Afghan Women Tell Their Stories Through Lerner's Lens

Belmont resident honored for her photos, audio recordings in the "groundbreaking" documentary, "Behind the Veil."

Americans usually "visit" Afghanistan with a Kevlar helmet, 30 pounds of body armor and an assault rifle.

Belmont's Paula Lerner, who has traveled to the embattled country and its disputed Kandahar province five times, goes with a camera.

An artist and photojournalist whose photographs have appeared in the Washington Post, the Smithsonian, Newsweek, People and Time, Lerner has spent the past several years documenting in stark detail the women who are all but hidden from the world by custom and culture in a land of conflict.

This past Monday, Sept. 27, at New York's Lincoln Center, Lerner and her collaborators at the Toronto Globe and Mail won an Emmy in the New Approaches to News & Documentary Programming category for the multimedia presentation, "Behind the Veil."

See the documentary at: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/behind-the-veil/

With stories, videos, sound and pictures, "Behind the Veil" introduces the viewer into the daily lives of women in war-besieged Afghanistan.

Globe and Mail Editor Stephen Northfield says, "Piercing that veil of anonymity [allowed] these women to tell their stories."

"Behind the Veil" has also been honored with an Editor and Publisher/EPpy Award for Best Web Special Feature, and a Webby Award nomination for Best Documentary Series.

The veil is the covering women, in traditional Muslim countries, such as Afghanistan and Saudi-Arabia, wear in public as a sign of their modesty. Most women in Muslim countries wear at least a scarf, as did Lerner in Kandahar and Kabul.

Belmont Patch asked Lerner – who is also co-authored a well-received book about the dedication of the walkers at breast cancer fundraisers –

about her work and the award.

Q. What did you contribute to "Behind the Veil"?

A. Most of the still images in "Behind the Veil" and some of the ambient sound are mine. The editors had poignant stories, but their video quality was low and lacked enough images.  For a future book, I have 30,000 photos and many audio recordings of daily life of women in Kandahar.

Q. Do women in Afghanistan view the veil as oppressive or expressive of religious devotion?

A. You can find both points of view.  For many women, wearing a burqa or chaderi (all covering garments) in public is simply a way of life, comforting, giving them safety – freedom to move around without being hassled by men.  Others find wearing such garments to be awkward and uncomfortable.  Wearing a hijab (scarf covering the hair) and modest clothing is all that is required religiously, and many women are happy to comply.  The all-covering burqa or chaderi is not a religious obligation, but rather a custom, once enforced by the Taliban.

Q. A good friend of yours, a rare woman legislator in Afghanistan, was killed. What impact has her death had?

A. My friend, Sitara Achakzai, was brutally murdered by the Taliban in April 2009.  Because I did not want her death to go unnoticed in the West, I produced a multimedia feature titled "The Life and Death of Sitara Achakzai," archived online at this link:


Her murder definitely has had a chilling effect on Afghan women promoting women's rights.

Q. How threatened did you feel in your travels to Afghanistan?

A. Kidnapping, armed robbery, suicide bombers or improvised explosives (IEDs) are all possible scenarios when a Westerner travels there. I've had some close calls (a bomb went off shortly after I left an area).  I try to minimize my risks through my contacts in Afghanistan, whom I trust with my life.  Fortunately, I don't stand out. When I dress in Afghan clothes, I can pass for a local.

Q. Do you think the lives of women in Afghanistan are improving? What can Americans do to help?

A. In some places, the lives of Afghan women are improving; in others, it's stagnant.  Organizations, such as Project Artemis/Thunderbird for Good, Women for Afghan Women, and Business Council for Peace or Bpeace, are helping Afghan women thrive, learn new skills and be self-sufficient. Contributing to any of these organizations, either with money or time, is something any American can do. 

Q. What is Bpeace? What have you done to promote its work?

A. Bpeace is the acronym for the Business Council for Peace (http://www.bpeace.org).  It's a non-profit network of business professionals, who volunteer to train local entrepreneurs in regions recovering from war.  Bpeace has programs in Rwanda, Afghanistan, and a new one in El Salvador.  Its motto is "more jobs mean less violence." I fundraise for and document the programs in Afghanistan.

Q. Will "Behind the Veil" be on TV or in movie theaters?

A. "Behind the Veil" is a multifaceted, online multimedia project, including six short video documentaries, a web gallery, and 10 full-unedited video interviews with the Kandahari women. Viewers are supposed to interact and navigate through the media, experiences that don't work on TV or in movie theaters.  It is permanently archived on the Globe and Mail web site at


Q. What's your next project?

A. To finish my book, back at Kandahar, by the way, once a vital Taliban center. When the Taliban were thrown out, not much changed for women.  Although the regime is out of power, the culture did not. Women need encouragement in asserting their rights.

An exhibition of Lerner's Afghanistan works is at the Frontier Gallery in Brunswick, Maine, through Oct. 23. More information can be found at www.explorefrontier.com



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