Register Thursday | June 20 | 2019

Forsaken women

In post-Taliban Afghanistan, photographer Lana Šlezi?' questions the notion of women's liberation.

The women in Lana Šlezić’s Forsaken are bursts of colour on a bleak and desolate landscape, shimmering points of energy moving across beige, rain-starved fields beneath grey skies. Flipping through the pictures, it’s hard to fathom how a land so hostile to life could beget such vibrant human beauty. The immediate impression is that of resilience and strength in the face of insurmountable odds. But to get the bigger picture, you have to take a closer look at the photos in Šlezić’s coffee table book, to see the scars on the women’s skin, the memory of pain, distant and recent, in their eyes. To call this book a “coffee table book” is, admittedly, to mistake form for content. If this is a coffee table book, it may be one of the most harrowing and painful things you could offer your house guests to peruse while waiting for coffee. Forsaken is not so much entertainment as it is a powerful primary-source documentation of injustice, suffering, death and hope. Šlezić, a Toronto-area freelance photographer in her early thirties, went to Afghanistan several years ago on assignment for Canadian Geographic to document Canada’s military there. But, being embedded inside the Canadian Forces, she began to chafe at the rules and restrictions placed upon her work. “After six weeks, I felt I hadn’t seen Afghanistan,” she says. So when a German magazine offered her an assignment on prostitution, Šlezić jumped at the opportunity, and soon found herself face to face with the unnerving reality of female life in post-Taliban Afghanistan. Her six-week military assignment turned into a two-year tour of duty among Afghanistan’s destitute and alienated women. What she found on that parched patch of land in central Asia was a society little changed from its Taliban days, a world where violence against women is commonplace, and at times, it would seem, the fundamental method by which men relate to women. “To beat a woman is to love a woman,” a taxi driver tells Šlezić, in a passage from one of the mini-essays that dot the book. Šlezić’s essays create the context for the beauty and ugliness everywhere to be found in her photography. Maybe it would be enough to tell the story of Gulsuma, a girl who at the age of four was sold into marriage by her stepfather for sixty dollars. For the next seven years, Gulsuma was beaten daily by her in-laws; her six-year-old husband was the only one who never touched her. The words alone carry enough weight, but turn the page and look at the image of Gulsuma’s scar-covered back, and the emotional holocaust is complete. “People in Canada believe Afghan women have been ‘liberated,’” Šlezić says. “But every story confirmed that … things are not as they seem.” And maybe it would be enough to tell the story of Malalai, a well-known female police officer in Kandahar whose success in dealing with violence against women gives hope to those who despair at the plight of Afghanistan’s women. But turn the page and take a look at Malalai, in full head-to-toe burqa, an arm extending from beneath the purple folds of cloth, holding an automatic pistol. We in the West associate guns with power and the burqa with submission. To see those two symbols brought together is unnerving, confusing, perhaps even fearsome. What can we make of the police officer who aims at suspects through a veil? What can we make of Afghanistan? Šlezić’s book offers no clear answers, and it is not meant to. There are no proscriptive solutions to be found in Forsaken, no opinions on whether foreign troops should pull out or stay and fight, no analyses on the costs and benefits of nation-building. This is, after all, a book about people, not politics. It’s clear that Šlezić sees the humanitarian work being done in the country—especially on behalf of women—as a good thing. But it is also clear that the plight of Afghanistan’s women runs deeper than the political and military conflict playing out on Afghan soil. Simply removing the Taliban will not remove a heritage of violence and misogyny; it will not end the long-standing tradition of treating women as chattel, as commodities to be bartered over and sold. What comes through in Forsaken is the sheer mundane humanity of Afghanistan’s tragedy. The women run across cornfields, stand against walls chatting, learn the words of Allah in a mosque’s prayer circle. Amidst the violence, poverty and injustice, they eke out an existence, forgotten and, yes, forsaken by the world around them. Lana Šlezić, Forsaken.
(Anansi, 2007.)