The Ottawa Citizen, September 11, 2007

The woman vs. the warlords: a post-9/11 story

Malalai Joya, the outspoken Afghan women's rights advocate at the heart of this remarkable film, has had her life threatened more than once.

Alex Strachan

It's a growing debate: Six years after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, as 9/11's anniversary falls for the first time on a Tuesday -- the day of the week it happened -- how much tribute is too much? How much is enough, and how much is not enough? In an indirect and yet profound way, tonight's season finale of PBS's Wide Angle provides the perfect answer.

The real post-9/11 conflict -- as many Canadians know all too well -- is in Afghanistan, and as tonight's quiet, remarkable film A Woman Among Warlords shows, a kind of uneasy democracy is taking hold in a place where women's rights were until recently unheard of. A Woman Among Warlords is not about war -- the war goes completely unmentioned -- but the subtext is plainly obvious: The old guard is still there, waiting, hoping to turn back the clock.

Malalai Joya
Malalai Joya ( ), the most ourtspoken MP was suspended for 3 yeras. (Photo: Darren England)

Malalai Joya, the outspoken Afghan women's rights advocate at the heart of this remarkable film, has had her life threatened more than once. In the film, she has the temerity, among other things, to tell an 80-year-old warlord and opium trader that, no, he cannot shack up with the 13-year-old girl he's chosen to become one of his wives, if she's against it (she is), her family is against it (they are) and if the new Afghanistan frowns on January-December romances (it does).

Shotgun weddings -- or is that AK-47 weddings? -- don't fly in the new democracy, especially when the bride-to-be says things like, "He has weapons and walks with a limp; I can't find happiness with him," and her father vows, "I'd rather cut off my head than give him my child. He already has two wives."

The girl, Rahela Nakim, is a fifth-grader who can read and write, thanks to the emergence of schools -- this, in no small part, due to men and women, many of them Canadian, who have, and who continue, to sacrifice their lives so that girls like Nakim don't have to live a life of terror, oppression and forced marriages to 80-year-olds. Nakim is special, Joya pleads on the girl's behalf before the local militias: she could become a lawyer one day; she could become a doctor, a writer, a national leader. Bah! the warlord counters. The opium trade is a hard business. His soldiers -- men with guns -- are illiterate and can't count. He needs Nakim to keep the books.

The story has neither a happy nor an unhappy ending. It ends, like life, messily and up-in-the-air. Joya herself, though diplomatic when dealing with armed men who'd like to kill her, is less diplomatic when she's finally elected to the Afghan parliament. She lectures the old men with beards about their manners and the true meaning of being a gentleman, and for her trouble she's tossed out and told not to come back until she apologizes.

A Woman Among Warlords is a quiet, thoughtful look at the post-9/11 Afghanistan -- it could just as easily have been subtitled "Why We Fight" -- and is emotionally involving and spiritually uplifting, as well as informative. The film was adapted from Danish filmmaker Eva Mulvad's Enemies of Happiness, winner of the Sundance World Cinema Jury Prize at this year's festival. If you want to acknowledge the Sept. 11 anniversary, but want something beyond the usual tributes and ceremonies, consider this remarkable program. (10 p.m., PBS)

Characters Count: 3838

URL for news «The woman vs. the warlords: a post-9/11 story»