As a teenager, while working as a medical assistant at Afghanistan’s Herat hospital, Roya Sadat organized performances for 300 female colleagues in a gender-segregated ward, dramatizing the Taliban’s appalling treatment of women. Ten girls kept lookout for their boss, a Talib who always carried a cable to whip disobedient staffers, a fate Sadat escaped.
“Now, when I think back, it was really dangerous,” she says with a laugh, speaking by phone from Kabul.
Today, she is one of Afghanistan’s most prominent film directors and a leading conveyor of female narratives in a society where women remain largely subdued. This year, her feature A Letter to the President — about a female police chief whose struggle against tribal laws lands her in prison — is Afghanistan’s pick to compete for a foreign-language Oscar. The film includes a poignant scene in which the protagonist slaps her abusive husband across the face, a daring plot move in Afghanistan.
For most Afghan girls growing up under the Taliban in the late 1990s, a career in cinema would have been unfathomable, given that public expressions of female creativity were suppressed. But while her mother home-schooled her, Sadat’s father, a businessman who lost everything when the fundamentalist regime took over in 1996, nurtured her intellect and provided access to forbidden culture. Though TVs were banned by the Taliban, on some nights when Sadat was a teenager, he would blacken the windows of their house and bring out his television set and VCR.
As a child, Sadat often preferred reading and writing over the Bollywood imports her family watched, but she did like storytelling, particularly her father’s recitations of One Thousand and One Nights. He was the one who encouraged her to believe that girls could write stories and poetry. At age 9, she wrote her first play, about a son who leaves Afghanistan and sends letters home — futilely, given that his family is illiterate. After 2001, Sadat channeled her love for theater and novels into cinematic narratives, setting her on a path to becoming Afghanistan’s first post-Taliban female director.
She was barely out of her teens when her first film, about a married woman who smuggles drugs for warlords in order to support her children, debuted in 2003; backed by Afghan director Siddiq Barmak and a Japanese production company, the feature won six awards at an Afghan film festival organized by Tolo, the largest national TV station, and went on to make the rounds at international festivals. She cut her teeth directing TV dramas and documentaries and, with her filmmaker sister Alka, founded the production company Roya Film House. In 2013, Sadat launched Afghanistan’s first women’s film festival.
“To young Afghan women, [Roya] is an example of what you can be. That can be transformative,” says Noorjahan Akbar, a leading activist and founder of Free Women Writers, a blog for Afghan women. “She often tells the stories of Afghan women, which is important because we are often talked about — whether it is at dinner tables or television programs — but rarely spoken or listened to.… When we have movies, articles, poetry narratives by Afghan women about our own lives, it can be revolutionary.”
Artistic production by the country’s women “not only challenges patriarchy in Afghanistan but also the somewhat prevalent Western notion that Afghan women are only to be pitied as their new charity case, instead of listened to as stakeholders in their own future,” Akbar says.
Sadat believes that a society without female stories is incomplete.
For Sadat, moods, feelings, and family life are “different for women and men.” Women cry more easily than men because they “can think deeper about the world — about humanity,” she says, noting that while urban Afghanistan has undergone rapid changes, most Afghans still grow up in families steeped in fundamentalist ideas. “I really believe in cinema. If we want to change anything in this country, we must use culture.”
Sune Engel Rasmussen is the Guardian’s correspondent in Afghanistan.
Under the Taliban, one of Sadat’s seven sisters used to dress up in men’s clothing so the girls could leave the house with her as their “male chaperone.” She even took a male name: Sohrab.