Find us on Facebook
Written by Andrea Useem; this was originally published at Religion Writer.
I’ve just finished watching FrontRunner, the new documentary from New View Films about Massouda Jalal, the only female candidate in Afghanistan’s 2004 elections. It’s hard, of course, to think about a woman running for president without immediately making comparisons to the current presidential race in the U.S. – it’s like a cartoon that needs a caption. But Jalal is no Hillary: She’s a political novice with no obvious constituent base, fighting a U.S.-backed incumbent, Hamid Karzai.
The scrappy, shoe-string nature of Jalal’s campaign is endearing; it seems like a major breakthrough when campaign volunteers receive boxes full of glossy campaign posters they can hand out in traffic and glue to walls around Kabul. As the only female candidate, she receives more Western media coverage than some of the 17 other candidates, but Karzai the incumbent “is” the TV news, quips Jalal, and the runner-up, Qanooni, seems able to buy his share of attention. Before the campaign begins, Jalal does not even have a private vehicle at her disposal.
But here’s the problem with being the underdog: staying the underdog. As we learn in the closing seconds of the film, Jalal finished sixth in the election, a kind of Afghan Bill Richardson — in other words, she didn’t come close to winning. In a clip that producer and director Virginia Williams includes in the film twice, and the second time as a closing peroration, Jalal says, with a childlike sense of determination, that she will continue to run for president no matter how many times she loses. Interestingly, the movie doesn’t focus much on Jalal’s actual success: being appointed Afghanistan’s Minister for Women’s Affairs in the new Karzai government (a position Richardson can only dream of.) Perhaps focusing on her appointment would be a recognition that Jalal has been politically pidgeon-holed in a way she herself did not want: that is, as a woman who champions women’s rights but is not equipped to lead a country.
While watching the movie, I felt torn. On the one hand, I wanted to see Jalal as a hero, because this is obviously the point of the movie: It is called FrontRunner not because Jalal came anywhere close to achieving that electoral status, but because she is or was a front runner in pushing for women’s political involvement in Afghanistan. Some Afghans obligingly step in front of the camera to deliver their odious and predictable opinion that Islam does not allow women to rule over men. (Jalal rebuts this idea in a radio broadcast, pointing out how women have led Muslim nations like Pakistan, Indonesia and Bangladesh — good points, but not the frontal assault needed to debunk the long-held scholarly view, based on an alleged saying of the Prophet Mohammed, that a country with a female leader cannot prosper. Jalal is stronger when calling to mind the military leadership of the Prophet’s wife Aisha.) Zalmay Khalilzad, then U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, chimes in with a neo-conservative view of the same issue, reporting that Afghanistan is probably “not ready” for a female candidate. (This statement takes on a darker shade as the movie progresses, and the film-makers hint at, but do not fully prove, that the U.S., through Khalilzad, works openly to secure Karzai’s reelection. Unfortunately, this allegation is left flapping the breeze; the Afghan-American translator/journalist/Jalal-supporter Halima Kazem is the closest the movie comes to having a reliable source or voice-over, but her 20-something cynicism and idealism lack authority.)
So I want to see Jalal as a hero. But the first problem is I don’t know the first thing about her. It took me half the movie to realize, for example, that the kids running around her campaign office were her children and not her grandchildren, as I’d first assumed. How old is Jalal? Where did she learn to speak English? How did she manage to marry such an open-minded, supportive husband? How did she survive under the Taliban? Why is she choosing politics as the way to make a difference in Afghanistan now? These questions, strangely, are unanswered in the film.
The second problem is it’s hard to see what challenges Jalal faces aside from the regular difficulties of being a political unknown in a national election. I hate to say it, but every time the music got tense, I expected an assassination attempt. In fact, Afghanistan in 2004 was relatively secure. As mentioned, some Afghans seemed to reject the idea of a woman leader, but other embraced Jalal’s candidacy. While women leaders in Muslim nations around the world face difficulties — like the Pakistani minister shot dead last year, apparently by an extremist unhappy that she refused to wear a headscarf — it’s never quite clear what specific challenges Jalal must overcome as a woman.
Because of this lack of personal and political context around Jalal, I am left to simply take the director’s point of view at face value, that Jalal is a hero. I’m just left wondering why, if she is a hero, she wasn’t able to mount a more effective campaign (and I don’t believe that only the U.S. backing of Karzai is to blame.) At the end of the day, or movie, we want our heroes to win. Is Jalal a Shirley Chisholm for Afghanistan, ahead of her time, but a harbinger of things to come? Hopefully, yes. And she obviously has the drive and determination and spousal support to stay in the political game long term. In the meantime, however, Jalal and her supporters make take note of Hillary Clinton’s once or future frontrunner status: when you’re winning, being a woman no longer makes you a hero.
TO SEE THIS MOVIE: FrontRunner premiered in March in Miami, but hopefully it will be playing in Washington D.C. at the June SilverDocs festival, so you can judge it for yourself. In the meantime, you can get a taste for the movie by watching the trailer.