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Undercover journalist in Afghanistan finds Taliban are abducting, imprisoning women

Filmmaker Ramita Navai Navai chronicles the Taliban's treatment of women in the new PBS Frontline documentary, Afghanistan Undercover, which she started researching in early 2020.




This is FRESH AIR. I am Terry Gross. This month marks the one-year anniversary of the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan and the departure of U.S. troops. Over the course of the year, the Taliban have intensified their crackdown on women's rights to the point that women have been erased from public life. When out in the street, women are expected to be covered from head to toe with only an opening for their eyes. With a few exceptions, they're no longer allowed to work. Girls aren't allowed to go to school after sixth grade. Women and girls have been disappearing in prison for breaking the Taliban's morality code or forced into marrying one of the Taliban.

In the new documentary "Afghanistan Undercover," my guest, Ramita Navai, sometimes with the help of a hidden camera, manages to talk to women in jail, women hiding in safe houses as well as women's rights lawyers and activists risking their lives to help other women and to protest the Taliban. Navai also interviews a couple of Taliban officers asking them about their treatment of women. The film will be shown on the PBS "Frontline" series next Tuesday, Aug. 9. Navai is a British Iranian investigative journalist, documentary filmmaker and author. She won an Emmy for her PBS "Frontline" documentary "Syria Undercover." She risked her life to make that one. She's been the reporter in documentaries about rape in India and U.N. peacekeepers accused of rape. Her first book was titled "City of Lies: Love, Sex, Death, And The Search For Truth In Tehran."

Ramita Navai, welcome to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on the documentary. It seems like the promises that the Taliban made a year ago about how they treat women have been broken. What are the promises they made and broke?

RAMITA NAVAI: Well, it was interesting because actually, it was their very first official press conference after they took power that they kind of made a song and dance about women's rights. They said they'd protect women's rights within the limits of Islamic law. They said that women would be allowed to work and study. And the world was watching. And it's interesting, isn't it, that the very first press conference, they mentioned women's rights because they knew that the world was watching, is watching, and that women's rights for the world is a litmus test of their governance and how they approach human rights. And, of course, it didn't take very long for the world to realize that they weren't as reform-minded as they were making out.

GROSS: You know, you said the Taliban knew the world was watching. I feel like the world isn't watching this carefully anymore, and your documentary was a wake-up call to me that I haven't been paying attention to Afghanistan. And things have gotten so dire for women there. Is that part of the reason why you made the documentary, because so many of us have stopped paying as much attention as we had been paying and have moved on to other crises?

NAVAI: You're absolutely right about everybody losing interest. So I first went to Afghanistan in November, December after the takeover for 30 days, and I went back in March this year. And of course, what happened was the Ukraine war, the Russian invasion of Ukraine. And it was really interesting. We noticed an absolute shift because the world's eyes were not looking at Afghanistan; they were on Ukraine. And the difference - speaking to officials, the difference in their behavior, the speed at which they were enforcing more restrictive laws against women were all very visible. And actually, so many women we spoke to said exactly that to us, said nobody cares about Afghanistan anymore because of Ukraine. And we're really scared now more than we ever were because there are no checks and balances on these people.

GROSS: One of the things that you learn is that women and girls are disappearing. Sometimes, it's to prison for alleged, you know, violations of the morality code. And sometimes, it's to be forcibly married to a member of the Taliban. And you say that these forced abductions and marriages follow a pattern. What is the pattern?

NAVAI: So, first of all, these forced marriages are very different to the cultural phenomenon that happens in Afghanistan of forced marriages, and that's where parents give their daughters to families for marriage. And that's a common practice. And they get a bride price, and families are both - work together in agreement together. And the daughter usually has no say in it. But now what's happening is that the Taliban are abducting women and girls and taking them without the family's consent, without a bride price.

And what usually happens, the pattern that usually follows, is that a Taliban fighter or even a Taliban commander - because we uncovered evidence that this was happening at high levels within the Taliban - will see or hear of a woman they want to marry. I mean, a lot of times it's because there's a really pretty attractive young woman or girl that they've heard about or they've seen at the market. And they approach the family, and they try the official route first. They ask for the hand in marriage. When the family say no, that's when they abduct the girl. So they will turn up with reinforcements. Sometimes, they turn up with a cleric in tow and get married, get the cleric to marry them on the spot. And often, the girl is taken, and the family don't have access to her. Often, the family are beaten up in the process because, of course, male members of the family will protest. And, yeah, I think, yeah, in every single case that I came across, family members were beaten when the girls were taken.

