BBC journalist Zarghuna Kargar, who grew up in Afghanistan, is making waves with her documentary Our World: The War Widows of Afghanistan. As the daughter of a government official, she had a privileged childhood in a war-torn country, but says her strongest memory is of rocket attacks and how life was only about survival.
Kargar left Afghanistan at the age of 11, stayed for a few years in Pakistan, and was 18 when her family took asylum in UK. "I grew up as a woman and a feminist in UK," says the 32-year-old, popularly known as Zari. Her radio show, BBC's Afghan Woman's Hour, which highlighted the plight of Afghan women, had a successful six-year run from 2004 to 2010.
Zari, who lives in East Midlands with her second husband, also published a bestselling book, Dear Zari, in 2012. In it, she chronicled the lives of the women whose life stories she had unravelled in her weekly radio programme. "I found a connection with all these women. I both cried and laughed with them and felt the world needed to know these stories. I met a publisher, and it took me three years to finish the project," she says.
Zari's documentary shows how much women – both British and Afghan – widowed due to the Afghanistan war have suffered. It all started with Zari meeting Mukti Jain Campion, founder of Culture Wise, an independent company which produces documentaries for BBC Radio. at her book event. Mukti liked the idea and went on to produce the radio version. "The idea was pitched in March 2013 to BBC Our World and here we are today," she says.
Although the women's husbands fought on the same side against the Taliban, their experiences of widowhood are dramatically different. Widows in conservative Afghan society are almost powerless. And for some, losing their husband translates to abject poverty. Despite their differences, the British and Afghan women all tell of love, loss and hopes for the future. "In many ways it's hard to compare experiences of
British and Afghan widows. But as Marzia, one of the woman in the film says, they have both lost the men they loved," shares Zari.
The film highlights the poverty, lack of security and traditions that are imposed on widows. There are two million Afghan war widows, according to one estimate.
"Presenting this film has been a very intimate experience for me. When Mehrjan (one of the featured widows) told me that no one had asked her how she feels, it made me feel proud that I did this. I feel privileged to be the voice that shares her story and those of all others," says Zari.
"Another woman in the film says, 'they think widows are like a pot without a lid'. What a strong and telling sentence that is! I have come across this statement so many times during my reporting on widows for Afghan Woman's Hour and it breaks my heart to hear it again and again, and to see that things haven't changed much for widows in my country," she adds.
Love and life
Kargar speaks openly about the failure of her arranged marriage, which lasted only three years, both in her book and otherwise. She believes arranged marriages are outdated and wrong. "I got engaged to a distant relative at 16 and went ahead with it because it was expected of me as an Afghan woman and I didn't want to rebel. I think people should have the freedom to choose, whether it is a marriage or other things in life," she says.
Zari now plans to write a fiction book based on the life of Afghan girls who got married during the Taliban regime. "I don't know how long it will take as I have a full-time job, but I am going to do it," she says. She also wants to work on another film about the role of Pashtun women in song and dance.