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Women’s bodies and national honour in Afghanistan's cinema of borders

Updated November 15, 2018


A refugee woman waits to board a truck at UNHCR repatriation centre near Peshawar.—AFP/File
A refugee woman waits to board a truck at UNHCR repatriation centre near Peshawar.—AFP/File

In a time where the long-debated return of the Afghan refugees to Afghanistan, Imran Khan’s recent pledge to grant citizenship to 1.5 million Afghan refugees living in Pakistan and the ongoing dispute over the Torkham border check post make the highlights, ‘Izzat (Honour), an Afghan Pashto film written by Toryalai Noorasmayi and shot during the early 1990s, finds itself buried in the dusty shelves of unpierced history.

The film, like the recent incidents at Torkham, bleeds violence, morality, nationalism and the plight of an imposed refuge.

It is, therefore, worth wiping the dust off and revisiting with a brief review. Despite its attempt to illuminate the dark plight of refugees, it has not received the attention it deserves.


The film is not limited to Pashtuns but Afghans as a nation.

‘Izzat’s depiction of the plight of Afghan refugees is far from being soft. Each segment of the film portrays a family in hardship, from the emerging scenes at the refugee camp to their journey towards the Afghan border.

The family is portrayed to have borne the weight of a tragedy that fate has imposed upon them. They experience harassment, robbery, violence, threats and entrapment.

These elements all pose a danger to their honour, the catalyst through which the idea of eloping emerges.

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Films depicting the predicament of Afghan refugees are not uncommon. Jochen Becker’s chapter Grandes huidas: Paisajes cinematográficos entre campo de refugiados en Pakistán y obras de construcción en Teherán (Great escapes: cinematic journeys between refugee camps in Pakistan and constructions sites in Tehran) included in the volume Spliced Histories. 64 Años de Cine Afgano (Spliced Histories: 64 years of Afghan Cinema) organised by Sandra Schäfer, deals with the representation of Afghan refugees in cinema.

However, there are few films portraying the return of Afghan refugees to Afghanistan, made by Afghan directors.

Delving deeper

‘Izzat is a unique attempt at portraying the hardships of returnees and their motives for returning.

The film narrows the theme down and delves deeper into the predicaments of refugees by focusing on a family of Afghan refugees in Pakistan constituted by a male (Mamnoon Maqsoodi) and three females: the wife of the protagonist, his young daughter and unmarried sister.

It is interesting to observe the patience and response of each family member to the piercing elements of discomfort; however, they all share the same impulse when it comes to honour being at stake, i.e. to return to Afghanistan, the home they initially escaped from.

Furthermore, the fragility of the family’s honour is evident in the initial dialogue between the husband and wife: “There are a lot of people like you, who ditch their honour to come here.” At the same time, in this line, the stereotypes about Afghans in Pakistan are hinted at.

The concept of honour represents an important element not only among the Pashtuns but also in the rest of Afghanistan as well as in other areas of South Asia.

As historian Raghav Sharma points out in Nation, Ethnicity and the Conflict in Afghanistan, despite its heterogeneous population with “its own interpretation and memory of the past”, they seem to share a “common public culture with more or less notions of patriarchy, honor, shame and hospitality”.

Mamnoon Maqsoodi, who portrays the protagonist in ‘Izzat, himself spent 10 years in self-imposed exile in Peshawar. This trouble-laden decade of experience is seen clearly in his role as the protector of the family's ‘izzat.

The film attempts to make viewers a part of the journey in its pursuit of portraying the refugee camps by shooting part of the introductory scene in a natural setting and using non-professional actors, who make most of the secondary cast.

These opening scenes, along with the credits of the film, are reminiscent of the Italian neo-realist movement: concern with social problems, bringing together professional and non-professional actors and filming on location.

Shot in a refugee camp in Afghanistan near the border, one can see the depictions of the daily life in a refugee camp: the little girl fetching water from a nearby small river, a woman preparing bread, a mother nitpicking a girl’s hair, and children playing with each other.

In a posterior film segment, when the Pakistani khan discovers the escape of the Afghan family, the non-professional actors can be seen looking directly at the camera with a sense of curiosity and excitement.

These actors strengthen the attempt of a realistic and honest portrait of the daily lives of the Afghan refugees living in Pakistan, almost embeding a documentary style.

Khpal watan ta zama (I am going to my country)

The film is far from neutral and discloses a very strong ideological message related to nation and territory. It is also a portrayal of yearning for the homeland and a sense of belonging.

