Invisible women

Film - Philip Kerr looks at life in Afghanistan from beneath the <em>burqa</em>

On the evidence of Kandahar, a timely film from the Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, it strikes me that there can be few people on this planet who have had to submit to more in the name of religion ("Islam", after all, means "submission") than the people of Afghanistan, the women most of all.

Nafas, a female journalist from Kandahar who has escaped to live in Canada, receives a letter from her younger sister, who still lives in Afghanistan but, unable any longer to stomach life under the rule of the Taliban, has vowed to kill herself before the forthcoming eclipse of the sun. Nafas resolves to take advantage of the burqa - the enveloping cotton dress with an eye grille that many Islamic women are obliged to wear by their male oppressors - and to re-enter Afghanistan illegally, in the hope of being able to reach Kandahar, there to give her sister some reason why she should go on living.

Her journey is extraordinary; and Kandahar is an extraordinary film that everyone should see, because it raises important questions about the wisdom of waging 21st- century war against what looks to me like a seventh-century culture and economy. The film also highlights the important issue of the rights of women, not just in Afghanistan, but in other Islamic countries, too, such as Saudi Arabia, where women are forced to wear a virtual shroud.

From the outset of her journey from the Iranian border, Nafas is obliged to live the life of a "blackhead", which is the local pejorative for these near-invisible women. But this is as much about male chauvinism as it is about strict adherence to the Koran. "Wearing the burqa is nothing to do with religion," Nafas is informed by the patriarch of the peasant family with whom she travels for several days, posing as one of his tent-clad wives. "It is to do with my honour as a man." As she and the peasant's wives choose nail varnish, try on bangles and apply the lipstick that no one will ever see, Nafas becomes acutely aware of the mockery the burqa makes of her own womanhood.

Interestingly, the film reveals that it's not just the women who are obliged to pay lip-service to some Muslim cleric's ideal of proper dress. There's a fascinating scene in which Nafas, while consulting a doctor through a peephole in a modesty screen discovers that, unable to grow a proper ayatollah-sized beard himself, he has adopted a false one, in order to look more acceptably Islamic in the eyes of the Taliban. I doubt that you could find a more suitable metaphor for the supererogatory practice of Islam that lends itself to oppression and totalitarianism.

Watching this haunting film, I was reminded of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and his idea of the "sex crime". The real meaning of Islamic sexual puritanism may not be merely that the sex instinct creates a world of its own outside the control of the mullahs which must be destroyed if possible; what may be more important is that sexual privation induces hysteria, which is desirable because it can be transformed into leader worship and war fever.

In the film, Taliban mullahs, ruthlessly schooling young boys in the Koran, force them to recite not just the Koran, but also the merits of the various automatic weapons they possess. "Weapons are the only modern things in Afghanistan," Dr Sahib tells Nafas.

Of these weapons, the most prevalent or insidious in this post-apocalyptic, Sinbad meets Mad Max landscape, are landmines. Armchair generals everywhere should pay special attention to the scene in which Nafas reaches a Red Cross station in the desert where those who have lost legs are fitted with prosthetic limbs. It seems hard to imagine that, after more than 20 years of conflict, the ordinary people of Afghanistan are likely to be helped by being subjected to the same from Britain and the US.

Kandahar will be at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London SW1 (020 7930 3647), from 16 November, and at selected cinemas nationwide from 7 December