GROSS: I imagine being abducted and forced to marry a Talib is the equivalent of enslavement for the woman?

NAVAI: Absolutely, mostly because they rarely have access to their own families at that point. Some of them have had access back to families. I spoke to one young woman who ran away from such a marriage. She cut her hair so the Talib wouldn't marry her, wouldn't want her. And she managed to run away. But her family had kind of negotiated access to her. So sometimes, they do have access. But, I mean, it was almost impossible talking to any of these girls because they're under lock and key. Because they were taken, the men are even more careful not to let them out of their sight so they escape.

GROSS: You say that if an attractive woman is, you know, at the market and on the street and somebody who's into abducting somebody for marriage sees her, he might follow her home, etc. But now women have to be facially covered in the street. So that approach to abducting an attractive woman isn't going to work anymore.

NAVAI: Well, even when I was there, most women wear the - you know, the COVID mask covering to cover their faces. Now that's been made mandatory. But even when I was there, women were pretty scared. You know, there's only a kind of brave minority when you leave Kabul, in the provinces, that would leave the house without a face covering. In Kabul, it's a different kettle of fish. And most women didn't wear the face covering in Kabul.

But I was quite surprised actually in Fayzabad, the capital of Badakhshan. Women there were dressed in a pretty daring way, and that really surprised me. And I spoke to some of those women, took them aside and said, look, you're wearing really high heels. I can see your ankles. You're wearing loads of makeup. Your hair's falling out your scarf. How do you dare? Are you not scared? And they said, yeah, we are scared, but this is our form of rebellion. And it really reminded me of Iran.

You know, in Iran, when I was reporting there 10, 15 years ago, you could get flogged for a bad hijab. You could get flogged for wearing too much makeup. And yet, everybody, all the girls would go out with their hair showing and their makeup showing. And it was kind of the youths' way of rebelling and the youths' one-fingered salute to a system, an ideology they didn't agree with. And it was really funny talking to these young Afghan women and girls in this province in northern Afghanistan, who were pushing out the boundaries, who were daring to leave the house uncovered that reminded me of what was happening in Iran and the youth in Iran.

GROSS: You mentioned the situation is a little different in Kabul. So what's it like there for women?

NAVAI: So we really wanted in our film to show what was happening in the provinces because Kabul is such a little mini world. First of all, journalists report mostly from Kabul because it's hard to leave Kabul and not be monitored. So most of the images and the pictures and the stories we see are from Kabul itself. And in the provinces, most of the journalists have fled or gone into hiding. So very little news is coming out of the provinces. So the Taliban know this, and the Taliban are much more careful about what happens in Kabul.

GROSS: But just to follow up on my question, how do the Taliban pick women and girls now to force into marriage? Women and girls are covered facially. And the Taliban can't judge if they're, you know, attractive enough to meet the Taliban's high standards of who they're going to force to marry them.

NAVAI: Well, word of mouth. So they have spies in all neighborhoods now. So people are scared of their neighbors because they're not sure who's giving information to the Taliban. So that is a way that they try to single out young, unmarried women and girls. And also what's been happening - and this is another pattern that we kept hearing again and again - is that Taliban commanders are allowing their fighters to take women and girls in the provinces in this way. And it's almost like a treat. It's almost like a thank you for all those years of fighting, of hard fighting in the mountains. So it's now almost like enjoy the spoils of war. You have deserved this.

And what we also found was that the government in Kabul issued edicts about these forced marriages, letting their men know in the provinces that they should not be doing this, that forced marriage is not allowed, whether it is the parents forcing their daughters or whether it is Talibs taking women and girls. However, what we saw - and this was really interesting - was no matter all the edicts that Kabul will issue, no matter the instruction they will give to their commanders in the provinces, the commanders in the provinces will do as they please. And that shows you how fractured the Taliban is and how the chain of command has completely changed from 20 years ago. That actually, Kabul cannot control its commanders in the provinces, and they do as they please.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Ramita Navai. Her new documentary, "Afghanistan Undercover," will be shown on the PBS "FRONTLINE" series next Tuesday. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Ramita Navai. Her new documentary, "Afghanistan Undercover," will be shown on the PBS "FRONTLINE" series next Tuesday. In that documentary, she reports on the Taliban's total crackdown on women's rights in Afghanistan.

