‘Why the silence? Why the inaction? It breaks my heart’: Malala and Jennifer Lawrence take on the Taliban

Estimated read time 9 min read

“Strong women are not easy women,” says Jennifer Lawrence, “and a woman’s life is lonely. So much of our experience cannot be shared or understood by men, and our rights are in their hands. That’s why we need each other.”

The two other people on our video call nod in agreement. One is Malala Yousafzai, who, with Lawrence, has produced a new documentary about the oppression of Afghan women by the Taliban after US troops withdrew in 2021. The other is Sahra Mani, who directed it.

Bread & Roses is also a story of three women. Sharifa incarcerates herself at home in accordance with new laws that ban women from school, work or going out other than in certain chaperoned circumstances, wearing full-body coverings. Zahra is a dentist whose activism lands her in jail. Taranom seeks refuge in Pakistan and mourns her homeland. “Strong women are always lonely women,” she says near the end of the film, bereft.

No arguing with that today. “That’s why we’re here,” says Malala. “Because it is a lonely journey, and we are joining each other to share empathy, and solidarity with all Afghan women.” Mani hasn’t returned to Kabul since the Taliban took control again. Seeing school friends married off as minors further spurred her to gain an education. Her own brother objected. “You have to fight in your community, in your family,” she says. Then, once you enter “male-dominated society, they’re not ready to accept you as someone who has a brain. So yes, it’s really lonely.”

From left, producer Justine Ciarrocchi, Zahra, Jennifer Lawrence and Sahra Mani at the Cannes Film Festival 2023. View image in fullscreen

Today, of course, the situation is yet worse. “If you are born as a girl in Afghanistan,” says Malala, “the systematic gender oppression by the Taliban has decided your future for you. This is the worst form of discrimination: women denied every basic right and opportunity.”

In fact, adds Mani, her film sanitises current events. We see protesters attacked with water cannons; in reality many were “killed, kidnapped and illegally detained. The situation is much worse than I say in the film.”

The genesis of Bread & Roses began three years ago, after Lawrence was appalled by news reports about the plight of these women, and by the prospect of their being forgotten. “I think it’s really easy to be ruled by our constantly moving news cycle,” she says – less peppy, more sober and, later in the call, more emotional than the familiar chatshow charmer. “By the time the information gets to us, it has been so distilled through our western lens.”

Agreeing with Malala that “storytelling is the soul of any activism”, Lawrence commissioned Mani to coordinate the shooting of first-person testimonies. “Hopefully this movie,” says Lawrence, “made by Afghan women, through their perspective of this moment, will mean it’s not just a flash of a story in a pan. It is a resistance happening right now. These women need the world to witness this so that they are not suffering in vain, and we need to pressure our governments to hold the Taliban accountable.”

Progress has been slow. The US administration has not taken responsibility for the repercussions of its military retreat. Western feminists tend to focus on matters of immediate domestic import, and on identity politics, rather than the massive and dramatic human rights abuse in the Middle East.

“It is a reality that breaks your heart,” says Malala. “Why is there silence? Why is there inaction? Activists and storytellers cannot spend too much time thinking about it.” The ultimate obligation lies with the general public, she believes. “I think it’s the job of the people to hold their leaders to account and put more pressure on them. So I hope that people will begin to question their representatives and ask them what they have been doing. What do they mean when they say they’re committed to gender equality – those nice fancy words – when they don’t take any action to protect women’s rights and girls’ education in Afghanistan?”

Co-producer Malala Yousafzai, at the 2023 Film Independent Spirit Awards in Los Angeles.View image in fullscreen

Why haven’t they yet? Racism and ignorance certainly contribute, agrees Malala, ever measured and collected. “Sometimes when people talk about Afghanistan or Pakistan they assume that this is normal, expected. But when women are systematically oppressed we should not excuse that based on religion and culture.” Zahra, Sharifa and Taranom are trying to define themselves within their society and faith: now a radical act, but less so 100 years ago, when female education and modern dress were encouraged, and forced or child marriage abolished. (All such reforms have been repealed, reinstated and repealed again many times.) “I think culture is defined by people,” Malala continues, “and oftentimes women are not included in that.”

