The Digital Journalist
Focusing on Afghan Women
November 2005

by Lana Slezic

Eighteen months ago I came to Afghanistan on assignment for a magazine. The nature of assignment work is such that the publication itself or even the writer, in many ways, dictates what images need to be produced and which will then be used. And although every photographer has their own unique way of expressing or seeing a story, the story is ultimately not their own. This may satisfy many photographers but it often doesn't seem to satisfy me -- which is why I didn't last in daily newspapers for any lengthy amount of time. It is also the reason I am still in Afghanistan.

Nothing significant ever seems to knock me over the head and say, "wake up you fool and look at this." Rather, it sneaks up on me and slowly takes a grip of my head and heart until I have no other choice but to pay attention. The project on Afghan women came to fruition in much the same way. After I had completed the six-week magazine assignment in Kabul, I decided to stay and freelance for various publications. This gave me time to explore and learn about a country that was unknown to me on any meaningful level.

A young Afghan woman hides her face in a mosque kitchen in Kabul.

© Lana Slezic
Gradually I found my curiosity about women and girls growing. The stories I began to learn about horrified me, made me angry, confused and ultimately gave fuel to the fire that was brewing somewhere between my conscience and center of gravity. Because I am a woman, there was also a very natural gravitation toward wanting to document the plight of women in Afghanistan. Women understand each other, almost without having to say anything at all. It is something innate, warm, forgiving and otherwise indiscernible.

So, for the last year I have focused as much as possible on documenting the lives of Afghan women. What I have learned is troubling. During the Taliban regime, media flocked to Afghanistan to cover the most oppressive society on earth. The burka became a familiar image on covers and front-page stories in the western world. Since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001, some would argue that the political and cultural position of Afghan women has improved. The recently adopted Afghan constitution states that "the citizens of Afghanistan - whether man or woman - have equal rights and duties before the law." But ink on a page does not represent reality for women in this country. It is true that in the capital city of Kabul women have been allowed to return back to work, girls are going to school, the government no longer forces them to wear the all-covering burka, and a few have even been appointed to prominent positions in the government.

However, in Kabul, other major cities and especially in rural regions of Afghanistan, many challenges still remain. In fact, in most rural regions the situation is quite similar to Taliban times. Many girls are denied an education and forced to work at home instead. Often women are not allowed to leave their homes without a male relative. Domestic violence is commonplace and accepted. Girls who are raped can be imprisoned. Families sell their daughters to settle land and monetary disputes. In some provinces, self-immolation is occurring and is almost always the result of family tensions due to forced marriage. Honor killings are not uncommon. Women who were widowed during the Soviet occupation or the Taliban regime have turned to begging and prostitution, otherwise unable to feed their children. The illiteracy rate for women in rural Afghanistan is greater than 95 percent. On a grass-roots level, the human rights and gender equality issues are endless and the effects of centuries of oppression cannot be expected to disappear overnight. But something has to change.

This body of work represents a very emotional journey that has allowed me to learn about Afghan women's lives in an intimate setting. At the worst of times the stories are horrific and at best they are consistent. It is my hope that the final collection of photographs will communicate, influence and inspire others to learn more about the plight of Afghan women. Most Afghan women and girls understand all too well the concept of fear and subservience. As human beings it is our responsibility to not only see and hear, but to listen and act. Every human being deserves to be treated with respect and dignity.

© Lana Slezic

Photojournalist Lana Slezic is currently based in Kabul, Afghanistan, where she continues to document the plight of female Afghans. True to her roots as a first-generation Canadian born to Croatian parents, Lana has an ongoing project about the city of Dubrovnik, which she will resume in the near future. Most recently, she was chosen by an international jury as one of 12 young photographers worldwide invited to participate in the World Press Photo Joop Swart Masterclass in Amsterdam in November 2005.

View more of Lana's work at