One of the stories you follow is a story of a young woman you've named Maryam because you want to protect her real identity. You interviewed her mother after Maryam had gone missing. And she disappeared three weeks earlier. She just graduated before the Taliban takeover. And her dream was to become a filmmaker. Her mother finally found out that she was imprisoned and found out where she was, and you went to that prison. What access were you allowed in the prison?

NAVAI: So we were told that we would be shown the men's wing, the men's section, but we couldn't talk to any of the prisoners. And we had to play it quite cool because we didn't want the prison chief to know how much we needed to get into the women's section, the women's wing. That's because we had been hearing these reports that lots of women had been going missing from the streets of Herat. They weren't seen again. The families were beside themselves. And they were slowly finding out that these women were being imprisoned. So we needed to get that evidence and get into the women's wing. But we had to play it pretty cool.

So at first, when we applied for permission to have a tour of the prison, we did it via a contact of ours. And this contact of ours persuaded the prison chief to let us in because he said it would be good for the western world to know that the Taliban were treating their prisoners well. And of course, aid was cut. So the prison chief was in desperate need of money because funding to his prison - a lot of funding to his prison had been cut. So it was his chance to kind of show off his prison to the West in the hope of getting some aid money. When we were in the men's section, we played it pretty cool. And while we were there, that's when our team started trying to persuade the prison chief to let us into the women's section. And ultimately, he did. His own men actually were telling him that he should because they were worried that if he didn't, we would get suspicious.

GROSS: So you got into the women's prison, and you were able to document what you saw because you had a hidden camera. Can I start by asking you, where was the hidden camera? How did you do that? Or would you rather not say?

NAVAI: I'd rather not. I'd rather not say.

GROSS: Save it for next time you have to do that. Yeah.

NAVAI: Yeah. I'd rather not say. But yeah, it was slightly uncomfortable because we were surrounded by over half a dozen armed Talibs. And I actually had to kind of set things up in the middle of these half a dozen armed Talibs. And that, Terry, is when being a woman can be a brilliant thing in a patriarchal society with men like the Taliban because I was totally overlooked. They thought, who is this woman? They just didn't address me. They didn't look at me. Underestimated, overlooked - bingo. I'm in the money. So I can do my stuff, set up what I needed to set up, even though I was surrounded by about 15 armed Talibs.

GROSS: So you were invisible and that was helpful.

NAVAI: Yes. It's not often I get excited about being invisible as a woman and overlooked and underestimated. That was one of them.

GROSS: So what did you find in the women's side of the prison?

NAVAI: So there were about 40 women in the prison courtyard. We know that there were many more in the cells. And, of course, I disobeyed the Taliban prison chief, and I scooted over immediately to try and talk to the women. And they talked to me for as long as they could before they were told to stop, before prison guards were sent over, before the prison chief got annoyed with me. And they told me that they were all in there for moral crimes, for so-called moral crimes, and they'd all been in prison since the Taliban took over. Of course, when the Taliban took over, by the way, they emptied all of the prisons across the country. So all of these women have been in prison since the takeover.

And the other thing we found out - and we found out this through the women and through their families - was that their cases had not been officially recorded. So they had just been sucked into this black hole because there was no official record of them. They'd just gone missing. Slowly, their families had found out where they were, and their families had started to all try negotiating release. But, of course, there was just absolutely no record because the Taliban were trying to keep these female imprisonments secret from the world. And they still are.

GROSS: You saw Maryam there. You recognized her and tried to speak with her. What happened?

NAVAI: I mean, it was extraordinary. So we'd heard about these cases, tracked this one mother down, as you said. Her daughter Maryam had gone missing. They found out that she was in prison. They showed me a photo of her. Now, in the prison, they were - there were over 100 women in that prison, but not all of them were in the courtyard. I wasn't expecting to see her. I wasn't expecting to recognize her. And then all of a sudden, there she was staring straight at me. And that's because she really wanted to talk. And she had a message for the world. And she - later, we talked, and she said she was just standing there praying that I would come and talk to her. And it was only at the end - I'd already gone and spoken to a whole load of women, been told off, been told to stop. The prison chief was getting angry and agitated. I was pulled away. And then I saw Maryam and I went back, and I really didn't have long. And in fact, a prison guard came over straight away. She started speaking to me in English so nobody would understand what she was saying. And as soon as the prison guard came over, the prison guard demanded she start speaking in Persian, in Dari, which she did do, and she started praising the Taliban and the government. But we had what we needed.

