Friday
September 9
2011

Beth Murphy

Via ViewChange: 9/11 Widows, Rebuilding Hope Afghani Women

The following video is one in a series from ViewChange, a multimedia organization managed by LinkTV and founded with support by the Gates Foundation, that is producing and procuring educational and inspiring films and videos from across the developing world. Watch the full feature, “Beyond Belief,” on Link TV on September 11 at 11AM ET/8AM PT or 7PM ET/4PM PT or streaming online until September 16th at http://www.linktv.org/programs/beyond-belief.

“Have you ever worn a burqa before?” asked the Amnesty International representative.

One by one, the journalism students in the class I was teaching at American University of Paris took turns trying on a burqa, a piece of clothing that fully covers a woman’s body, head and face. When it was my turn, I put the tent-like garment over my head, imagining being forced to wear it. It was in that moment, in July 2001, when I experienced how it felt to be invisible to the world. That’s when I knew I wanted to produce a film about Afghan women and their struggle to become visible again.

The challenge was making the film resonate with an American audience.

Three months later (in October 2001) America retaliated against Afghanistan for the September 11th attacks, and before the end of the year, I travelled there to film the growing humanitarian crisis and the aid workers who were struggling to respond to it. I was looking forward to seeing women shedding their burqas, liberated from the extremist laws of the Taliban.

But when I arrived, the women I encountered were still covered head-to-toe, with only a small mesh patch as their window to the world. And when the documentary I was working on failed to sell, I vowed to return to this place of beauty, isolation and sorrow.

Four years later I returned with Susan Retik and Patti Quigley. Susan and Patti didn’t know each other on September 11th, but their hauntingly similar circumstances would bring them together. They were both pregnant, and their husbands were on their way from Boston to Los Angeles when their planes were hijacked by terrorists and crashed into the World Trade Center towers.

While their loss gave them permission to shut out the world, their compassion led them to engage with it. As information was revealed about terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, Susan and Patti began to immerse themselves in books, news stories and articles about the country. The more they learned about the plight of women in Afghanistan, the more they were drawn to its widows, with whom they began to feel an unlikely bond.

In 2003, Susan and Patti founded Beyond the 11th, a charitable organization that provides life-sustaining financial and emotional support to Afghan widows affected by war and terrorism. They wanted to provide aid to these women who had far fewer support networks and resources than they did.

“It may sound crazy to say this, but I felt like the lucky one,” Susan told me. “Yes, I had lost Dave, and we experienced this terrible tragedy. But I was still able to see all the good things in my life. The kids and I could stay in our home. They were able to go to the same school. Dave had life insurance. In Afghanistan widows aren’t allowed to work. And if they want to remarry, they have to leave their children with the husband’s family. I could never imagine living in Afghanistan and having had the same thing happen to me.”

As the world becomes increasingly divided by politics, ethnicity and religion, Susan and Patti affirm a common humanity that we all share. From the beginning, they recognized their Afghan counterparts as individuals – women they identify with and feel a connection to – rather than a monolithic, nameless, faceless group, as often happens during – and as a result of – the world’s tragedies.

I was struck by their ability to recognize Afghanistan for all of its complexities. True, it is the country in which the terrorists trained to kill their husbands, but it is also a place that had been used as a pawn during the Cold War, only to be abandoned by the international community – sparking a civil war that would last another decade.

Susan and Patti’s mission is simple: to make life better for these women. And their message is simple too: hatred is the root of terrorism.

They aren’t naïve enough – nor do they have enough hubris – to think they can stop terrorism in its tracks. But they do have enough optimism and enough faith in humanity to believe that the “war on terror” cannot be fought with bombs and bullets alone. More than simply remembering on this 10th anniversary of 9/11, it is this message of shared humanity that I believe is so important to spread.

Watch the full feature on Link TV on at 11AM ET/8AM PT or 7PM ET/4PM PT on September 11 or streaming online until September 16th at http://www.linktv.org/programs/beyond-belief.

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