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Documentaries & Non-Fiction Series

VICE Correspondent Isobel Yeung Investigates the Fight for “Afghan Women’s Rights” [Exclusive] 

VICE Correspondent Isobel Yeung Investigates the Fight for “Afghan Women’s Rights” [Exclusive]
Photo Credit: HBO
Photo Credit: HBO

The liberation of Afghan women was used as a rallying cry to garner public support when the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001. Now, after nearly 15 years and hundreds of billions in taxpayer dollars spent, violence and oppression are still a fact of life for the country’s women. With the Taliban gaining ground again, VICE correspondent Isobel Yeung reports from Kabul on the fight for dignity and rights in Afghanistan.

I had the chance to speak to VICE correspondent Isobel Yeung earlier today. I wanted to know why now is the right time for this story, how she found people to talk to on both sides of this issue, why the U.S. must honor its commitments to Afghan women and more.

Photo Credit: Nate Anderson for VICE
Photo Credit: Nate Anderson for VICE

TV GOODNESS: I knew things were bad for women in Afghanistan, but not this bad. For you, what was the tipping point that made you think now is the time to tell this story?

Isobel Yeung: “We hear a lot about how Afghanistan constantly hits those lists of the worst place to be a woman; we’ve heard it for the last couple of decades. It seemed like a good time to go and see what the situation was on the ground, how things have changed recently, how the security situation has affected that. The U.S. made a commitment to Afghanistan back in 2001 and I wanted to see how that level of responsibility was playing out.”

TV GOODNESS: I always like that VICE makes sure to tell both sides of the story. How did you decide how to frame this story and how did you go about finding people to talk to?

Isobel: “Those two things happened simultaneously. We actually took two trips out to Afghanistan because I was working on another project at the same time. So, that worked out well because it allowed us to scout people and do more research on the ground, which is always a luxury with these kinds of stories. When we were there we got to talk with a lot of women about the issues that trouble them the most and to see what the legal situation was and the most pressing issues. That gave us a good concept for how we would structure our film.”

TV GOODNESS: I really loved women’s rights activist Nargis Azaryun’s perspective. She seemed defiant yet hopeful. When you talked to her what was her outlook for Afghanistan?

Isobel: “She was actually really refreshing to talk to. A lot of advocates for women’s rights like Nargis, like Selay Ghaffar, like various college students that we spoke to, they all showed very promising signs that they’re finding their own voice and choosing their own fate, insisting [on] their presence or decisions made for their lives and for women’s rights in general and for the future of Afghanistan. It was really promising and I think her vision of Afghanistan is a really positive one; it’s one of equality.

We hung out with her quite a lot. She was our guide to everything underground in Kabul, which was pretty awesome. At one point I asked her, ‘Would you ever leave Afghanistan?,’ because she’s extremely bright and she could easily study somewhere else. She said, ‘No. This is my home. Afghanistan will be great and you just have to work with them.’”

TV GOODNESS: That’s great. I hope it happens. Your interview with Nazir Ahmad Hanafi was tense and, quite frankly, I was scared for your safety by the end of it. Can you talk about interviewing him and what you took away from that encounter?

Isobel: “It was a pretty frustrating interview as you could probably tell by the end of it. He refused to look at me, refused to answer my questions directly, would only talk to other people in the room, only the men actually.

Photo Credit: HBO
Photo Credit: HBO

The whole time we knew it was important to get his voice, because that side of the patriarchal system is what is so influential within the government in Afghanistan, is what dictates the fate of a lot of women. I was trying to focus throughout the interview on getting his views, of course, on women when he was wanting to talk about a variety of completely unconnected things, which is also where part of those frustrations came from because he was trying to dictate the entire interview. It was a constant battle.

By the end, we were able to give him a voice sufficient enough for him to express his extremely flawed logic that comes with oppressing women and it’s pretty apparent that he feels it’s his God-given right for men to control and abuse women.”

TV GOODNESS: That definitely came across. I appreciated that we got to see so much of that interview so we could see how difficult he was and that he had no interest in giving you any respect.

Isobel: “It was important because it was just a tiny sampler of the total lack of respect that women face in Afghanistan and the struggle for your own voice to be heard. I mean, I wouldn’t claim that I come anywhere near to understanding what Afghan women go through every single day, but to be completely dismissed in that sense was really frustrating.:

TV GOODNESS: In the piece you mention a really disturbing static that 87% of Afghan women are victims of sexual, physical or emotional abuse. That’s so incredibly high. How do you think that plays into how these women are fighting for what basically amounts to basic human rights?

Isobel: “Obviously, it’s incredibly challenging. It’s such a basic thing to be asking for and to have that rejected and not be prioritized is a real slap in the face. It also makes the people who are advocating for that cause extremely determined and impassioned to achieve it and so it works both ways.