GROSS: What did she tell you in English?

NAVAI: She said, let the world know what's happening here, that they're beating us. And of course, when she was released, I spoke to her and I spoke to four of her friends. I spoke to another former inmate who'd also been released. I spoke to her on the telephone. And they all said the same story. They were arrested by intelligence officers from the streets of Herat. They were electrocuted. In prison...

GROSS: With tasers.

NAVAI: Yeah, they were tasered. Yeah. All the women were tasered. In prison, they were beaten. They were regularly beaten. They were absolutely terrified. The women and girls in prison were offered freedom in return for marrying Talibs. So they were offered a way out. They know of four young women who they say were forced into doing that. They were hopeless. Their families didn't know where they were. They'd gone missing. They had no one, and they were just taken. And it was a pretty grim picture. And all of this information was corroborated.

Before we went to the prison, actually, we spoke to four female lawyers, so three lawyers and a prosecutor, who risked their lives by talking to us. And they were no longer allowed to work, so they're no longer allowed to go into the office. Women are not allowed to - most - nearly all women in Afghanistan now are not allowed to work. There are a few exceptions. But they were still in touch with their male colleagues who were feeding them information, and they still had access to records. And they are the ones that told us that these imprisonments were not being officially recorded, that there was no judicial process, that these women were just being snatched from the streets and being lost in this prison system. And these lawyers corroborated all of that information for us.

GROSS: Maryam's family managed to negotiate her release. I don't know how. So she was released, but then, after going back to her family's home in one of the provinces, she fled to Kabul, stayed in a safe house and then managed to escape Afghanistan and go to Iran. There's a lot more I want to talk with you about about women in Afghanistan. But first, we have to take a short break. So let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Ramita Navai. Her new documentary, "Afghanistan Undercover," will be shown on the PBS "FRONTLINE" series next Tuesday. We'll be right back. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with print journalist and documentary filmmaker Ramita Navai. Her new documentary, "Afghanistan Undercover," will be shown on the PBS "Frontline" series next Tuesday. With the help of a hidden camera, she interviewed women in jail, women hiding in safe houses, a woman who had attempted suicide as the only way out of getting beaten by her husband, as well as women's rights lawyers and activists risking their lives to help other women and to protest the Taliban. She put their accusations to a couple of Taliban officials. She put herself in jeopardy to do this reporting. She risked her life and nearly lost it earlier, making a documentary in Syria during the civil war.

When you were in Kabul, you found a network of young women running secret safe houses, helping other women escape the Taliban. And the women who you met were risking their lives to do this work. What were they able to do for women?

NAVAI: So they'd get phone calls from desperate women and families around the country. So it was an underground railway network, almost. And they needed shelter. So often, families needed to flee. The Taliban were hunting for them. And what was interesting was that these young women who were running this network of secret safe houses, they were also all on the run from the Taliban. So they were working under the radar and undercover all the time, putting their own lives at risk to help families escaping the Taliban.

GROSS: One of the women who was helped by this network of women was a radio journalist. And her life was in jeopardy. And she went to a safe house to find safety. And her brother was beaten by a Taliban demanding that he give her up and tell them where she was hiding. And you have photos in the documentary of his incredibly bruised body, because he was beaten so badly. What happened to them since you first met them?

NAVAI: They've now been housed. And when we went back in March this year - so we originally met them last year. When we went back in March this year, we went to see them. And in March, the Taliban were conducting house-to-house raids. And the journalist who had fled and who had been targeted for being a journalist is actually married to a man who was in the armed forces under the previous government. So they are being doubly targeted because, as we now know, anyone who worked for the previous government is at risk, especially if they were in the armed forces. And he was petrified when they were doing these house-to-house raids. And they raided his street. So he was not only in a safe house, he then was in hiding every day, walking the streets of Kabul, trying to find areas where there were no Taliban and waiting for the raid on his block to happen, which it did.

In the meantime, he'd burnt every single trace of his old life, all the certificates - he'd been trained by the Americans - all his certificates, which he was hoping to use to apply for refugee status. So all his certificates, all the evidence that he had with him that showed that he was trained by the Americans, that he worked alongside Americans, that could have helped him get out the country he burnt because he was so scared. And that's another pattern we found, actually, is that many women, like the journalist whose brother was tortured with a hot iron rod, these women's male relatives were targeted as a way of getting to them. And we came across several of those cases.

