Leena Alam, one of Afghanistan’s best-known actresses, is in character as she explains facing an unthinkable choice.
“Who would know better than me how dangerous it is to be a woman actress with the Taliban? You cannot inflict me with one more drop of fear than I already have,” says the California-based Alam as part of a virtual performance of a monologue for the LA Writers Center.
“You offer me death and my children, or life without them? What would you do? I will go home.” Tearfully, Alam, who starred in popular shows such as feminist drama “Shereen,” rocks back and forth on Zoom in front of a backdrop of an airport waiting room with signs for Paris.
The monologue was spun from an interview with her close friend and former co-star Sabera Sadat, another of Afghanistan’s top thespians. Earlier this month, in Kabul, Sadat was offered a rare ticket to France, but declined when it turned out there were no seats for her two young boys.
She and hundreds of other female artists and journalists are still awaiting evacuation, or else risk a lifetime of fear for their lives “wearing a hijab and lying to strangers who know [their] face” as figures in the arts and media.
Though the Taliban have told the world they are no longer the same brutal terrorists who reigned decades ago, a new list of eight religious guidelines issued to local media this week shows that their dehumanizing view of women has not changed.
Women may no longer appear in dramas and soap operas on television and newswomen must wear the hijab, says the first missive of its kind from the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. Under pressure from the Taliban, Afghan TV stations have self-censored and blurred out cleavage and other female body parts since around 2010, but a ban on the female figure altogether would set the country back decades.
Afghan director Tarique Qayumi (“Black Kite”) doesn’t believe the Taliban will be able to entirely quash modern day desires for entertainment.
“I don’t think they’re going to ban music or TV series altogether — just women,” he assesses. “They’ll start with moralistic arguments about how we have to protect our wives and sisters from appearing on screen, and once women slowly go to the background, people will start to think this is normal, and they can roll out more directives.”
Without full control over the internet, the Taliban can’t totally turn off the entertainment tap, since people can still watch what they please on their smartphones. They can, however, “stop Afghans from telling their own stories, completely,” says Qayumi.
It may be a moot concern. As the Afghan economy implodes, the country’s vibrant media ecosystem of what was once nearly 50 TV channels and 20 newspapers is grinding to a halt without outside funding or ad revenues. Press freedom has already been entirely quashed, with Taliban fighters dictating the editorial strategy for all remaining stations. Production has halted since the August takeover, leaving actors and crew to confront the coming winter jobless.
When broadcast journalist Zahra Nabi heard news of the religious directives, she felt a sense of relief. In her view, they serve to make an impossible situation for Afghan media more visible on a global stage.
“The Taliban we’re facing on the street is completely different from the Taliban you see on the media or at Doha,” she explains. “They always capture journalists, beat them, arrest them for so many hours. They take cameras, break them and don’t allow us to report.
“We’re already having very tough times. At least now they announced their intentions, so that the international press and community can see,” continues Nabi.
The founder of Afghanistan’s entirely female-staffed Baano TV station, Nabi isn’t going down without a fight. “We are working under the burqa to create our reports, then just keeping them because we cannot publish,” she says, describing her recent travels under the garment to investigate the terrible fates of women at domestic violence shelters.
Baano was once profitable but can no longer pay salaries and is weeks away from folding, she says. Those on the 50-person staff who are still in the country are mostly too scared to work outside their homes, but they continue to broadcast old material and Islamic programs out of fear that the Taliban may seize the station and use it to their own ends if they shutter.
“At least we have very good memories, because our dreams came true,” says Nabi, recalling how male attitudes towards her staff had changed since their start in 2017. “Before, everyone thought an all-women station was very funny, but we had technicians, camerawomen, directors, producers, everything — all without receiving any outside support.”
TV has long had an outsize influence in Afghanistan, where some 45% of men and 70% of women remain illiterate.
Since 2001, the medium was a force for progressive ideas since even just the sight of women on screen, let alone as presenters, was “huge” and helped “teach people to accept women in the public sphere,” notes Mozhdah Jamalzadah, known as the “Oprah of Afghanistan” for hosting the country’s first talk program, the multi-year hit “The Mozhdah Show.”
Back in 2009, Canada-based Jamalzadah returned to Afghanistan as the country’s first break-out female singer before getting her TV break. Her peers thought she’d be killed for tackling feminist subjects without wearing a hijab on television, but when death threats failed to fell her, “the floodgates opened,” she recalls, and female entertainers one after another also starting to sing and get their own shows, too.
It came at a price. Women in show business received constant death threats and were often beaten and even disowned by their families.
California-based Alam describes working in Afghanistan during those years as a calling and an act of courage. “They threw bombs and hand grenades onto our sets because we were talking about rape and forced marriage and divorce. Still, I continued. It didn’t scare me.”
To foil possible attempts on her life, she would change her shooting schedule randomly and take different cars to work. She explains: “I was not afraid any more, because I was tired of them threatening or bombing me. I could not be suppressed, because I wanted to move forward with my art and speak freely, because this country needed it, because we were tired of 40 years of war and suppression.”
Jamalzadah as well worked through threats until 2012, when a “horrible rumor” circulated that she had been raped, decapitated and killed, with her nose chopped off. As mainstream outlets began to pick up the story, the Canadian embassy stepped in to ask her to leave the country.
“I didn’t want to be made an example of by these terrorists, since that would stop a lot of women from continuing in my footsteps,” she said of her eventual departure.
For weeks after the Taliban take-over, she couldn’t be left alone because she would cry uncontrollably. The new religious directives have shut the door even more firmly on a future that could have been.
Hearing of the new rules, she felt a searing “anger towards humanity” for standing by and doing nothing to help Afghan women. “I’ve never felt so helpless in my life. All that work I did to try to gain a platform? I realize it was all for nothing,” she says. “To have all the progress with women in media from the last 20 years taken away is just unthinkable.”
Alam has compiled a list of 94 fellow members of the cast and crew of the TV show “Shereen,” in which she and Sadat starred together, who remain in the country and hope to evacuate. They remain in frequent contact.
“All the artists are hurting, because an artist without art is basically dead,” Alam laments.
“Art is a beautiful weapon to change without killing or hurting people, that we were using to change society and extremists’ minds. Some of my friends are saying they will die if they don’t continue to work — it will kill them, because they feel suffocated, like somebody’s strangling their neck.”