In the film, men are curiously absent. Even Zahra’s fiance, Omid, although tearful at the prospect of her departure, does not visibly back her protests. Such inertia is standard, says Mani. “In the minds of Afghan men, women’s education is a women’s problem. Not theirs.” Some are even enabled by the lockdown: one woman sobs reporting beatings by her husband, who has been liberated by the isolation (a WHO report nine years ago found 90% of Afghan women had experienced domestic violence). Mani’s previous film, 2018’s A Thousand Girls Like Me, told of a young Afghan woman seeking to expose the abuse within her family – and the failings of the country’s judicial system.

Sexism also helps account for the muted international response, says Mani. Had men been the victims, we could have expected a different tenor of outcry. “What Afghan women face today has not come from God. They are victims of male politicians who made a wrong decision – and children and women pay the price.”

At one point, women on a march are threatened by unseen male hecklers: go home and shut up or we will kill you, they say. One woman succinctly slaps him down: “You are desperate for power over us.”

How much is that a universalism? “All of this is universal,” says Lawrence. “This misogyny is dangerous. And the paralysis that comes over us when we don’t know what to do or how to help is dangerous.”

Yes, I say: the Taliban behaving like this is not unexpected; the tacit complicity of loved ones feels the greater betrayal. Or perhaps that’s too strong a word?

A still from Bread & Roses.View image in fullscreen

“Not strong enough of a word,” says Lawrence. “Of course it’s a betrayal. We of course felt that betrayal when our supreme court turned over Roe v Wade. How can you not see me as an equal? It doesn’t decrease the amount of abortions, it just increases the amount of death. Women die. It’s a massive betrayal.”

The strength of Lawrence’s response to that rollback was reported at the time. Her home state of Kentucky was one of the first to ban abortions after the 2022 ruling, reopening a rift with her Republican family that had begun during Trump’s presidency, and which Lawrence had been trying to repair since giving birth to her son, Cy, now three.

“I just worked so hard in the last five years to forgive my dad and my family and try to understand,” she told Vogue in 2022. “I’ve tried to get over it and I really can’t … I can’t fuck with people who aren’t political any more … It’s too dire. Politics are killing people … How could you raise a daughter from birth and believe that she doesn’t deserve equality?”

One of the outcomes of that ire today is that she refers to her day job as “purely just a way to be able to get a film like this made”. Using her platform “makes me feel a little hopeless. But it’s something. Obviously it was scary to reach out to Sahra and offer to get her funds and equipment. There were many people in my life that didn’t want me to get involved in something that would make the Taliban not like me. It’s scary and it is overwhelming, but the scariest possible outcome is ignoring it and pretending like it’s not happening.”

Jennifer Lawrence and producer Justine Ciarrocchi in Cannes for Bread & Roses.View image in fullscreen

Lawrence’s investment in the project is also evident when she begins weeping. This comes when speaking about people “whose rights are taken away and their homes are stolen. These people have to be separated from their families. Nobody wants to go to a refugee camp in Germany where they have to share a tent with thousands of people. The living situation is so dire that a part of me just can’t even believe that we … it’s just unbelievable.”

That we allow this to happen? “Yes. And that this is the terrorist response: little boys are easier to manipulate into becoming young soldiers if their mothers aren’t educated. So they stop education for young girls from sixth grade. It’s an unbelievable way to treat humans, your fellow citizens, the women who are your wives, who are your mothers, your sisters. It’s so overwhelming.”

Lawrence’s voice shakes. “I do understand and sympathise with the freeze response. I have to fight it myself. But the alternative is so much more horrifying, because the Taliban is a terrorist organisation to the world. And the longer we ignore the rights of women in our own country and countries around the world it makes the world a more dangerous place.”

This, agrees Mani, is where the international strategy of silence seems perverse as well as cruel. Compassion shouldn’t be a luxury – but other countries should seek to curb the Taliban through self-interest, too.

A still from Bread & Roses.View image in fullscreen

“We shouldn’t trust them. If Afghan women are paying the price today, the rest of the world may pay tomorrow. We don’t want something horrible like 9/11 to happen again.”

Instead, she says, the west appears to be funding its own destruction. “We handed part of our world to terrorists and told them: ‘You can have it! Plus: we will pay you millions of dollars every week!’ The Taliban receives a lot of financial support from international communities without any accountability.”

She leans forward, urgent and angry. “So what is the game? There is a horror happening. What is the story behind all of this?”

Source: theguardian.com

You May Also Like

More From Author