GROSS: You reported on a protest with women demanding their jobs back. And I think, in some ways, like, the Taliban are such fools in the sense that, they're having such trouble running the country. The economy has totally tanked. People are starving. And it's just getting worse. And there are so many smart, talented, trained women in different professions who are being, basically, imprisoned in their homes or just allowed to walk the streets under certain circumstances, like with a male companion or fully covered. And, you know, the Taliban are cutting off, you know, some of the most talented people, able people in the country. And meanwhile, the Taliban are failing. It's just, like, one of the many ways that they're blind.

NAVAI: I know exactly what you mean. It's kind of ridiculous, isn't it? So it did make me smile when doctors at Herat hospitals, surgeons there, told me the reason they're allowed to work is there are not enough surgeons in the country. So actually, the Taliban have to break their own rules sometimes because they get ill and they need surgery (laughter). And who's going to do it if there are not enough doctors and surgeons while they're desperate. So actually, in Herat Hospital, there were 11 resident surgeons in the burn unit. Six of them were women. So take away those six, that burn unit can't function.

GROSS: And in that burn unit, you met at least one woman who had tried to kill herself because she was being beaten so badly by her husband. And this was her only way out. And her only - apparently, her only way of trying to end her life was to set herself on fire. And then she survived, was in enormous pain, died weeks later. But you met her while she was in that in-between state of suffering, but not dead. And she was in misery. And women were taking care of her because women were allowed to be surgeons. What did you learn by meeting her and other women who had tried to take their own lives just to stop being married to violent men?

NAVAI: Well, you know, this part of our investigation was pretty devastating because, look; in Afghanistan, it's one of the few countries where rates of suicides among women were higher than men. It's one of the few countries in the world where that's true. But what we're seeing now is a really sharp rise in suicides across the country. So we're seeing the very real effects of Taliban rule. And, you know, there are people who say women were always forced into marriage. And many women weren't allowed out of their homes. While some of this is true, you know, this is complex. But if we're going to simplify it and break it down, yes, you know, some of this is true. Life for a lot of women in very rural areas hasn't changed that much since the Taliban came to power. But, you know, what has changed is the loss of hope. So all women in Afghanistan, even a woman living in a rural village - that she knew - and I spoke to many women living in rural villages. She - they knew that there was progress somewhere far in the distance in Kabul, say, that there was progress, that there was hope, that things were changing even if it was at snail's place (ph), that if they did end up in prison, there was a judicial process. And that is now gone. And to see the effects of that in this hospital, in this one hospital, while I was there, to see cases of suicide every day come in - and by the way, doctors tell me that a lot of these cases are not being recorded because the Taliban won't let the doctors record these cases because they don't want the world to know that suicide rates are rocketing.

The doctors also told me that where the victims are families of Talibs, the doctors are instructed not to record those cases. So not all cases are being recorded. So actually, suicide rates are far higher than official records show. On top of that, Terry, the doctors told me that - many, many doctors told me they were regularly beaten and threatened.

GROSS: The doctors were threatened and beaten?



NAVAI: Yes. So what I noticed is that in every single ward and every single room in that hospital, there was a Talib spy. I got used to spotting them, but the doctors would quietly tell me. And of course, it became really obvious. So there's a Talib spy spying on everything that's happening there. And the doctors told me that the Talib didn't really understand the triage system. So if a doctor would see a patient in more need who wasn't a Talib, the Talibs would be furious. And there were many incidents of doctors being beaten, hit, threatened for not immediately treating Taliban patients or families of Talibs first.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Ramita Navai. Her new documentary, "Afghanistan Undercover," will be shown on the PBS "Frontline" series next Tuesday. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Ramita Navai. Her new documentary, "Afghanistan Undercover," will be shown on the PBS "Frontline" series next Tuesday, and it's about the Taliban crackdown on women in Afghanistan since the Taliban took power almost a year ago.

A few of the women who were involved in the underground network to help women spoke to you unmasked. So it would be easy for the Taliban to identify them. Why were they willing to talk to you that way? And were you especially concerned that when the documentary was released that these women would be tracked down?

NAVAI: So I was really concerned. And the reason that we showed them is because they were already known to the Taliban and already had been on Afghan television actually, been speaking to Tolo TV, and they were already releasing videos on social media of themselves - their faces showing - speaking out. That's why - even then, I still sent them all clips of how they would appear and what they would be saying. And some of them requested that we change - you know, we take out a line here and there, which, of course, we did. And that's quite unusual.

