When the U.S. government started formally negotiating with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, in 2019, Tamana Ayazi was concerned the process excluded prevalent fears of Afghan women that a Taliban return to power would deprive them of their basic human rights.
A filmmaker, Ayazi decided to tell the world what was at stake for Afghan women through a documentary centered on the life of a prominent Afghan woman.
“We began filming in January 2020,” Ayazi told VOA.
The ambitious project, however, was stalled by months of COVID-19 restrictions followed by rapid changes in Afghanistan after the Taliban returned to power, forcing Ayazi out of the country before she could put the final pieces together.
“As a female journalist and filmmaker, I could not return to Afghanistan to complete the project,” she said, adding that her male co-director was able to travel to Afghanistan to do the final filming in mid-2022.
‘I’m just the mayor’
Premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 9, the 90-minute documentary, “In Her Hands,” shows glimpses of the life of Zarifa Ghafari, the first female mayor of Maidan Shahr, an insurgency-stricken small city less than 30 miles to the south of Kabul, the Afghan capital.
Warned by the Taliban to quit her post or face death, the young mayor is filmed as she defies persistent social, political and even personal challenges until she tearfully flees the country after the Taliban returns to power in August 2021.
“Actually, I’m not a hero,” Ghafari is shown telling an audience at the U.S. State Department in March 2020 as she receives the International Women of Courage Award from former first lady Melania Trump. “I’m just the mayor of Maidan Shahr.”
The documentary then shows Ghafari surviving a Taliban ambush before cutting to a separate attack in November 2020, where Taliban assassins kill her father, an Afghan army official, in front of his house.
Less than six months after her evacuation to Germany, Ghafari returned to Afghanistan in February 2022 to assess the situation of women under Taliban rule.
“The situation is worsening day after day,” Ghafari told VOA last week from her home in Germany. “It’s painful … it’s like 100 ignorant individuals have taken over 2,000 people hostage in a village.”
The Taliban have reversed women’s rights gains in Afghanistan by closing secondary schools for girls and giving women no political representation. Last week, the regime prohibited women’s entry to public parks and sports facilities, alleging that the ban was issued because women did not appropriately observe Islamic hijab.
‘Lasting change should come from within’
Despite widespread calls to restore women’s rights, the Taliban have remained defiant, repeatedly introducing policies that banish Afghan women from the public space despite the condemnation of human rights groups.
“Women have been erased from public life and their civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights disregarded,” Richard Bennett, a U.N. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan, said in October.
While commending international sympathy and support for Afghan women, Ghafari said advocacy in Western capitals alone will not bring lasting change to Afghanistan.
“Real and lasting change should come from within Afghanistan,” said Ghafari, warning that continued Taliban efforts to repress growing calls for change will only return the country to civil war.
“In Her Hands” will be available for streaming on Netflix beginning November 16. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QZLunQrxs9I