in this film,” said Rizzi. “They’re beginning to think that no matter what happens in Afghanistan, they, as women, have to continue to fight for peace. They know that they can’t rely so much on the international community. At the end of the day, it’ll be up to them.”
“Peace Unveiled” is one of five segments in the PBS series, “Women, War & Peace,” which began airing on 11 October. According to executive producer Pamela Hogan, the series aims to broaden the public’s concept of who war affects and how women are impacting conflict resolution around the world.
“It can be more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in a conflict,” Hogan said. “It’s something we as media don’t look at in general. We haven’t caught up with the fact that women exist in war.”
The series could not have been more impeccably timed. Just a few days before its premiere, three women, including Leymah Gbowee, a prominent character in “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” were honored with the Nobel Peace Prize.
“It was incredible,” said Reticker, who also served as an executive producer in the series. “I really feel that the prize was really given to show the potential of women.”