But I - yeah, the whole - our team really were not going to take any chances. There's just no point making a documentary, no point covering a story if you put anyone in danger. And the team, we all feel very, very strongly about that. Nothing is worth it. Nothing. I mean, even when we were filming interviews where people didn't show their faces, we'd look at every single, little detail watches, jewelry, background. You know, we went through everything frame by frame to make sure nobody was identifiable.

Now, the women who did show their faces when we went there in December - November, December, when we returned in March, two of them had been arrested and imprisoned not because of our documentary 'cause a documentary hadn't come out then, but because they had been monitored by the Taliban. Some of those women have since managed to leave the country.

GROSS: You know, I'm wondering, when the Taliban gave you access to, for instance, a prison or when Taliban officials spoke with you, did they Google you first?

NAVAI: I know. It's quite amazing, isn't it? I don't think they did (laughter).

GROSS: I don't think they would have given you access if they'd Googled you.

NAVAI: I know. I know. I - yeah, I don't think they did. I mean, when - all journalists, when you arrive there, you go into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to get your accreditation. And there is an official called Balkhi. I think he was a New Zealander - very urbane, speaks perfect English. I think he grew up in New Zealand. He's very mysterious about where he grew up. And he gives you a lecture. He lectures you on this is the brotherhood. Don't do us over. Come here with open eyes and an open heart. He gives this very rousing speech, and you could listen to that speech and think, oh, my God, these guys are great. They've changed. They're - let's - hey, let's - you know, let's really open our eyes. And, you know, maybe they have reformed.

Of course, it's just a spiel, and it's absolutely meaningless. And I think some journalists were quite suckered by him. But, of course, they proved themselves now. You know, while they were quite careful at the beginning, they're slowly realizing they're not going to get international recognition, and they're slowly giving up trying to keep the West sweet.

GROSS: One of the promises that the Taliban broke was that that they would not harbor terrorists. And just a few days ago, a U.S. drone strike killed Ayman al-Zawahri, who was bin Laden's No. 2, and then succeeded bin Laden as the head of al-Qaida. So we know the Taliban lied about not protecting terrorists. But what impact, if any, do you think that will have on the Taliban and its oppression of women?

NAVAI: I mean, the fact that al-Zawahri was killed on Afghan soil in a home reportedly owned by the interior minister does not look good. And it's terrible for Afghan-U.S. relations right now, as you can imagine. And what that means is that up until now, the Taliban were trying to keep the West, particularly the U.S.A., onside. Now, they needed money, aid money - also billions of dollars in revenues that - stuck in the U.S. And so they were making all the right noises, hence talk of women's rights in their first press conferences, hence constant promises that women will be educated. I mean, only recently, the spokesperson for the Ministry of Higher Education was saying that this ban on secondary - on girls' education is temporary. And that was last week. So they're still making the right noises.

However, I think this strike really does change things. I think this strike really brings home that they're not getting international recognition, that actually, international isolation is the most probable outcome right now, which means that very soon, they're going to realize that they're not going to have to keep the West sweet, that they're going to have full rein actually to do as they wish. And they don't care if the West are watching or not 'cause it's not going to make any difference to them. And that is really bad for women in Afghanistan.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Ramita Navai. Her new documentary, "Afghanistan Undercover," will be shown on the PBS "Frontline" series next Tuesday. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Ramita Navai. Her new documentary, "Afghanistan Undercover," will be shown on the PBS "Frontline" series next Tuesday. In that documentary, she reports on the Taliban's total crackdown on women's rights in Afghanistan.

Your parents are from Iran and fled after the Islamic fundamentalist revolution. And I'm wondering if that made you feel really connected to women living in oppressive regimes.

NAVAI: Yeah. So I went back to Iran, and I lived there for a few years working as a journalist.

GROSS: Were you born there?

NAVAI: I was born there, and I remember the revolution very well.

GROSS: How old were you?

NAVAI: I was 5 years old when the revolution happened and 6 when we left Iran. So I - yeah, I remember it really well. And then, I - you know, I grew up in London, and I went back as an adult to work in Iran as a journalist. And it's - you know, Iran is just part - it's in me. It's part - my blood, it's in my DNA. But it was hard. It was hard accepting that the country I love and the country I'm from treats women as a fraction of what a man is worth.

