Homeland Insecurities: Nel Hedayat and Afghanistan

Homeland Insecurities: Nel Hedayat and Afghanistan April 5, 2010

The BBC documentary Women, Weddings, War and Me follows 21-year-old British Afghan Nel Hedayat (pictured below) as she returns to Afghanistan 15 years after she and her family left.

Nel Hedayat in Afghanistan. Image via the BBC website.
Nel Hedayat in Afghanistan. Image via the BBC website.

The accompanying article was my first exposure to Hedayat’s experience there, and it provides a different perspective than the documentary did. The article came across as another replay of the broken record of dual British Muslim identities and the experience of women in non-Western countries as unrelentingly tragic, while the women themselves are dismissed as possible agents in their own lives. My view of the documentary is a little more complicated than this, but I’m going to address the article first.

From the first sentence (“Growing up in north London, identity was never really a big issue.”), I was skeptical about the entire project. I may know little about Afghanistan, but I’ve lived in north London for almost twenty years. Identity is an issue and being different is not the norm.

The British Muslim Experience is often discussed as being the struggle to define oneself around the two separate, immutable, competing identities of being Muslim, being from a particular nation of origin (in this case Afghanistan), and being British. Talk of creating a combined ethnic, Muslim, and British identity both defies and reifies this separation—often, the process of blending these is portrayed as agonizingly difficult. In reality, the British Muslim Experience is not as easy to sum up as it is to generalize in a way that “others” British Muslims. The process of synthesizing one’s identity, especially as a young adult, is not confined to 1.5 Generation immigrants.

The documentary was more multi-faceted. There were things that felt cheap or dishonest, like Hedayat’s experiment with wearing a burqa (she said that not wearing it would have offended people, despite the fact that her escort wore a chador). Or the voiceover during Hedayat’s visit to the burns unit of a hospital to see a woman who had set herself on fire as a way to escape abuse from her husband and in-laws, generalizing the idea that this is what life is like for women in Afghanistan. Or the fact that there was not a single negative mention of the British military presence in Afghanistan.

Other things were surprisingly well handled: the difference in public dress for women in Kabul and more rural areas was addressed nicely. After having talked to a female minister in the government, Hedayat acknowledges that more important issues affect women than the clothes they wear, which are often used as easy shorthand. Even the cousin who is dismissed in the article as accepting her future arranged marriage despite her education is acknowledged as being the best judge of her own life decisions.

Overall, Women, Weddings, War and Me was somewhat unique in the genre of documentaries made in Britain about women in majority Muslim countries in that it focused on Afghan women as agents of change, as well as victims of violence.

Of course the violence suffered by women should be explored, and domestic violence (as much as state-sanctioned-and-inflicted violence) is something that needs to be discussed openly. It is not just a personal matter, but an extension and expression of societal devaluation of women as objects to own. I am not denying that Afghan society is patriarchal, although I have no experience of it.

What I am sure of is that British society, even eccentric London—north London, to be as specific as Hedayat—is part of a male-dominated culture. It is not a war zone, but this is, in my very real experience, a place where walking down the street dressed a certain way can lead to harassment and even death threats. The act of pathologizing particular societies as being incurably and violently misogynistic is a deflection of this same criticism. I think it was Jung who said that we openly hate in the Other what we are not ready to acknowledge in the Self.

The program can be watched in the U.K. on the BBC iPlayer until Tuesday evening.

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