By Abhishek Jha for Youth Ki Awaaz:
Iranian filmmaker Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami’s documentary ‘Sonita’ is making waves around the world. She started filming the eponymous subject of the documentary, a 14-year-old Afghan immigrant aspiring to be a rapper, when she learnt about her through a cousin. The entire process took her from Iran to Afghanistan to the USA and the film inevitably ends up as a commentary on a host of sociopolitical issues. The result is a documentary that is not only powerful in its delivery but also important due to the complexities with which it deals. In conversation with YKA at the recently concluded Dharamshala International Film Festival, she further explained these issues. Here are the edited excerpts of the interview:
Abhishek Jha (AJ): We saw Sonita fighting to get her music recorded in Iran, fighting her parents, fighting patriarchy. What kind of feminist movements are there in Iran?
Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami (RGM): Women’s movements in Iran are suppressed. Women activists, feminists are taken to jail. We had a campaign- One Million Signatures. They were gathering signatures from women that they want equal social rights, custody of their children, equality in inheritance, and a lot of things where they are considered lesser than men. But all the people who were gathering signatures were arrested.
AJ: How helpful is music in this? For instance, Sonita’s music.
RGM: This music was made for Afghan people. The music video was broadcasted from Afghan TV and I think a lot of Afghans shared it and Afghan girls especially loved it. So I think it had some influence in Afghan society.
AJ: What is the status of women within Iran- for example, across different classes or across different tribes?
RGM: Nobody has asked me this but I think the understanding is also in India. So, yes, if you are born in a middle class or an upper-middle class family in Iran and in an educated background, you can do everything with your life. But of course if you are born in a conservative family from a tribal place or a rural place, you have fewer chances.
But the Islamic Revolution- I think it had some negative aspects but it had one very positive side. This was that even the most conservative people, who didn’t let their daughters to go to even high school before the Revolution and tried to marry them off to preserve their honour and dignity, after the Revolution, everybody had to be covered in university. So after the Revolution we had a big rise in women’s education in Iran. Now 65 percent of university students are women.
But still women have a small share in the economy. They go to university, they get education, but when it comes to making money, they are not equal at all and still most of the money is in the hands of men. Also, most of the political power- I mean we don’t even have a woman minister.
RGM: There are 3 million Afghan immigrants in Iran. The majority of them are from the Hazara community. They are 9 percent of Afghanistan’s population but they are about 60 percent of the Afghan immigrants in Iran. Because they are very discriminated in Afghanistan (they have been through many genocides), they immigrated to Iran. Afghan immigrants have been coming to Iran in the last forty years- the first wave came in the Soviet war- and they are still coming but now they are mostly economical refugees.
Iran won’t give anybody any legal status because they say that we don’t need any more Afghans in our country. So they are much discriminated. Until last year most Afghan children could not go to school. Afghans work in the most hazardous, horrible, tough labour jobs, which are very low income. And they are very discriminated by the people also. Most of them have bad memories about Iran. Many Afghan immigrants in Iran, when they went to Europe, they claimed that they have been in Afghanistan because their life in Iran was horrible. They couldn’t say that they were coming directly from Iran.
AJ: Why is there discrimination against Afghans in Iran?
RGM: Because people believe that Afghans are stealing jobs. Also, when Afghans came, it was war-time and…you know…some criminal actions happened by them. But Iranian media became very focussed on it and people think that they are criminals and dangerous. Moreover, because of the wars, they have low education, especially Hazaras. So all these things- because of war, because of lack of education- subject them to a very weak status in Iran.
AJ: We saw the contrast between the status of women in Afghanistan, Iran, and the USA. The USA also says that it needs to intervene to save the women. What do you think of that?
RGM: I think that United States as a country and its foreign policy hasn’t really helped Afghanistan that much. They are responsible for creating the Taliban, responsible for creating the ISIS. But then in my movie, only American people offered help, and I couldn’t deny this, because nobody from Germany or Switzerland or Norway contacted us. So what could I do? It doesn’t mean that I think that America is a paradise or that they are saving people but in my case it was what I experienced.
At the same time we should know that Americans also use these things for propaganda. They use this kind of, like Malala or Sonita- they are using them for their own kind of propaganda. So it’s never a pure intention. Anyway, this is what happened to Sonita and it’s the best that could happen to her. She had no future and at least now she has a future.
AJ: Do you plan to take ‘Sonita’ elsewhere?
RGM: I want to travel with it more but the most important place I want to take it to is the refugee camps all over Europe. I am planning to do it in November and December. I’ll go to refugee camps in Europe and show ‘Sonita’ there and I will also take the teacher from the movie to do the life-skills classes for the young people there. This is what I plan to do.
AJ: Are you planning any new documentaries?
RGM: (Laughs) Oh no! I don’t know what I am going to do with my life. I want to come to Dharamshala and live here.
This is part of Youth Ki Awaaz’s coverage of the Dharamshala International Film Festival.