For years, filmmaker Zohreh Soleimani followed a tragic romance set in Afghanistan. The couple met, fell in love … and went to jail.
With her camera in hand, Zohreh confronted the family that put one woman in jail for the crime of falling in love with the wrong man. She opens up to Reveal about her journey to tell this story and discusses the challenges she faced reporting in a place where women’s rights contend with tradition.
Music for this episode is provided by Ahmad Sham Sufi Qawwali Group and Sayyid Shâh Ewaz.
Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Mary and Steven Swig.
Al: From The Center of Investigative Reporting and PRX, I’m Al Letson and this is Reveal, hidden stories uncapped. Today, a Romeo and Juliet stories set in contemporary Afghanistan, a country where young women can be jailed for running away from arranged marriages. A running and documented filmmaker, Zohreh Soleimani spent years following the story of two star-crossed lovers, Soheila and Niaz Mohammad couple was divided not just feuding families but by tribal law.
They are the main character of this film Zohreh made with the Center for Investigative Reporting, To Kill A Sparrow. Now just to give you a little background. When Soheila was just a girl, her father arranged for her to marry an older man. Soheila’s brother and this son of the family by running away with the older men’s wife, and Soheila was offered as a token of a reconciliation. To make everything right between this two families, she was going to marry to the older guy but Soheila resisted and instead escaped with Niaz Mohammad, the man she’d fallen in love with. Soheila and Niaz lived together in the suburb of Kabul until her father found her and arrested her for committing moral crimes. She’s found guilty of adultery and conceiving a child out of wedlock and sentence to 6 years in prison. Director Zohreh Soleimani is here to talk with us about the film. Zohreh, welcome.
Zohreh: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Al: Let’s at the start beginning of this film when Soheila is in prison. Zohreh, can you describe what that was like?
Zohreh: When I got inside the feeling, I was surprised to see that the prison was more like a refugee camp than a prison because a lot of little kids, they were running around with their mothers and they were playing with the other kids. When I asked who are these kids, they said that these are the kids of the mother that are the prisoner and they don’t have any other place to go. After half an hour where I was told by one of the guards that there is a young woman who run away from the home and she has a baby and she’s willing to talk to me.
Because for me it is was very important to find somebody who can tell her story on the camera, whose able to talk, and most of these women they’ve been uneducated, illiterate, from the villages, from the rural areas. I’ve seen that somebody is walking to work me and it was Soheila and she took me to her room and she welcomed me like it’s her home and I was really impressed by her strength. The reason that I really like Soheila and her story was according to their law, to Afghan law, she didn’t do any crime and what I really like was although she was illiterate she was very determined about her right, what she did was right.
Al: It was Soheila’s father who got her arrested from running away from this arranged marriage. How did you get him to talk? He doesn’t really come out so well in this movie?
Zohreh: I think since two things I was speaking the same language and I’m a woman, he was hoping that I can help him. I can convince Soheila that she forget Niaz Mohammad and going back home.
Al: In the movie, do you like sitting two feet away from her father and brother, you holding up a camera and you’re asking some seriously pointed questions. What was the hardest questions to asked them?
Zohreh: At the beginning, it was really hard to say the name of Niaz Mohammad. The father was full of hate, I was asking him, “What about Soheila’s lover?” Before I say the name of Niaz Mohammad, the father said, “Don’t say the name of this donkey man. I don’t want even hear his name.” I didn’t know what to do because I didn’t want to also to insult them, or I do something that they kicked me out of the house. I wanted to do the interview.
Al: I’d like to play a clip from the film where you’re asking some hard questions about Soheila’s forced engagement. Let’s have you translate that conversation. [foreign language 00:04:49]
Zohreh: Soheila says you engaged her when she was 5 years old. “Why did you engage her when she was so young?” Soheila’s father said, “This is our tradition.” I said, “Are you going to engage your daughter when she’s 6 years old as well?” Soheila’s father said, “Yes, I engaged my daughter already when she was 3 days old.” I said, “3days old”? He said, “Yeah, 3 days after she was born, 1, 2, 3. Just 3 days.”
Al: In that clip you sound fierce like you are taken them to test which it’s interesting to me because in many ways in that conversation, you are standing in as Soheila’s voice. Did you ever feel threatened in that conversation? Did you ever feel like that you may have troubled getting out of there?
