Increasingly volatile security in Kandahar has made it difficult, over the past year in particular, for journalists to explore what it's like to live in the city, one of Afghanistan's most historic and notorious. That, combined with cultural customs that prevent most women from talking freely with journalists, has led to a situation in which the stories of about half the population have largely gone untold.
This spring, the subject of women's rights in Afghanistan was shaken from dormancy when NATO leaders at a summit in Europe lit up international headlines with their condemnation of a new Afghan law that severely restricted women's rights. Signed secretively by President Hamid Karzai, the Shiite Personal Status Law appeared to impose Taliban-style restrictions on Shiite women, including bans on their ability to refuse sex to their husbands or leave the home without his permission.
Coverage of the law raised new questions about what it's like to be a woman in Afghanistan's current climate. During that same month in Kandahar, the province where Canadian forces in Afghanistan are based and where the Globe maintains an ongoing presence, insurgents staged the latest in a gruesome campaign of public female assassinations. The incident scared many women into silence, hiding or both. The Globe decided to find out what their lives are really like.
To get the stories of the women featured in Behind the Veil, we settled on an unscientific method that has proven useful in past situations where the mobility of our own reporters was limited as a result of safety concerns: Through a trusted contact we hired a local, female translator and interviewer and trained her on a basic video camera. The goal was to have her conduct on-camera interviews - without a Globe reporter present - with 10 "average" women in Kandahar representing diverse ages, educational backgrounds and home life situations. Those interviews would be supplemented by other in-person and telephone interviews conducted by a Globe reporter.
Each video subject was informed about the multimedia project and given the choice to use an assumed name and/or have their face blurred in photographs. Only one asked that we do this. All were asked the same basic slate of questions written by the Globe to highlight everything from their religious beliefs to thoughts on politics, women's rights and the future of Afghanistan. The interviewer was asked to posit follow-up questions in situations that merited them. However, she is not a trained journalist, and it's fair to say her instinct for when to do this evolved over the course of the month in which our interviews were done. It is partly for this reason that the raw interviews range in length from about five minutes to 20. Another critical factor is the discrepancy in education levels. Some women were simply not literate enough to understand and answer all of our questions.
None of the interviews were done in English. Rather, the women spoke Pashto or Dari. Their conversations were translated and subtitled by a multi-lingual Afghan-Canadian University of Toronto student and the translations were verified by a professional.