It’s so shocking how such a high proportion of women have been through physical, sexual or psychological abuse. That was really apparent even in Kabul, and compared to the rest of the country Kabul is extremely modern and far more open. You go into the hospitals and people are coming in with cases of domestic abuse every single day. On the news you hear cases of public assault happening the whole time throughout the country.

I realized things were bad for Afghan women. I did not realize the extent of that abuse and how there’s total impunity within the system to deal with it.”

TV GOODNESS: And the fact that rape is defined as adultery and the woman is punished. Some of this piece was so bleak. But now these women can go to shelters for help. You ended up talking to a woman who runs a shelter in Kabul. Can you talk about that?

Isobel: “It’s encouraging. It’s emblematic of changes as well because these shelters didn’t exist a few years ago and now at least there is an option for somewhere to turn to. Those shelters are encouraging in that sense and then on the other hand they’re also targeted constantly by politicians and physically targeted as well. There’s by no means an easy solution.

Photo Credit: Laura Hudock for VICE
Photo Credit: Laura Hudock for VICE

On top of that these people are running from horrific situations, from things I can’t even think about and they’ve been suffering for years and years and years. They come there and once they get there they are running away from their families and in Afghan tradition’s eyes, that means they are disloyal to their families and they should be the ones who are punished.

If they ever leave those shelters they risk being killed in the name of honor so for a lot of women it – I don’t know how to describe it – it’s a sad atmosphere, somewhere that should be a relief and it is a relief, I think, when those women immediately arrive there. And then you realize those women are completely trapped and they have nowhere else to go and they can never walk outside those shelter walls again. No one, not even any one of their family, will know where they are. So, yeah, it’s pretty bleak.”

TV GOODNESS: When you talked to Afghanistan’s Chief Executive Officer Dr. Abdullah Abdullah he promised that women would be included in the Taliban peace talks and that hasn’t happened yet, as you pointed out. Considering the reporting you’ve done and what you’ve seen in Afghanistan, do you think that’s something women should expect? I hope it happens, but if we’re being realistic what do you think?

Isobel: “It depends on how the situation plays out in the next few years and it depends what the status of various factors within the country and just outside the country are. The government has a lot to do with it and I think the government needs to prioritize women’s rights and keep their promises and their commitments that they’ve already expressed to Afghan women. Every woman we spoke to did not buy into the idea of having a moderate Taliban and negotiating with them because they’ve lived through and they’ve experienced the Taliban and it wasn’t pretty.

Photo Credit: Laura Hudock for VICE
Photo Credit: Laura Hudock for VICE

From the outside there seems like there’s been a lot of positive change and I think more women are becoming involved in government and women are getting an education. Some women are getting an education for the first time and women are joining roles that they would never normally be able to do, even in military. But on the other hand, the vast majority of women are living under this hugely oppressive system. There needs to be a lot of change on all levels throughout society rather than just focusing on specific or certain areas.”

TV GOODNESS: An important piece of this puzzle seems to be making sure that the outside world and the Western world is more aware of what’s going on in Afghanistan. Of the people you talked to, what do they think or hope this exposure is going to do for them?

Isobel: “The attention in the last few years has been taken away from Afghan women’s rights and it’s gone towards other things. Other news stories come up and I think their biggest message was that the battle isn’t over for women’s rights. They’ve really got a long way to go and if there isn’t an increased attention and focus on these issues then the situation could very well regress and in certain parts of Afghanistan it is already regressing.”

TV GOODNESS: After people watch this piece, what are you hoping they’ll take away from it?

Isobel: “[It’s] pretty similar to the people we spoke to. The U.S. invasion, in part, was motivated by the liberation of Afghan women. On the surface it appears like things are better for women, but as I said, for the vast majority of Afghan women life is tough and there needs to be real time and persistence taken in order to reach equality.”

TV GOODNESS: I know you can’t say much, but what are you working on now?

Isobel: “It won’t be the next story you see from me because I think I’ve got one in the interim, but right now I’m working on a story on the South China Sea. It’s a story about geopolitics in Asia and it’s something which, to a lot of Americans it’s happening on the other side of the world in these paradise islands that no one really gives a shit about, but it’s hugely important for the future of global politics. Yeah, it’s something that I’m really excited about and that’s why I haven’t had any sleep for the last few days.” [Laughs.]

Edited for space and content.

Photo Credit: HBO
Photo Credit: HBO

The instability in the Middle East isn’t restricted to just the land. The ocean is a conflict market and there’s a lot of money to be made there. The other piece in this episode focuses on the men who prevent world trade from grinding to a standstill. “Floating Armories” investigates private military contractors and their network of weapons storage ships in lawless international waters. Taking a closer look at who’s protecting global commerce today, VICE co-founder Suroosh Alvi reports from one of these floating armories in the Gulf of Aden.

VICE airs Fridays at 11/10c on HBO.

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