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Afghan female filmmaker basks in role as voice of women's empowerment

25 Mar 2020 Salaam Times

KABUL -- For a generation, Roya Sadat has been a voice for women in one of the world's worst places to be one.

One of the first female Afghan filmmakers to make her name after the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, she has won plaudits at home and abroad for works such as "A Letter to the President", and "Three Dots" and "Playing the Taar".

She lived through the Soviet occupation of 1979-1989 -- fleeing with her family for their lives at times -- and endured the brutality of civil war and then the violent oppression of Taliban rule, where women existed only in the shadows and basic freedoms were lost.

Afghan film producer and director Roya Sadat February 10 checks a film in an editing room at the Roya Film House in Kabul. The first female filmmaker to make her name after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, Sadat has won plaudits at home and abroad for works such as 'A Letter to the President', 'Three Dots', and 'Playing the Taar'. [Mariam Alimi/AFP]

Her great fear is a return to that kind of fundamentalism: the US-Taliban peace deal signed on February 29 may be a potential first step for peace in a nation that for decades has known only war, but it offers no guarantees about upholding women's rights.

"I feel concerned when I remember how we had simply been forgotten during the five-year Taliban rule until 9/11 happened," says the 37-year-old, adding, "If the international community approaches [Afghanistan] as an open and shut scenario and abandons us again, there will undoubtedly be grave consequences."

Almost 39% of Afghan girls go to secondary school according to World Bank figures for 2017, while of the 300,000 students in universities, about a third are female, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) has reported, citing figures from the Afghan Ministry of Higher Education.

These figures are predominantly for urban areas, while 20 years ago they would have been all but impossible everywhere.

"There are many good changes happening, coming from the heart of society," Sadat said. Still, a huge amount remains undone, she concedes.

Afghanistan ranks last in the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security index, which measures women's well-being and self-reliance. In rural areas, female literacy can be less than 2% and rights are often even more constrained by conservative tradition.

Era of women's suffocation

Sadat is not alone in fearing that the small inroads made in women's rights may disappear -- in urban centres, young people have grown up listening to music, watching television, and more recently accessing the internet and social media. Many have seen the Taliban only on the news.

Sadat, who has been writing stories, poems and plays since she was a little girl, recalls how her life ground to a halt in 1996 as the Taliban rolled in.

Schools closed, women were confined to their homes, and the televisions and radios stopped playing. A precocious teenager, she continued to write indoors and read books on directing from her father's collection.

She was allowed to work as a nurse, as women could get only female medical help, and even set up clandestine cultural performances of her plays in the hospital, even though the hospital director was linked to the Taliban.

"It was very dangerous. I still find it hard to believe that we were able to," she said.

Her first work, "Three Dots", which tells the tale of a single mother who is forced to marry a warlord and to become a drug smuggler, was penned during this period, she said.

It was made -- using simple equipment -- only once the regime changed and once she could channel all the knowledge accrued from surreptitious reading into real world creativity.

This determination and persistence have defined her career, and she feels strongly that film has a social purpose.

"I turned to cinema, when I had just come out of an era of suffocation, and had a world to express," the mother of two said.

"I strongly believe in cinema and that this is the most important art that can influence a positive change in our society," she added. "But change cannot come overnight. The change has to come to thoughts and minds."

'Refusing to be silenced'

Sadat in her 20s set up an independent film company -- Roya Film House -- with her sister Alka and was awarded a scholarship to study film in South Korea. She has also written television dramas for the media firm Moby Group.

Her stories are the stories of Afghan women.

From the outset of her career, she has faced questions from her family and criticism from the community, but she said that when locals come to see her work, they understand.

Her 2017 film, "A Letter to the President", shows a woman slapping back at her violent husband when he hits her before accidentally killing him.

Sadat depicted an act of female rebellion in a country where women are often forced to stay in abusive marriages but recalled how she expected a "bad reaction" because of the taboos surrounding female behaviour. Instead, the audience applauded during the slap scene.

Her work is not without risks.

Cinema remains contentious in parts of the country, and her productions, which shine a light on female inequality and repression, are controversial.

Hailed by the United States for "refusing to be silenced" in the face of threats from conservatives, she received the International Woman of Courage Award in 2017.

She said she is committed to supporting the next generation of female filmmakers. The latest edition of her International Women's Film Festival in Herat, which first launched in 2013, received more than 2,500 submissions.

She remains hopeful that she can continue to challenge and speak for Afghans, arguing that film is uniquely placed to change hearts and minds.

"Cinema can challenge inequality and injustice," Sadat said. "It can turn social taboos into discourse, and it can invite people to dialogue."

"Our people need to criticise themselves, to talk about things that are forbidden," she added. "I believe that this society needs a revolution of thought and that this cannot be done except with the help of cinema."

Original Link: https://afghanistan.asia-news.com/en_GB/articles/cnmi_st/features/2020/03/25/feature-02

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