Film tracks first Afghan woman to seek justice over incest

NEW DELHI, June 18 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Beaten up, raped and repeatedly impregnated by her father for more than a decade - a young woman’s fight for justice in the face of threats, oppression and sexism in war-torn Afghanistan was a story filmmaker Sahra Mani had to tell.

Her documentary, “A Thousand Girls Like Me”, tells the story of Khatera and her mission to put her father on trial for raping and assaulting her for 13 years, during which she aborted a series of pregnancies.

Khatera finally gave birth to two of her father’s children - to use as proof in court.

“She stood against all odds. Everybody blamed her, everybody called her names, everybody told her she was bringing shame to the family, to the country,” Mani said of Khatera, now 26, who goes by one name in the film.

“I had to do this, to give an example to women ... it does not matter who breaks the rules - father, brother, neighbour, husband, loved one - they have to speak up.”

Khatera, who now lives in France with her fiance and two children, became the first Afghan woman to bring a case of incest to court despite threats from her uncles and brothers and judges who labelled her a liar.

Her campaign resulted in a rare conviction in 2015 that used DNA evidence - unheard of in a country where women can rarely pursue justice for themselves.

“I found out that there were many, many women in Afghanistan like her, victims of rape and incest, which are taboo subjects. There was a silence and I wanted to break it,” Mani, 35, said ahead of the film’s screening in New York City on Tuesday.

The 76-minute film, shown at the Sheffield Doc Fest last week, shines a light on Afghanistan’s broken judicial system that often incriminates women instead of helping them.

Afghanistan is one of the most dangerous countries to be a woman or girl.

Research indicates more than eight in 10 women have been sexually, physically or psychologically abused, but only a few thousand cases are reported each year.

Campaigners say women’s complaints are rarely handled properly, and in some cases police assault or even rape women who come for help.

When women do report abuse or are arrested themselves, they find themselves at the mercy of a male-dominated judicial system shaped by sharia, or Islamic, law.

Khatera’s case was no different.

“The judge accused me of lying, but I have the proof in my belly,” says Khatera in a section of the film shot in 2014, when she was pregnant with her father’s second child.

Mani first came across Khatera earlier that year when she appeared on national television to tell her story - a turning point that resulted in support pouring in from activists and fellow victims.

The filmmaker, who grew up in Iran as an Afghan refugee before leaving to study cinema in Britain, then tracked the young woman’s battle for justice through the courts.

She now hopes to screen the film in Afghanistan next month.

“I’m not optimistic but I have to do it,” she said.

“I want to tell rape victims, you are not dirty, do not be ashamed of yourself. Go speak up and take back your honour.”