2024 Hot Docs 'An Unfinished Journey': 4 women leaders who fled Afghanistan fighting against gender apartheid

"They're basically being erased from public spaces and this is really dangerous," co-director Aeyliya Husain said

After the Taliban took over in Afghanistan in 2021, four women — parliamentarians, ministers and journalists — were stripped of their positions of power. Resettling in Canada, the documentary An Unfinished Journey (part of the 2024 Hot Docs Festival in Toronto) documents their continued fight for freedom for women, women's right to education, and pressuring international power to force the Taliban to reverse gender apartheid policies.

Co-director Amie Williams has been living in Greece since 2018 and found out that a group of women airlifted out of Kabul were set to arrive in Athens. She met them through the Melissa Network, an organization for migrant and refugee women in Greece.

"We heard that these women were coming and we discussed, maybe this would be a really good opportunity to go meet them, see what's happened, talk to them, break bread with them, try to give them some solidarity," Williams told Yahoo Canada.

Moving the production to Canada, following three women on their journey, eventually adding a fourth in Canada, Toronto-based co-director Aeyliya Husain was particularly attracted to telling this story.

"I'm interested in women's issues that show my cultural background and about women that shatter the stereotypes and tropes of Muslim women," Husain said. "I met with the women as they started to come here to Canada, ... and then we eventually started filming with them."

Homaira Ayubi served four terms in Afghan parliament and we see her attending protests and meeting politicians in Canada. Zefnoon Safi, from Laghman Province, has a 20-year political career, but had to come to Canada without two of her daughters, who remain trapped in Afghanistan. Nargis Nehan was a minister who worked closely with Afghanistan’s ousted president Ashraf Ghani. Journalist Nilofar Moradi had openly criticized the Taliban in her work, and resettled in Ottawa with her husband, six-year-old son and seven-month-old daughter.

Throughout An Unfinished Journey, we see these women mobilize a community, crafting a real call to action for women, and governments, all over the world.

"We wanted to highlight everything that the women have accomplished and that they are still accomplishing and doing," Husain said. "They have to have hope, right, in order to carry on, in order to connect."

"They were powerhouse heroines in their own right, in Afghanistan. They overcame incredible obstacles to get to where they were," Williams added. "I just felt like the world needs to know this, that these are hopeful stories, these are stories of incredible strength that all women can benefit from hearing."

(Left to Right) Ayubi, Nehan and Moradi  in An Unfinished Journey
(Left to Right) Ayubi, Nehan and Moradi in An Unfinished Journey

In terms of creating an environment where all these women felt comfortable to open up to the filmmakers, Williams stressed that they never pushed for their participation, originally in Greece.

"I think they appreciated us visiting them, there was a group of them that were living far from the city and in a rundown hotel, and they were getting quite bored, I think, and just waiting around for the next big bureaucratic hurdle they had to overcome to get their paperwork to Canada," Williams said.

"They also had a lot to protect. ... It's forced migration, they didn't want to be there. The last thing they probably wanted to do was be in a film or talk to a journalist, or a reporter. But it was me and young Afghan and Iranian refugees. So I think we came across very differently than say a CNN crew. It took time and certainly when they got to Canada, it helped that Aeyliya's from a similar cultural background. And it took a lot of time in Canada. It took us over two years to make this film."

"You're building a relationship with them, ... you start off slowly and you start talking to them, and you're open and transparent," Husain added. "You're trying to involve them in the process of what will we film and trying to get them engaged in it."

At the core of this film is that this isn't a story that only impacts Afghan women, it's really a message for all women around the world.

"A lot the women, in even in the film, say, we're not just fighting for rights for women in Afghanistan, but for women all over the world," Husain said. "We need to fight for returning education to young girls, allowing women to go out of their homes, they're basically being erased from public spaces and this is really dangerous."

"We need to look at it as a global community and go, we cannot allow this to happen here, because we cannot allow this to spread and happen to other countries in the world."

Women's rights have been under attack in recent years, including, but certainly not limited to, abortion rights in the U.S.

"It's really terrifying to watch what's happening in the United States from afar and I do think that ... as long as Afghan girls can't go to school, no woman should ever think her life is free," Williams said.

"This isn't just not going to school, it means you can't leave your home. So they're being erased from public view. And I don't see how any woman anywhere can watch this happen and not want to do something."

Homaira Ayubi at Toronto protest of school closures in An Unfinished Journey
Homaira Ayubi at Toronto protest of school closures in An Unfinished Journey

The filmmakers highlighted that part of creating this project was also to establish an impact campaign.

"We want to get countries like Canada, that has a feminist foreign policy, to make a statement about gender apartheid, and to get it codified in international law," Husain said. "There are a number of senators who are working on this, and we had a screening and Parliament Hill, ... to push them to actually make a statement and to define what gender apartheid is too."

Upcoming screening of An Unfinished Journey in the 2024 Hot Docs Festival is on April 27 at 10:00 a.m. ET at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto