A generation of women have grown up in Afghanistan since the Taliban regime was overthrown in 2001. Whether it’s in education, healthcare, culture or government, women have seen steady progress throughout Afghan society in the last 18 years. And those who have lived through the Taliban’s misogynistic rule, like Roya Sadat—the first Afghan woman film director and producer in the post-Taliban era—fear that all this progress could be discarded in a peace deal.

Roya Sadat, center, at a test shoot for a TV drama she directed in Kabul, Oct. 18, 2017. Sadat sold her apartment, car and jewelry to make a movie on women’s rights. It’s Afghanistan’s selection for the Oscars now. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)
Roya Sadat, center, at a test shoot for a TV drama she directed in Kabul, Oct. 18, 2017. Sadat sold her apartment, car and jewelry to make a movie on women’s rights. It’s Afghanistan’s selection for the Oscars now. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)

For Roya, living under the Taliban made her dream of becoming a filmmaker a farfetched possibility. Her story, and the obstacles she has overcome, highlight the tremendous progress Afghan women—and society at large—have made.

Under the Taliban, television was strictly banned, and stores were not allowed to sell TVs or satellite dishes. During a screening at USIP of her most recent film, “A Letter to the President,” Roya asked the audience to “imagine a life where again there is no music, no cinema, no free media, no freedom of expression, no girl’s education, no women in public, and no elections. What kind of life is this, can you live such a life? You cannot. We cannot either. Not again.”

Growing up Under Taliban Rule

Raised in Herat province, Roya has seen the Afghan conflict from the Soviet invasion through the overthrow of the Taliban to today. Because Roya could not receive education under the Taliban regime, she was home schooled by her mother and developed a love for novels; she even dreamed of becoming a filmmaker. This dream however had to wait until after the fall of the Taliban, when Roya was able to study law and political science at Herat University and earned a degree in arts and film production.

Roya penned the script of her first film, “Three Dots,” while the Taliban was still in power, not knowing if she would ever be able to make it into a movie: It ended up being her first feature film. Roya has gone on to make several films and television shows and founded the International Women's Film Festival in Afghanistan in 2013.

Her most recent film, “A Letter to the President,” highlights the challenges Afghan women face in navigating the complex Afghan justice system. In 2009, after having written the script of the film, Roya reached out to international producers because Afghanistan’s film industry was destroyed under the Taliban. But, she was told that due to the high security risks involved in filming in Afghanistan, they would not be able to support the film.

But Roya persisted, assembling a film crew and starting production in 2010 with the help of her husband and sister. At the USIP film screening, Roya said, “The tragedies and challenges I faced behind the scenes while producing the movie mean as much to me as the story of the film.”

Through Roya’s steadfast commitment to her art, she has helped create space for other Afghan women filmmakers. Roya is just one example of the many Afghan women that are working tirelessly to maintain women’s continued progress—and they want to see that progress advance further for the next generation of women.

Where are Afghan Women Now?

Today, Afghanistan has a Ministry of Women’s Affairs and the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission is headed by Sima Samar, a prominent women’s rights activist. Afghan women constitute roughly 27 percent of the civil service and parliament.

Outspoken women like Roya Rahmani, the first Afghan woman ambassador to the U.S., and Shukria Barakzai, a former member of Parliament and ambassador to Norway, have been tireless advocates for women’s rights in the face of many threats. In an interview with NPR, Ambassador Rahmani said that Afghan women “have such a high level of resilience ... and every time, we come out stronger and better.”

Since 2001, Afghan women have also made significant gains in education, healthcare, and culture. Forty percent of Afghan girls are enrolled in secondary schools—before 2001, they were barred from secondary education altogether. Maternal mortality rates have seen a 64 percent decrease from 2000 to 2015. The Asia Foundation’s 2018 survey of the Afghan people shows that support for gender equality in education has seen a steady increase, indicating that women’s achievements have encouraged support for women’s right to education.

In civil society, Afghan women have been a voice for the voiceless, coming together and fervently campaigning to bring change. One example is the Elimination of Violence Against Women, which was passed in 2009 and reaffirmed by President Ghani in March 2018 because of women’s rights groups’ advocacy.

These gains are heartening but came at great cost and by sustained commitment from Afghan women and the international community. As the Afghan peace process gains momentum, it is critical that women are not excluded from the talks.

“I have walked every step of my life alongside my Afghan people. And have felt and seen my peoples’ pain and sorrow and the look of despair and thirst for peace,” Roya said at the USIP film screening. That desire for peace can only be realized if the gains made by Afghan women are protected and promoted in a peace deal.

Hodei Sultan is a senior program manager for the Asia Center at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Asma Ebadi is a research analyst for the Afghanistan program at the Institute.

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