People to Watch
Schema interviews Brishkay Ahmed & Chris Hind
Afghan-Canadian Brishkay Ahmed takes a running leap into exploring the history of one of the most controversial garments in the world for her film Story of Burqa: Case of a Confused Afghan.
There is no dearth of commentary on the burqa in Western media and pop culture. Last year, Farzana Hassan's speech 'Is the Niqab a Symbol of Religious Expression?' at the UBC-Laurier Multiculturalism Lecture made waves when she called the niqab a tool of oppression. Members of the audience were outraged.
But there is still little understanding of its history. And it's not only a Western problem, as Ahmed's film shows.
Ahmed left Afghanistan when she was five. She had, in her own words, forgotten her connection to it. When she was making her last film, Reclaiming Rights, on the subject of young divorced women living in shelters, her father told her the burqa was not Afghan. She was shocked, having seen it everywhere while in Kabul.
And so began her quest.
Ahmed attempts an ambitious task: figuring out just where the veil came from, and why it is worn. Her aim is not an emotionally removed, scholarly one. Anyone who watches Story of Burqa will realize within minutes that Ahmed is better compared to a bold investigator than a timid academic. Though her question could be relegated to the ranks of academia and left to putrefy somewhere even more obscure, Ahmed is very eager to reveal it truthfully to the world.
Who wears the burqa? Who wants them to wear it? And who has historically supported or opposed it? As importantly, what is it like being under the veil?
The film begins with a nameless, faceless woman shrouded in the veil traipsing down a crosswalk in Vancouver. We can't see the woman but she makes herself heard loud and clear. As Ahmed's voiceover takes control of our narrative, we know this is no shy customer. She is out to get answers. Further, she is simply not out to offend for the sake of shaking things up. Rather, Ahmed mixes fact and a humorous touch in good measure, making her film all the more appealing for it. Though Ahmed is very opinionated in person, she is an even-handed filmmaker.
Ahmed's journey starts in Canada as she dons the burqa for the first time, but she takes it to Afghanistan and even goes in search of its collectors as far as Holland.
Ahmed soon finds herself wading through a sea of explanations for the origins and purpose of the burqa. From Indian spies of the British-ruled era, to rulers with harems in even earlier centuries, from Iranian politicians to Russian invaders ... everyone's had a stake in the burqa.
And Ahmed certainly interrogates a range of sources for information—tailors, scholarly experts, women in Afghanistan, women outside of it;the only sources she found it difficult to get a hold of were Western theologians and academics. She regrets that the West is still so mired in political correctness.
"How long will we tiptoe around Islam?" She asks.
If there's one thing Ahmed's documentary overwhelmingly supplies evidence for, it is that the burqa is either an invention or series of reinventions. It is the product of various regimes and influences, all with vested interests in seeing it survive.
Brishkay Ahmed and Chris Hind, Sound Designer & Composer
Ahmed emphasizes that "it is absolutely a political tool, and all regimes, whether Western or Afghan, have played with that cloth. It has either been removed to gain acceptance of votes, or brought back forcefully to manage and control society."
The Taliban, she is quick to point out, was frank about enforcing the burqa so that its men would not lose focus checking out women.
Besides gaining clarity on one important point—that every regime has 'played' with the burqa—Ahmed is also happy to have found overwhelming evidence from authorities that the burqa is un-Islamic.
"When you're in an Islamic country and you tell them that this is a religious garment, people will wear it. But nowhere in the Quran does it say that your face has to be covered, or your hand has to be covered. I was just really happy that that point was made clear. A little old man in Kandahar doesn't know that. If he hears it from me, I'm another whining girl. If he hears it from an intellectual man, he might go home and tell his daughter and wife they don't have to wear it."
Ahmed describes the burqa as 'so unnatural' and 'so bizarre that it attracts eyes'.
She acknowledges the element of mystery that has international fashion designers experimenting with the clothing item, but feels part of the mystique just lies in a simple curiosity as to how fellow human beings live under that cloth.
Ahmed gets slammed a lot because she wants the burqa banned. However, she emphasizes that she supports the banning of the veil only, and is all for the modesty of the head scarf described in the Quran.
But what does she say to one feminist argument that if women choose to wear the burqa, that should be respected by feminists for the very reason that they have freely chosen it?
Brishkay says she finds herself in a spot when asked that.
"For me it's like saying 'I don't think you should drink and drive.' I don't know at what age a person becomes conscious enough to make choices freely. If a little girl is told to cover up from when she's young, I don't know if she's made a choice."
Ahmed further expresses anger that current Afghan president Karzai and his wife have not gone on national television telling the nation's women that they should remove the burqa, post-Taliban, and that it is not mentioned anywhere in the Quran.
Thankful for the fact that her documentary exposes the nefarious political manipulations of the burqa, Ahmed is comfortable with having revealed where the burqa is not from, while its true origins remain less clear.
Says Ahmed, "The answer is not clear as to what the origins are, and it's not meant to be. I didn't know how this film was going to end. The information I was hearing was just shocking to me. I'm hoping some viewers will go down their own rabbit hole, and maybe someone will find the root of it. 'Who created it?' is still the question."
Story of Burqa premieres at DOXA 2012 on the 10th of May at 7 PM.
Read more: Brishkay Ahmed in the Georgia Straight: www.straight.com
Gayatri is a philosopher-turned-professional-film-fanatic, with East and West in her DNA, and a travel bug in her boot. Follow her @Gaya3b on Twitter.
People to Watch
People to Watch
People to Watch