The fact that I, as a Dutch woman, can travel (almost) anywhere with ease, a quick look at my passport and everything is ok, has always amazed me. Your place of birth largely determines your chances in life: health, education, work, happiness. Your nationality can even be a matter of life or death. If you are born in Afghanistan your chances of an early death are more realistic and all the more if you happen to be female.
An Afghan woman forced to marry a Taliban fighter and lead a life kept out of sight and practically invisible, can escape only by death, whereas the most pressing matter for a Dutch woman is that she earn the same as a man in her position.
Selective women’s rights
After watching the Netflix documentary In Her Hands about the fearless youngest mayor in Afghanistan, Zarifa Ghafari (26), who fights for the education of girls, forbidden by the merciless Taliban under whose terror girls and women must fear for their lives, western feminists suddenly become irrelevantly self-obsessed. The fact that women’s rights only seem to exist selectively, is every time a painful realisation in itself and the silence of western feminists concerning the terrible predicament of women under strict Islamic regimes even more so. Consider the deadly repression playing out in Iran at the moment.
As a husband and father you don’t want to reside in a country in which your wife awaits an existence without rights, and your daughters who wish to learn, run the risk every day to be murdered in cold blood by extremists. The images at Kabul airport of thousands of desperate Afghans trying to flee, clinging to an aircraft, women and children trying to catch the last flight away from a home which will become a prison, leave you gasping for air. The mayor Zarifa narrowly escapes with her husband, mother and younger brother in a plane heading for Germany, where they are received as refugees.
Continuing the fight
Shortly before the Taliban had executed her father in front of his home and young son due to Zarifa’s public role, which she had refused to give up. Despite the threat to her own life, she travels back to Afghanistan on her own a few months later to continue the fight for the right of women and girls in her homeland. In Germany she no longer held a high office, she was an asylum seeker with a life on hold, and the control, again, out of her hands. All be it without the constant mortal danger, but for Zarifa not important enough to stay for.
When the bombs drop
Another such true story which burst into your safe life and rages on long after, is The Swimmers, a biographical movie about two Syrian sisters who are also talented swimmers, Yusra and Sara Mardini. On the horizon you see the bombs exploding on the edge of town while the sisters let themselves go on the dance-floor at a party. The start of the civil war in Syria. The situation escalates and the sisters lives are in danger. Their father grudgingly supports their decision to flee to Germany along with a cousin. A harrowing life-threatening journey awaits them. On their way they quickly fall into the hands of unreliable people smugglers.
The hellish journey, especially the chilling crossing the sisters make in an overloaded rubber dingy from Turkey to Lesbos is made by countless people every year.
Thousands never set foot in Europe but end namelessly in the depths of the Mediterranean Sea. Since 2014 more than 29.000 deaths have been registered along the flightpaths to Europe, including this crossing to Lesbos, most of the victims are from Syria. All the antics the sisters perform and the dangers they brave to reach this island where the inhabitants can’t wait to see the backs of them, seem surreal but are at the same time very real.
The viewer gets a feel for the years-long beaurocratic process, waiting on stamps and signatures. It feels like you are in a Kafka novel. The endless waiting that slowly extinguishes the last remaining bit of life-force, but not so for the sisters. Their crib stood in Syria and then going to Europe to establish yourself, away from the bombs and bloodshed, is far from matter of course. The combination of their courage and daring with a clear goal is their salvation. These make the difference in the end. Although the goal for each of the sisters turns out to be different, it is what enables them to regain control over their lives in a foreign country. The movie slung me back and forth between hope and despair, but more the first than the latter. The Syrian sisters got me thinking.
I never had to supply stacks of documents to get government clearance to come and live in Spain. My partner, cat and I just went, now some 8 years ago. We can come and go as we please. No-one ever asked us for all sorts of information, our Dutch passports were enough. We did not have to wait eons on permission from the authorities to reside within the Spanish borders, because there is free movement of people within the European Union. We are what you call “fortune seekers”. And we were not even unfortunate in our country of birth. And yet, that is what we are, because we wanted more.
The right to come and go as you please, in your own country and outside it, (freedom of movement) as determined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is beautiful on paper, but in practice far from reality. Especially for those with less desirable passports; those who have a high chance of becoming second rate citizens. Those men and women who will never feel equal to their compatriots who were born there.
For now, I really recommend watching In her Hands and The Swimmers, just like that they might awaken a humanity which I often find sorely missing when it concerns refugees and migrants. A little more compassion won’t kill us.
It is too proud to think that the bombs will never fall here or that the water will never rise so high or dry up, making flight our only chance at survival. When it is us rattling at the gates or embarking on harrowing journeys to escape war or natural disasters, we will hope for some humanity instead of a lifetime as a second-rate citizen.
As it was written some 2000 years ago: ‘Pride comes before the fall.’
Timeless wisdom which reaches far beyond all borders.
In her Hands and The Swimmers are now screening on Netflix.
Previously published in Dutch on Reporters Online.