Soap Operas in Afghanistan: New Ground for Social Change?


Photo Source: Life Magazine, November 2009

According to a recent article by the New York Times, all the world’s a stage in Kabul, Afghanistan. Or at least it’s becoming more so as a new entertainment industry is crafted to broadcast alongside the widely viewed sector of Indian soap operas.  The profiles of female characters featured in Afghan soap operas are some of the most telling descriptions of life for women in Afghanistan today. While Afghan soap operas attempt to hold a mirror to the difficulties of life in Afghanistan, especially for women and children,  the dangers that female actors face stall the progress that could result. Female actors face death threats from people that they don’t know, but the more immediate concern is disapproval and violence from their husbands or male relatives. Elizabeth Rubin, the article’s writer claims that many women who dare to act on tv shows face disowning from their own families or claims that they have tarnished their own or their families’ honor. The persevere however, often acting in secret or in spite of their families’ wishes.

We might think of an extensive entertainment industry as extravagant, especially in a country where people whose houses don’t have windows or running water have televisions and avid soap opera viewers.  This, however, is just not true. We have learned from the explosive Bollywood film industry that movies and tv shows  provide great perspective into the cultural values of other countries and command audiences of hundreds of thousands daily. In a country like Afghanistan where women’s rights  are notoriously disrespected and abuses to these rights go under-reported, exposure to social issues through a nationally broadcasted lens might be one of the healthiest antidotes to the problem.  Like women who decide to run for office, female television stars lead their generation in voicing these issues, though often posing a danger to themselves. The women featured in Rubin’s article use their stardom and the income from their acting to advance other careers. Afghan soap stars by day are also teachers, police officers and mothers.

At first it might be strange to think that social change is being headed by the Afghan entertainment industry, but Rubin’s article shows that this could be a platform for social change unexplored by progressives in Afghanistan.  We can’t underestimate the power that entertainment channels have over our social climate — hopefully intense social conservatism won’t stifle this platform before it has a chance to blossom.

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