"Have you ever worn a burqa before?" asked the Amnesty International representative.
One by one, the journalism students in the class I was teaching at American University of Paris took turns trying on a burqa, a piece of clothing that fully covers a woman's body, head and face. When it was my turn, I put the tent-like garment over my head, imagining being forced to wear it. It was in that moment, in July 2001, when I experienced how it felt to be invisible to the world. That's when I knew I wanted to produce a film about Afghan women and their struggle to become visible again.
The challenge was making the film resonate with an American audience.
Three months later (in October 2001) America retaliated against Afghanistan for the September 11th attacks, and before the end of the year, I travelled there to film the growing humanitarian crisis and the aid workers who were struggling to respond to it. I was looking forward to seeing women shedding their burqas, liberated from the extremist laws of the Taliban.
But when I arrived, the women I encountered were still covered head-to-toe, with only a small mesh patch as their window to the world. And when the documentary I was working on failed to sell, I vowed to return to this place of beauty, isolation and sorrow.
Four years later I returned with Susan Retik and Patti Quigley. Susan and Patti didn't know each other on September 11th, but their hauntingly similar circumstances would bring them together. They were both pregnant, and their husbands were on their way from Boston to Los Angeles when their planes were hijacked by terrorists and crashed into the World Trade Center towers.
While their loss gave them permission to shut out the world, their compassion led them to engage with it. As information was revealed about terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, Susan and Patti began to immerse themselves in books, news stories and articles about the country. The more they learned about the plight of women in Afghanistan, the more they were drawn to its widows, with whom they began to feel an unlikely bond.
In 2003, Susan and Patti founded Beyond the 11th, a charitable organisation that provides life-sustaining financial and emotional support to Afghan widows affected by war and terrorism. They wanted to provide aid to these women who had far fewer support networks and resources than they did.
"It may sound crazy to say this, but I felt like the lucky one," Susan told me. "Yes, I had lost Dave, and we experienced this terrible tragedy. But I was still able to see all the good things in my life. The kids and I could stay in our home. They were able to go to the same school. Dave had life insurance. In Afghanistan widows aren't allowed to work. And if they want to remarry, they have to leave their children with the husband's family. I could never imagine living in Afghanistan and having had the same thing happen to me."
As the world becomes increasingly divided by politics, ethnicity and religion, Susan and Patti affirm a common humanity that we all share. From the beginning, they recognised their Afghan counterparts as individuals – women they identify with and feel a connection to – rather than a monolithic, nameless, faceless group, as often happens during – and as a result of – the world's tragedies.
I was struck by their ability to recognise Afghanistan for all of its complexities. True, it is the country in which the terrorists trained to kill their husbands, but it is also a place that had been used as a pawn during the Cold War, only to be abandoned by the international community – sparking a civil war that would last another decade.
Susan and Patti's mission is simple: to make life better for these women. And their message is simple too: hatred is the root of terrorism.
They aren't naïve enough – nor do they have enough hubris – to think they can stop terrorism in its tracks. But they do have enough optimism and enough faith in humanity to believe that the "war on terror" cannot be fought with bombs and bullets alone.
* Beth Murphy is the director and producer of Beyond Belief, available for purchase on the website and coming to the Sundance Channel in 2009, and founder of Principle Pictures (www.principlepictures.com). This article first appeared in the International Herald Tribune and was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).