It touches one aspect of the Pashtun culture, i.e. the evident notion of ‘izzat on which the Pashtun code of honour (pashtunwali) is based, but with a nationalist rhetoric like a pendulum.

While the former exists as a motivator to take the life-threatening decision of escaping from the refugee camp, the latter exists in the form of symbols (flags, clothing, jewellery — the Afghan flag, Afghan border fort, Afghan border-police as saviours, etc.) and the ultimate destination — watan, country; Afghanistan.

The narrative of the film takes place over the course of two days; the passage of time is clear and felt through the refugees’ arduous journey through the mountains towards the Afghan border.

It is the unmarried sister of Maqsoodi’s character who embodies honour at stake, and consequently the reason for leaving Pakistan.

A Pakistani Pashtun man is seen looking with lascivious eyes at this young Afghan refugee woman: first, when the young woman is returning from fetching water with her niece, and later, when the young unmarried woman is preparing bread outside the family’s tent, while the same man looks at her.

It is hence this woman, whose honour is at stake, who personifies the notion of territory and nation, and the remembrance of identity and belonging.

The cinema of borders

Women embody honour as passive subjects, in contrast to men — the protectors of women’s honour and therefore active subjects.

On the other hand, we have two distinct and conflicting groups of men: the local Pakistani khan and two more Pakistani characters who terrorise the Afghan family on their way to Afghanistan, and the group of Afghan border patrol police who act as saviours of the same family.

It is not infrequent for the nation to be symbolised as a woman and wrought to be vessels of the nation.

The Pashto proverb zan, zar, zamin (women, gold, land) — the three things Pashtuns are supposed to protect and fight for if necessary — is indicative of the place women take in the preservation of honour.

As Tamar Mayer writes in Gender Ironies of Nationalism: Sexing the Nation:

“In the hierarchical relationship between masculinity and femininity, when men (and sometimes older women) control the ‘proper behaviour’ of women, in effect they control women’s bodies and sexuality because women’s bodies represent the ‘purity’ of the nation and thus are guarded heavily by men, an attack on these bodies become an attack on the nations’ men.”

As several of the chapters in Meyer’s book set forth, "when nation, gender, and sexuality intersect, the body becomes an important marker — even a boundary — for the nation".

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The cinema of borders has the frontier as the preponderant enunciation. As Hamid Naficy points out, this cinema is characterised by an exploration of themes that incorporate journeying, historicity, identity and movement.

He identifies three ways in which this frontier or border is depicted in exilic films, apparent in ‘Izzat:

Through the image of journey (journeys of evasion and search for a refuge, journeys of quest and homelessness, and inward journeys back to the "homeland"); border images and border crossings; and, finally, the intersection of identity(ies).

Naficy goes further by distinguishing between ‘closed forms’ and ‘open forms’, which respectively represent the ‘exiled place’ and ‘the homeland.’

‘Izzat is an allegory for the political relation maintained between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and also, a hymn to the nation, to Afghanistan.

The idea of nation in Afghanistan, according to Sharma, is a very complex one, and “enormously complicated by the three decade-long conflict that unsettled old social hierarchies and tended to fragment territory and political authority along ethno-political lines”.

Sharma also calls our attention to the changing conceptions concerning the Afghan nation and its ethno-political configurations; yet, according to him, ethnicity in Afghanistan has always had to coexist and negotiate with Islam and tribe.

Moreover, the Afghan concept of nation has also changed in formal official discourse.

Up next: Our culture of honour

However, ‘Izzat tries to blur possible antagonisms by resorting to a problem, which cuts across all segments of society: the plight of refugees.

Their voices are thus reborn in unison, echoing and seeping through the mountains separating them from the maternal crib.

The experience of exile, in particular, helps in the development of a national identity as Afghans and citizens of Afghanistan.

The film approaches its climax when the family is rescued by the Afghan Border Police. They walk towards the ḳalā (fort) with the Afghan flag mounted on it.

The symbolic significance of the flag is such that the viewers can feel the union of an eloped child returning from unfamiliar horrific territories with their mother. The camera unhurriedly zooms in on the flag while the ever-present music aids the emotional appeal of the scene.

We do not know what happens to this family afterwards: we only know that they have reached the border where their safety is guaranteed in the embrace of their motherland.

The end remains veiled from the eyes of the viewer, while its meaning suspended, laid on that Afghan flag fluttering with pride; the ultimate image-statue from the film.

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