Zohreh: To be honest to you, yes. At that day, I had my fixer who was filming because I didn’t have the other woman, the camera woman who was working with me at the day then I just put him on that camera. He told me later on, “You are really crazy.” I was afraid. I was scared to be at this place and I was afraid that they kill us and we never can get out of this place.
Al: Did they tell you in those interviews that they wanted to kill her and her lover?
Zohreh: Yes. The first time, when I was at Soheila’s father and brother, the brother at least, he try to play like a nice brother. He really wants his sister to have a good life but on the second trip, I don’t know what happened but he was really straight and he was really on the point that if she goes with him, she will be killed. For us, killing, its’ not a problem, killing her is like killing his sparrow.
Al: Another revealing moment in the film is when you interview Soheila’s lover, Niaz while he’s in prison. What was that like?
Zohreh: I was really happy to see that when Niaz, he came out and I’ve seen his bright eyes, he was smiling and he was really nice and very gentle guy and he told me, “Yeah. I can talk to you. No problem.”
Al: What did he say to you about his situation? Is there anything that surprised you?
Zohreh: He looked like he was man who was really respecting women, he told me that, “If anybody has to be in prison, it’s not me, it’s not Soheila, it’s Soheila’s father, because he is the one who engage a 5-year old girl to an old guy. This is the guy who has to be in prison.”
Al: I’m curious, what was it like reporting on these issues as a woman?
Zohreh: I think somehow in some situations it’s easier to be a woman and in some places, it’s really, really hard, believe me. It’s like you have to play different character in different places and one of the difficult place to get in and worked was men prison when I went to see Niaz Mohammad. I went to the prison. I talk with the head of prison. At the beginning, he was like, “Okay. No, you know what? Go home. Where have you come from?” “Iran. I’m from Tehran.” He said. “Oh, you girls, you should go home and be with your family.”
He was talking to me like I’m a little girl, and I got to be, all of a sudden, angry and I just thought, “You know what? We have to change your strategy. This is not working.” I start shouting, and yelling, “Whom do you think I am? I love your country but I’m not for here as a tourist.” I have to go and visit this prison, and prisoners. I just try to show him that I’m a very strong woman and at the end, he was like, “Okay, okay, you know what? Zohreh, I let you go to prison not as a journalist, you can go and visit my prison as a friend.” I was like, “Okay.”
Al: You had to meet testosterone with testosterone. You had to growl at him as loud as he’s growling at you.
Zohreh: Yeah. Exactly.
Al: Afghanistan hasn’t always been an oppressive place in a women. It seems like when the Taliban came in, everything shifted but prior to that is recently is the 1990’s, women made up 40% of doctors, 70% of school teachers, and 50% of government workers. Do you think it’s possible to reverse what’s happened in Afghanistan and see women as equals or has it gone on too long at this point?
Zohreh: I think the biggest problem in Afghanistan was having 40 years of raw, and most of the intellectual educated Afghans or majority or all of them, they left Afghanistan. This is one of the biggest problem that they have, because most of the people that they left, they were illiterate and they came from small villages to [inaudible 00:10:46] or the other cities. There’s a lot of poverty there, and poverty also cause a lot of problems like young people, young boys, they can’t study they have to work and I think one of the reason for all these problems in Afghanistan is the lack of education.
Al: What’s the update on Soheila now?
Zohreh: There’s a lot of good news and bad news about Soheila. She was granted her divorce and she could marry her lover, Niaz Mohammad which is a good news and now they can live together with the families. Soheila, and Niaz Mohammad and raised their little son, but unfortunately Niaz Mohammad after being 4 years in prison, he got two disease. He is diabetic now and he has a hepatitis C. It’s a serious disease and he has to be under medication which is not really possible for them to pay for the medication, since he’s jobless. Soheila is a very special woman, although she’s not educated, but she looks like it. What I really like about her, she has a strong character and she really wants to have the life as she likes and she was happy to tell her story to the others.
Al: Zohreh Soleimani, thank you so much. Let’s end with Zohreh’s parting words from To Kill a Sparrow.
Zohreh: I want to believe that Afghanistan has some more men like Niaz Mohammad, men who respect women, who love women, and want to see them free. Men who see a human being when they look at their woman not as sparrow that’s easily killed.
Al: To watch the full documentary which is really incredible story of love and perseverance, you’ve got to see it. You can find it in our website at revealnews.org. You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter. We’re at Reveal. Support for Reveal’s provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation and the Ford Foundation. I’m Al Letson and remember, there’s always more to the story.