Afghanistan’s taboo-smash­ing fem­i­nist TV drama


In a grimy Kabul street, the direc­tor gives the or­der to roll the cam­eras, and film­ing starts on a re­mark­able new TV drama that boldly chal­lenges taboos about women in con­ser­va­tive Afghanistan.

Shereen, the star, en­ters the scene and buys a few things from street ven­dors when sud­denly her hus­band, a posses­sive and bru­tal man, grabs her.

But tough, no-non­sense Shereen won’t back down and a row en­sues.

“Shereen’s Law,” due to be aired on Afghan TV be­fore the end of the year, tells the story of a 36-yearold woman who brings up three chil­dren on her own while forg­ing a ca­reer as a clerk at a court in Kabul.

Such a char­ac­ter is al­ready shock­ing in an over­whelm­ingly pa­tri­ar­chal so­ci­ety where most women are con­fined to lives of me­nial do­mes­tic­ity.

But the show de­lib­er­ately ramps up the im­pact. Shereen fights cor­rup­tion, ha­rass­ment, and rape, and tries to di­vorce her hus­band, whom she wed in a forced mar­riage.

More than 13 years af­ter the fall of the Tal­iban, Afghanistan re­mains deeply wed­ded to tra­di­tional cus­toms and its air­waves have never hosted any­thing like this be­fore.

“It is the first such drama — that is about women, that is about em­pow­er­ing women, that is about the strug­gles of women in Afghanistan,” Leena Alam, the Afghan actress who plays Shereen, told AFP.

Giv­ing Women a Voice

Women in Afghanistan still suf­fer bru­tal vi­o­lence on a daily ba­sis. On March 19 a young woman was beaten to death and her body burned in cen­tral Kabul for al­legedly burning a Qu­ran.

De­fy­ing en­trenched con­ven­tions in such a coun­try comes with a risk, as Alam — who moved to the U.S. as a child with her fam­ily be­fore re­turn­ing in 2007 — ad­mits.

“It’s a bit danger­ous, even for my­self. Yes­ter­day we were shoot­ing out­side. When ... I’m wait­ing for the shot I’m al­ways scared that some­body may throw acid on me or some­body may hit me with a knife,” she said.

Cast­ing the show was not easy — sev­eral ac­tors said no to a sto­ry­line they found just too chal­leng­ing. One, who played a lawyer friend of Shereen, was forced to pull out be­cause her hus­band was un­happy with the show.

As well as por­tray­ing a strong fe­male char­ac­ter, the se­ries at­tacks the Afghan ju­di­cial sys­tem, where ram­pant cor­rup­tion is hid­den be­hind a wall of si­lence.

“It takes a lot of courage to write some­thing like this and it takes a lot of courage to play some­thing like Shereen,” Alam, a pro­ducer who has also ap­peared in sev­eral Afghan films, said.

“But I think it’s time, af­ter more than 30 years, to move on and ed­u­cate peo­ple and give them the in­for­ma­tion as bluntly as Shereen.”

Apart from the ex­te­rior street scenes, the show’s ac­tion takes place in a stu­dio with sets decked out to look like a court­room, Shereen’s house and legal of­fices.

No de­tail has been missed, from the por­trait of Pres­i­dent Ashraf Ghani in the court­room to the sta­pler on Shereen’s desk.

Break­ing Bar­ri­ers

Direc­tor and writer Max Walker, an Aus­tralian who came to work in Afghanistan, says he took ad­vice in ad­vance on how to avoid drawing too much at­ten­tion from con­ser­va­tive cler­ics.

“There’s been an enor­mous con­sul­ta­tion, an enor­mous re­view of the script and of the whole sto­ry­telling process to make sure that it raises th­ese is­sues, but it doesn’t raise them so bluntly and so of­fen­sively that it’s go­ing to make the pro­gram go off air,” Walker said.

Un­der the Tal­iban’s hard-line 1996-2001 regime, tele­vi­sion was banned, but now 58 per­cent of homes have a set, ac­cord­ing to the Asia Foun­da­tion devel­op­ment or­ga­ni­za­tion.

“Shereen’s Law” will face tough com­pe­ti­tion for view­ers from popular im­ported Turk­ish and In­dian soap op­eras.

French­woman Anne Jasim Fal­her, the founder and head of con­sul­tancy firm ATR in Kabul and a long-term ob­server of Afghan so­ci­ety, says tele­vi­sion has a role to play in chang­ing at­ti­tudes.

“Tele­vi­sion has al­lowed peo­ple to shake things up on forced mar­riage, prob­a­bly also on vi­o­lence against women and vi­o­lence within fam­i­lies,” she said.

The 12 45-minute episodes are be­ing made by the Tolo tele­vi­sion chan­nel, one of the big suc­cesses of Afghanistan’s new me­dia scene, largely funded by for­eign donors when it was launched in 2004.

The Moby group, which owns Tolo, claims a pi­o­neer­ing role for it­self, no­tably for be­ing the first Afghan chan­nel to have fe­male and male pre­sen­ters along­side one an­other.

“You have to cross the bar­ri­ers some­times and you have to do some­thing where you give the voice to the women,” Moby’s direc­tor of pro­gram­ming Mas­soud San­jer told AFP.

“Afghanistan is a coun­try where if you tell di­rectly peo­ple ‘do this,’ they won’t do it. But if you just give them a rea­son, make them think them­selves, they will do it.

“So a TV show will def­i­nitely help the men who are the dom­i­nant power of the so­ci­ety to think that a woman is also part of this coun­try, a woman is part of their lives, and a woman is part of their fam­ily.”


(Left) In this pho­to­graph taken on March 11, in a scene from a tele­vi­sion drama, Afghan actress Leena Alam who plays Shereen, right, walks as her screen hus­band Ab­dul Qud­dos Farah­mand, left, grabs her while she shops in Kabul.

(Right) In this pho­to­graph taken on March 11, in a scene from a tele­vi­sion drama, Afghan actress Leena Alam who plays Shereen, cen­ter, acts on set in Kabul.

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