She might describe herself as confused in the title of her new film, but Brishkay Ahmed is unequivocal about one thing: she thinks the burqa should be banned—outright. “Absolutely,” she says. “We have to evolve. It’s 2012. Our women are getting more and more covered.”
Sipping a cranberry soda in the Academic Public House on Broadway, the Afghan Canadian is suddenly, surprisingly blunt. Although her new documentary could hardly be called a defence of the controversial garment, Story of Burqa: Case of a Confused Afghan unwinds as an irreverent personal essay on the history and meaning of its subject rather than a polemic against it.
But even with its buoyant tone, the film is guaranteed to provoke an array of strong reactions and possibly even a few shouting matches when it gets the gala-presentation treatment Thursday (May 10) as part of the DOXA Documentary Film Festival’s Spotlight on Canadian Women in Documentary program. Though the burqa is an (illegitimate) expression of fundamentalism in some areas of the Muslim world, elsewhere it’s a Rorschach test of an individual’s political, gender-political, and social orientation. In short, everybody has an opinion about the burqa and all its varied epiphenomena, even if most of us really know nothing about it.
“I would love people to come and see it, even if it’s just the word burqa that attracts them,” Ahmed says in response to the buzz that’s already building around her film. “But in the end, I want them to see that it’s a political tool. Look how much women around the world are being lied to. Look how much men are being lied to, being told to cover their wives and daughters in their entirety. I hope people go to their own rabbit hole and ask, ‘What is the origin?’ ”
In a scene that’ll have steam blowing from the ears of some of the more sulphurous imams, Ahmed’s own journey down the rabbit hole begins with the 36-year-old filmmaker larking around on Davie Street in the face-concealing item of the title. From there, she travels to Kabul, where, significantly, Ahmed solicits opinions and information on the topic mostly from guys.
“I could have interviewed a bunch of Afghan women saying, ‘Oh, we hate the burqa’ and crying,” she offers, “but would that have made a difference? Not really, because it’s the men who force their daughters at six or nine years old to wear it. So they need to hear it from intellectual men that can look at them and say, ‘Hey, this is incorrect.’ ”
As Ahmed’s movie demonstrates, often through animation, the burqa and related garments, like the Iranian chador—neither of which have their origin in the Koran—have been injected by outsiders into the Afghan body politic a number of times over the course of the country’s tumultuous history. “Enemies of Afghanistan created this….We would never have created this thing,” one disgusted male interviewee spits, while another, a musician, actually finds it impossible to play in the presence of the despised garment—which was reintroduced into Afghan life most recently by the Taliban.
“He didn’t like me being there in the first place through the interview,” Ahmed comments, “because he really hates that cloth. But that’s a good thing. I want people to see that.” Meanwhile, the matronly and very English curator at the Textile Research Centre in Holland takes issue with the theory that the British used the burqa to strengthen Britain’s rule in the region a century ago. “This is a typical comment you get: blame the foreigner when you don’t want to look a little bit closer to home,” she huffs.
“She was very funny and very wise,” Ahmed says, smiling, “but I couldn’t be afraid and not ask her just because she was British: ‘Did your boys bring this to manipulate and control our country?’ I know it sounds like a big conspiracy theory, but, hey, it could be true.” One thing that’s indisputable is that Afghanistan’s struggle to modernize has constantly been knocked on the head by the geopolitical ambitions of others, whether it’s Britain, India, Russia, China (lately), and—murkily, as described in the film—Iran.
While this succession of invaders sought to keep the country repressed, the cloth itself went on its own parallel and eccentric journey. At one point, it was even taken up as a fashionable symbol of the middle class in Afghanistan, while at other times the burqa provided cover—literally—for foreign spies. It’s this colourful and often unexpected back story that generates a lot of the movie’s fascination, with your curious guide Ahmed tooling around Kabul in a conspicuous set of high heels. “Just because the Taliban made women wear shoes that are just so silent,” she says with a chuckle, “I made it known that I was arriving at every interview with my heels.”
So far, so righteous—but Ahmed’s rabbit hole isn’t necessarily your rabbit hole. Viewers on yet another side of the divide might take exception to the film’s sanction of NATO’s presence in Afghanistan, implied here, among other ways, in an image of Afghan women cheerfully shaking hands with Donald Rumsfeld. Not that Ahmed ever promised to represent anyone’s opinion except her own. “I’m a filmmaker; I don’t have to be politically correct,” she says. But can we agree that the West touts its concern for human rights in Afghanistan in order to conceal its truer, somewhat oilier interests? In this context, isn’t the inflammatory image of the burqa just another political tool?
“I believe that Islamic fundamentalism definitely benefits a western agenda,” Ahmed says. “I get that. But I think if NATO had not come into Afghanistan, I would not have seen what I see in Kabul today. We have 20 television stations; we have Internet; we have young people finding out that there’s a world out there that exists; we have women who are actually removing the burqas; we have fathers who are sending their girls to school. Now, did that just happen? No, it’s because of NATO’s funding and help.”
In other words, be assured that Story of Burqa will confuse if not rattle everyone’s assumptions. Interestingly enough, Ahmed’s father—an Afghan diplomat who is firmly opposed to the NATO mission—reportedly loves the film. “I was nervous,” she says with a laugh, referring to some of the raunchier material she came up with, particularly a quasi-pornographic rendering of Carla Bruni, wife of French president Nicolas Sarkozy. “But he’s really proud of me. He wants women to stop wearing that thing; he wants women to evolve. He’s all for modernization of Afghanistan.”
Mom, meanwhile, just wishes Ahmed’s legs had been covered before she donned the burqa in that opening sequence in downtown Vancouver. On that note, it would be interesting to see Ahmed turn her fierce intelligence to the more insidiously nasty female dress codes of western culture—an idea she seems to like. Ahmed recalls: “One gentlemen asked me, ‘Well, how do people dress in Canada?’ And I said, ‘I dunno,’ because I have nine-year-old girls, and when I come here [Kabul] I feel pressure to cover up, but when I walk on Robson Street, I feel like I have to get naked because there’s all these pictures of bras and girls posing in underwear. It’s weird. One side is forcing you to cover, and another side is forcing you to uncover.”
Raising the promise of a future project that could definitely use Ahmed’s talent and independent point of view, she adds, “But that’s another documentary.”
Story of Burqa: Case of a Confused Afghan has its world premiere next Thursday (May 10) at 7 p.m. at the Empire Granville 7 Cinemas as part of the DOXA Documentary Film Festival’s Spotlight on Canadian Women in Documentary program.
Watch the trailer for Story of Burqa: Case of a Confused Afghan.