Stories from women’s voices are few and far between from Afghanistan and other conservative Muslim countries. Sahraa Karimi is the most recent female director from that region who has managed to make any sort of impression on the global stage of cinema. The only woman with a Ph.D. in cinema and filmmaking in Afghanistan, Karimi explores the struggles of the three titular women with subtlety and complexity almost in real time. Hava (Arezoo Ariapoor) is far along in her pregnancy, yet her husband and father-in-law demand that she prepares a huge feast for a friend of her husband. Maryam (Fereshta Afshar) is a news anchor who is largely unappreciated at her workplace and is separated from her husband of seven years. Ayesha (Hasiba Ebrahimi) is the youngest of the three women, but she faces the most life-changing decision when she decides to terminate her pregnancy secretly and illegally before anyone in her family can find out.
What is striking about each of these women is how lonely each of them is and how each one’s solitude differs. Though Hava dutifully serves as a wife to her husband, she lacks the support one would expect from a nuclear family. Maryam seems to be the most privileged since she is able to support herself professionally, yet her story is mainly focused on a long, troubled phone conversation she has with her husband. Only Ayesha has one other sympathetic woman to help her, yet she has to face the emotional pain of her decision by herself.
The greatest strength of Hava, Maryam and Ayesha is its ability to show the diverse experiences of these women. It is as if Karimi is aware that foreign (especially Western) eyes tend to see Afghani women as monolithic – uniformly oppressed or submissive. The three women are all in different times within their lives, and though we as viewers might know exactly how each story will unfold, Karimi manages to subvert expectations. We do not see any of the stories to completion, but rather, we get tantalizing fragments of longer narratives. Yet despite this apparent incompleteness, we still get a good sense of who each woman is through their strong performances. All three actresses are quite talented, but the one who has perhaps the most demanding role is Afshar as Maryam since she must tell the story of a whole relationship by herself. Even though we mainly her her side of the conversation, we still get a rich sense of her past through her performance.
Additionally, Karimi’s not-so-secret weapon is the the cinematography of Behrouz Badrouj, which is beautifully subtle in how it portrays each of the women. Hava’s story is lit with firelight to reflect the darkness of her story. Maryam’s story takes place in a hotel room with ironically romantic lighting as she excoriates her husband for her infidelity. Ayesha’s uses the streets of Kabul to reflect her disorientation and lack of guidance and is consequently the most visually dynamic of the stories. Though the cinematography is not flashy, it manages to bring quiet drama and beauty to all of the women’s stories.
Each of these stories could have made a compelling feature in and of themselves. In fact, an experienced cinephile may have seen films that are similar to one or more of the stories. Interweaving these stories serves to draw a complex and illuminating portrait of Afghani womanhood, even though we are really only seeing fragments of each of their lives. The overall product is compelling, but there are many ideas in this film that could have been more deeply explored if they had been expanded into features. Karimi displays enough strong filmmaking and narrative talent that it would be worth it to keep an eye on her career as she hopefully becomes a better and more experienced narrative filmmaker.