Women of Courage – Intimate Stories from Afghanistan

Above all other countries, because of its long conflict since 1979, longer than the lives of many of those now reporting it, Afghanistan has faced several different generations of reporters. They tend to see the country through the prism of the first campaign they were in, a narrow frame of reference, with few shades of grey.

This has never been more evident than after the events of 9/11. For many of the new generation of American reporters sent to Afghanistan, history began with the defeat of the Taliban. This can bring a freshness of perspective, shining new light on things missed by reporters with longer memories. It can also lead to misjudgements. Women of Courage, a book of portraits of women in Afghanistan, is full of both. 

Photographer Katherine Kiviat shoots her subjects with touching intimacy. She uses the clear high mountain light as an ally, sometimes in the diffuse beige soon after dawn as a radio journalist goes to work. She uses the high noon sun equally well in the startling image of a police general, with highly-made up face under her Russian-era peaked cap and high-heeled foot below her long uniform skirt stepping into a Land Cruiser. 

The text that accompanies her images, however, is peppered with curious judgements. One is, “Not that long before the Taliban came to power women wore miniskirts in Kabul.”  No, they did not.
Kiviat’s partner, Scott Heidler, who wrote the text, makes the mistake of reaching back to imagine some enlightened, liberated past before the emergence of the Taliban in 1994.

The truth is that Afghan women have never come close to equal rights, and this issue has been one of the most contentious and divisive for the country throughout the twentieth century.

Wearing the burqa became more commonplace as the mujaheddin dislodged the Russians in the 1980s. Under the Taliban, it became compulsory. It was part of a trend.

Kiviat’s photographs shed light on a different country. Her  action shots of a woman baker, a burns nurse’s determined face and a helicopter pilot in her cockpit all help to show the changes.

Continuing dangers, showing  how much of a revolution this is, are revealed when we are told that three women in the book are  already dead. Safia Amma Jan, the most prominent voice for women’s rights in the Taliban heartland of Kandahar, was shot on her way to work. Another casualty was a twenty-four year old Music TV presenter, who is pictured alive in her bedroom beside a Shrek poster. The third to die was the helicopter pilot, who succumbed to childbirth – perhaps the most glaring evidence of how much remains to be achieved in Afghanistan.

Reviewer: David Loyn is the BBC’s World Affairs Correspondent.