GROSS: My understanding is that your father was an officer in the Iranian navy during the Shah's regime. And one of the things the Shah was known for was the SAVAK, the secret police, which was known for imprisoning dissidents, torturing dissidents. And I'm wondering how your parents felt about working for the military - you know, your father working in the military during the Shah's regime.

NAVAI: So, yeah, I discussed this with my dad. My dad passed away two years ago. And my mum and dad absolutely disagreed about the revolution until dad left us two years ago. They would still argue at the breakfast table. So my mum was pro-revolution. She was anti-imperialist. She thought the Shah was a puppet of the West and had to go. My dad, on the other hand - yes, he worked for the Shah. Doesn't mean he thought the Shah was a great man or that it was a great government. But he believed - he kind of had a - his belief was kind of benevolent dictator, which, of course, we know, doesn't really exist. But he believed Iran needed someone - you know, someone to be a benevolent dictator to force change.

So my dad was a liberal. He didn't come from a high-society family. He came from pretty normal, middle-class family. But he was very liberal-minded. So my dad taught me feminism. My dad brought me up saying to me, you can be whatever you want to be. He made me believe I could do whatever a man did. And he was so proud of everything that I did that didn't conform to being a woman. So I guess my dad wanted that for all Iranians, but of course realized you can't - but, of course, you know, I guess, you know, the argument I would have with Dad is that you can't force change. And if you force change, well, people revolt. Ultimately, I think my mom believes that the reason the revolution happened is 'cause of inequality, because the Shah was, you know, living this high life and the ridiculous - his ridiculous anniversary crowning when he spent all this money on the famous crowning in the desert. And she thought that was grotesque. But my parents would always argue about it, and they were on different sides of the argument. And actually, when I was little, Mom sneaked me out to protests when the revolution was happening.

GROSS: You've witnessed the erasure of women in different countries and reported on sexual abuse and rape. And I'm wondering - like, you're so smart and educated and worldly and such a good journalist. When you, for instance, watch the Taliban as they think that they're so much smarter and wiser than you are, and you are invisible and worthy of being ignored, what goes through your mind?

NAVAI: Well, you're talking about my mind that is house to a brain that is much smaller than a man's brain, Terry.

GROSS: (Laughter).

NAVAI: So, yeah, they made me very aware of that - that our brains are much, much smaller, Terry.

GROSS: Did they tell you that?

NAVAI: Yes. But they - that's common knowledge. I mean, that's - they believe that quite openly. Of course not the kind of - not your sophisticated Talibs that maybe are Western-educated and speak lots of languages in Kabul - they know not to say that kind of thing. But yeah, I mean lots of Talibs say that. But gosh, what goes through my mind? I tell you what goes through my mind - that this is what happens in deeply patriarchal societies. And I've seen this in deeply patriarchal societies around the world. And when you have entrenched patriarchy, you have misogyny, and you have high rates of violence and sexual violence against women, and you have absolute hypocrisy. And where there are no women's rights, there are no human rights. Women's rights are human rights. And I get really frustrated, you know, when you talk about women's rights, and men often in positions of power will dismiss women's rights, and, oh, there are more important things to be worrying about. You know, you've got your internal politics, and you're worried about women's rights.

We saw this happen in Iran when the revolution happened, and hundreds of thousands of women took to the streets against the hijab. They were told even by liberals and the left wing and the secular, get back in your box. Shut up. There's a big revolution going on here, ladies. Now is not the time to go on about the hijab and women's rights. And that's absolutely wrong, because women's rights is a litmus test for human rights, is a litmus test of good governance, of how a society is safe and runs itself. And that's what I find deeply depressing, is that we're told that it's not interesting, that it's not important, and it's vital.

GROSS: Ramita Navai, thank you so much for this interview. Thank you for your courage in reporting.

NAVAI: Well, you're very kind, Terry. Thank you so much. I've loved talking to you. Thank you.

GROSS: Ramita Navai's new documentary "Afghanistan Undercover" will be shown on the PBS series "Frontline" Tuesday night. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interview with Scott Higham about how America's opioid industry resembled a drug cartel, or Kirk Johnson about how white nationalists terrorized Vietnamese fishermen in Texas after the war in Vietnam, or Will Bunch about how college tuitions got so expensive, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews. And to find out what our producers have been up to, check out our newsletter, which you can subscribe to via our website at

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering today from Al Banks. Our senior producer today is Sam Briger. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULIAN LAGE'S "NOCTURNE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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