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The girls of Kabul
by Reto Albertalli

Mechanism. When I first read the script that Reto Albertalli sent me after coming back from his second trip to Afghanistan, the word that got my attention was mechanism. Mechanism is a term apparently unrelated to the field of bodies and souls, belonging more, given its etymology, to the world of technology. A word familiar to Swiss people, given its close link to the king of mechanisms – the watch – and to the social and institutional device earmarking Switzerland, and somewhat envied abroad.
In Albertalli’s letter, mechanism referred to all persons, ordinary men and women, doomed in a role of disposable playthings, supporting actors intended to linger on the background of greater political, economical and military games. But at the same time, they become raw material ready to be sacrificed, humiliated and insulted; mere tools of coercion and intimidation set to achieve higher and superior objectives. At any cost. read more

If war, intended as an expression of social fight, has been a feature of male gender, rape and violence on women have always represented the simplest and most immediate way of degradation and coercion during conflicts. Undoubtedly, the female body has been the main battlefield on which warring men have been clashing for ages: from Bosnia to Iraq, from Afghanistan to Chechnya, this practice has been tragically corroborated. A constant pattern which has allowed during the years the execrable and twofold result of tearing the physical and psychical integrity of women and children – with obvious individual and social consequences – as well as of undermining the role of husbands, fathers and partners, propelled in an escalation of vengeance and retaliation.

In this context, the status reserved to Afghan women during the last decades has considerably worsened. In its 2012 paper on the Asian Country, Amnesty International reports that “Afghan women and girls continued to suffer discrimination, domestic violence, forced marriages, trafficking and being traded to settle disputes” (1). The Afghan Constitution of 2004 ensures equality to all citizens (article 22) and provides the setup for education and health protection programs directed at women. Nevertheless, the gap between “formal Constitution” and “common practice” remains broad and manifest: forced marriages, 57% of which involve little girls and teenagers,

still represent the majority of weddings, both for economic reasons – poor families get rid of an economic burden – and for the customary practices of bad (a woman becomes the bride as a compensation for a crime perpetrated by a member of her family) and of badal (the Exchange of women in order to avoid the payment of maher, the price for the bride). The wedding is just the beginning: inside the household, married women, especially the youngest, are continuously facing sexual, psychological, religious and economic abuses.

The problem of widows and of women left alone due to the war, helpless and marginalized, sharpens the occurrence of prostitution, perceived as the only way to economic sustenance. The poor quality in sanitation, tough in recent years some improvements in the development of sanitary facilities have been made, worsens the picture, especially in rural and poor regions. It is estimated that the risk of death for the mother during delivery is 200 times higher for an Afghan woman compared to a European woman.

Only 25% of births takes place under professional supervision and within minimal sanitary standards. Nonetheless, all relevant information on this subject must be read taking into consideration all prohibitions and regulations imposed by Islamic law and by broadly accepted custom contributing to enmesh Afghan women – subsequently their children – in a tragic and hopeless situation. Thus, it is not striking that suicide – especially among girls – is a constantly increasing pattern:

governmental sources estimate in thousands the number of young Afghan women committing suicide each year. The awareness of a desperate future, void of opportunities, conquers the minds of coerced beings, evolving in a society ruled by violent and corrupt men, and strictly related to cultural and social dynamics depending on global political and economic strategies.

Out of the broad-based dissolution of women’s rights generated by the Afghan conflict during the last three decades, these faces emerge almost miraculously. Girls we don’t know nothing about and who we hope are unrelated to what discussed above. Putting at risk their own safety, driven by a natural curiosity, or perhaps by an understandable affectation, these young women asked Reto Albertalli to be photographed. “At that time I was teaching children photography at the Afghan Mini Mobile Circus for Children, a circus and multimedia school in Kabul. A nice alternative playfully serious to reality

I spent most of the time with boys because even the slightest eye contact was forbidden with girls. Speak with them was just unthinkable… But then you are just there, day after day, you become part of something, even if you remain a stranger disconnected from their reality, from their society. They start perceiving you as a nice person and not a threat. That’s how some bits and pieces of interaction, some special moments. Then the most confident – maybe the bravest – girl asked me why I spent time with boys only and if it was possible for her to attend the photography class.

After her, several girls joined the class, and time spent together became increasingly worthwhile. At the beginning I deceived myself. I thought that in a short run I would have been able to become acquainted with their private lives, and I was therefore living in an alternating condition of hope and deception. Then I understood that the most powerful topic was namely the privileged relationship I could set up with them. We started talking about their country, the war, the condition of women.

Until I dared to create a very simple set, a sort of atelier with natural light composed by a window, a radiant object reflecting light, a neutral background, where I asked them to pose. They agreed to, but I had the feeling crossing a threshold and tension was in the air. Obviously the Hasselblad does not help. It is a cumbersome camera and it may instill fear, but I opted for this equipment because I felt frustrated by the idea of carrying out a standard reportage, telling more about the grit of the photographer and his trip in a definite place than about people he meets.

I needed a different angle, enabling me to see the other because it is the only way to get to know him, in an attempt to release him from his anonymity, to give him voice. I decided to alternate to this series of portraits some pictures in black and white, where male figures and withheld women prevail. In this way a contrast arises between the external world – guided and regulated – and the proximity and the need of freedom issuing from the portraits.”

In these faces of girls on the verge of becoming women in a country where there is no worst condition to live, several attitudes and postures can be seen. On everyone of them, a clear glare of melancholy is vivid. We would like perhaps to be able to scrub away that glare, by giving an answer we are unable to phrase. To lift them from the tragic condition of hostages in a country-prison ruled by warring men, in their turn unaware playthings in an immense game with nuanced boundaries. In order to contribute in freeing the potential hidden in these minds and in these glances. And because it is detestable to think about these girls only as mechanisms.

(Text by Fabio Martini)