Actresses Hard to Find in Afghanistan

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In Afghanistan, it is taboo for women to appear on screen. Conservative government officials have called for the culture minister's resignation because of "un-Islamic" broadcasts on Afghan TV. To get around the lack of actresses, some actors adopt unorthodox solutions, such as performing in drag.


From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block. In Afghanistan television and film directors are having a hard time casting women in onscreen roles. Many Afghans still consider it taboo for women to perform in front of cameras. And the matter's become a divisive political issue. Conservative members of the government are upset about broadcasts that clerics consider un-Islamic. NPR's Ivan Watson traveled to Kabul and he has our report.

IVAN WATSON, reporting:

Until last month there was only one woman performing with a 20-member acting troupe at the Afghan State Radio and TV Company. She's 36-year-old Parouin Mushtael(ph), heard here rehearsing a scene with a fellow actor in the troupe's makeshift studio. A dusty room lined with battered desks and stained posters.

(Soundbite of talking in foreign language)

WATSON: Like her male Afghan colleagues, Mushtael is paid just 40 dollars a month to perform in short skits that are aired each week on Afghan State TV. She does it, she says, for love of the craft and as a form of therapy to overcome her experiences during the reign of the Taliban when women lived under virtual house arrest.

Ms. PAROUIN MUSHTAEL (Afghan actress): (Speaking foreign language)

WATSON: The Taliban's gone now, but Mushtael says some of her family members are still violently opposed to her televised appearances.

Ms. MUSHTAEL: (Through translator) The big problem I have now are my brothers-in-law. They have warned me not to appear on TV anymore and they have told me if I appear they will kill me, but I have resisted. I have not given up.

WATSON: Due to this powerful social taboo Muhammad Ludein(ph), the leader of the acting troop, says he has been unable to hire anymore women performers.

Mr. MUHAMMAD LUDEIN (Leader, Afghan State Radio and TV Company): (Through translator) The problem is we have a conservative country with conservative families. And a female doing a scene on TV is regarded as a bad thing for them.

WATSON: With no one on hand to play the role of a young woman or teenage girl, the troupe has been forced to improvise.

(Soundbite of male speaking in foreign language, and higher pitched voice)

WATSON: 24-year-old Zelmy Nouri(ph) is a chubby irreverent comedian who previously worked as a cobbler in Iran. He has on several occasions performed in drag on TV, sometimes covering himself from head to toe in a woman's burka, much to the horror of his father and brothers.

Mr. ZELMY NOURI (Afghan actor): (Speaking foreign language)

WATSON: Now speaking in his normal voice, Nouri explains that he cross dresses to satirize Afghan society. In one skit a lecherous boss at first refuses to hire Nouri for a new job, but later accepts Nouri when he applies for the same job a second time posing as a flirtatious young woman. That scene was heavily censored by authorities and some branches of government want to do far more to curtail what some see as un-Islamic broadcasting. Khadi Zia Wadouin(ph) is a high ranking cleric and government official.

Mr. KHADI ZIA WADOUIN (Afghan Government): (Through translator) Women should not work as newsreaders, only men. Islam is extremely absolutely against women appearing on TV, but when it is imposed on us by the liberal Western world, then at the very least the women should be well covered.

WATSON: Recently Afghanistan's Culture Minister was summoned before Parliament where some law makers denounced him for allowing the broadcast on state TV of Indian movies, which feature men and women singing and dancing on screen together. Latif Ahmadi, the head of Afghanistan State Film Studio, bristles at critics who want to ban women from the silver screen.

Mr. LATIF AHMADI (Head of Afghanistan State Film Studio): Because without the woman we could not to make our society. How can we make it?

WATSON: He has spent more than a year struggling to find a young Afghan woman to play the female lead in his next film. Though the actress must be beautiful, Ahmadi says she will have to be portrayed with great respect.

Mr. AHMADI: But I'm not so eager that the woman will appear sexy and, you know, because this is not the time of sexy for our people.

WATSON: The filmmaker says it is still far too early to challenge the traditional values of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. Ivan Watson, NPR News.

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