"Land of my father" by Saira Shah
Review in the Los Angeles Times
Review in The Times (UK)
Inside Afghanistan: Behind the veil

BBC News, 27 June, 2001

An undercover documentary film about the Taleban movement in Afghanistan has shown shocking footage of mass executions, and an insight into the oppression suffered by Afghan women. Dressed in an Afghan veil, reporter Saira Shah used a hidden camera to film life for ordinary Afghans under the Taleban. "I had to wear the burqa which looks like a great big tablecloth. It covers absolutely everything" Saira Shah told the BBC.

The Channel Four crew went undercover because of restrictions on their visa, saying they were only allowed to film inanimate objects.

They were helped by an underground women's group, the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), which runs secret clinics and schools for girls.

From the moment that I was across the border I felt the restrictions on women," said Ms Shah, a British journalist who is half Afghan.

She described how the veil was so thick that it was difficult to breath, and the little crocheted grill for her eyes made it difficult to cross roads.

If she tripped and showed her face or ankles, she risked arrest.

The woman next to her in the car was violently car sick, but was still not allowed to take her head out of her veil.

"I suddenly wasn't an objective reporter anymore; I was someone actually participating in this, I was actually being subjected to the same restrictions," she said.

Female resistance

In disguise, Ms Shah was able to gain unique access to women's lives, and record the horrendous conditions in which they live.

"The first thing you notice when you come into Kabul is the ghost-like figures in their blue shroud-like burqas, begging in the streets," she told the BBC.

In Kabul alone, she said, there are over 40,000 widows as a result of the war.

Because the Taleban forbid women from working, they are forced into begging - and sometimes prostitution - in order to support themselves and their families.

But the film, Behind the veil, also documents the resistance of some women.

Memebers of the opposition group, RAWA, risk their lives to run secret schools for girls, giving them educational opportunities they would otherwise be denied.

Some women also set up underground beauty parlours in their apartments. Even wearing nail varnish is a crime in Afghanistan.

"You can make a woman wear a veil, but this is our way of showing they haven't crushed our spirit," said a woman in the beauty parlour.


The crew also acquired secretly-filmed footage of a public execution in a football stadium financed by the West.

The footage shows a veiled woman dragged to the centre of the pitch, and forced to kneel facing the goal posts.

She is shot dead to the cheers of the watching crowds.

The team then ventured to the north-west corner of the country, which is still in the hands of the opposition.

Earlier in the year, the Taleban briefly took control of four villages.

The survivors told stories of how dozens of civilians were rounded up and executed.

Footage obtained from a local wedding photographer showed the villagers burying their dead.

Three girls sittting huddled in brightly coloured veils outside one house described how they saw their mother being shot dead.

Their father said they have not stopped crying for weeks.

Shining Brighter Than the News They Cover

Los Angeles Times, August 24, 2001
By HOWARD ROSENBERG, Times Television Critic


Nor will you see Saira Shah. Along with producer Cassian Harrison and cameraman James Miller, she exposed herself to substantial risks while gathering evidence of terror, squalor and despair inside Taliban-ruled Afghanistan for a chilling news report that aired two months ago on Britain's Channel Four.

The same hour, titled "Beneath the Veil," is scheduled to air Sunday on CNN.

Reporter Shah is a Britisher whose father is from Afghanistan, where women are oppressed and rendered all but invisible by the rigid Islamic regime. She and her crew were not the first Western journalists allowed inside Afghanistan by the Taliban, but some of the secret footage she brought back may break ground. Supplied by the underground Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), it shows executions being carried out before cheering throngs in a Kabul football stadium against veiled women and others for crimes unknown.

Shah notes how distant this is from her "liberal Islam" upbringing. As is a secret schoolroom for girls that she visits, its teacher saying that merely organizing the class is a hanging offense. Then comes "the most subversive place of all," an underground beauty parlor where women paint the faces they are forbidden to display in public.

Later, Shah and her crew arrive at a village where they are told of recent alleged massacres by Taliban as part of ethnic cleansing. Supporting the charges is footage of strewn bodies almost too grisly to witness, including a youth's skull said to have been skinned by his murderers.

Now cut to three young sisters. Tears rolling down her cheeks, one tells Shah their parents were murdered before their eyes.

The experienced Shah has put in years reporting from hot spots for British TV. Yet even if she were an American, she wouldn't have the star wattage to crash tonight's lineup.


"Beneath the Veil" can be seen Sunday at 6:30 and 10 p.m. on CNN.

Howard Rosenberg's column appears Mondays and Fridays. He can be contacted via e-mail at howard.rosenberg@latimes.com.


The Times (UK) , June 27, 2001


Saira Shah, in Beneath the Veil (Channel 4), is the latest reporter with hidden cameras to enter Afghanistan to expose the repressiveness of its Islamic government. Shah, being half-Afghan and often dressing in robes that left only a letterbox slit for her eyes, had an advantage in being able to visit areas that would be impossible for a Westerner such as Langan.

But at the same time, being a woman — and not an identifiably Western woman once she had left her film crew behind — she was at the mercy of any officials who unmasked her.

Many of the most horrific clips that Shah showed us were filmed by members of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, who risked execution to collect their secret footage. They have filmed scenes at football stadiums of women being led out into the penalty area and shot like stray dogs; of men hanging from nooses strung over the goal’s crossbar. Shah talked to women who had become beggars because the Taleban government forbids them to work: their children starve or, if they are lucky, subsist on mouldy breadcrumbs. Children spoke of their civilian parents being slaughtered by the Taleban, and their villages razed.

Peculiarly shocking was Shah’s visit to a secret classroom, where women who lost their teaching jobs when the Taleban took power, educate teenage girls. Girls over 12 are barred from school. If these teachers and pupils were caught, says Shah, they would be hanged.


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