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

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

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.

Also read: Going behind the sensation of Qandeel Baloch — Part I

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.

‘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.

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