13 February 2004

Afghan Film "Osama" Depicts Taliban Tyranny Against Women

Afghan ambassador says film marks revival of country's culture and art

By Stephen Kaufman
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- U.S. government leaders and Afghanistan's ambassador to the United States gathered at the Washington office of the Motion Picture Association of America February 12 for a special screening of "Osama," the first film Afghanistan has produced since the Taliban regime took power in Kabul in 1996.

The event, co-sponsored by Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton (Democrat from New York) and Kay Bailey Hutchinson (Republican from Texas), called attention to the five years of suffering women endured under Taliban rule.

The film tells the story of an Afghan girl forced to disguise herself as a boy named Osama in order to find work and feed her family. It has received international acclaim, winning the Golden Globe award for best foreign film in 2003.

"Tonight we will experience for one hour what Afghan girls experienced for five years," said Afghanistan's Ambassador to the United States Said Tayeb Jawad at a reception before the screening. Noting the connection between the film's title and the name of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, Jawad said, "Long before September 11th, that name has terrorized and victimized the Afghan people."

"The actors in ‘Osama' have lived and experienced the pain that they portrayed on the screen," he said. The film's thirteen-year-old star, Marina Golbahari, once lived as an illiterate street beggar in Kabul, and "her eyes and expressive face connect the audience to the determination, struggle and hardship of Afghan women and children," he said.

Many other cast members were inhabitants of orphanages and refugee camps, according to a September 16, 2003 article by the Reuters News Agency.

Jawad said the film also showed the revival of Afghanistan's rich culture and art. It is the feature film debut of director Siddiq Barmak, who shot the film over six months on a small budget, often using borrowed equipment.

Nevertheless, said Barmak, in his September interview with Reuters, "Afghan cinema has a good future."

"I think it's a good way to introduce my country to the world. I think it's a good messenger, a good bridge between people for understanding each other," he said, adding that his film was a reaction to the horror of life under the Taliban.

Afghan women's activist Farida Azizi told the audience that although the film's plot might appear abnormal to western audiences, "when I lived in Afghanistan I saw many girls who pretended to be boys just to survive and support their families. Those brave girls risked their lives every day."

During the Taliban regime, Azizi secretly taught women basic business skills and found health care for the critically ill until she was forced to flee her country after the authorities threatened her family. Despite improvements following the regime's ouster in late 2001, she said Afghan women still need support to get education and training, especially in the country's smaller villages.

Under Secretary of State for Global Issues Paula Dobriansky described the film as "one of the most moving, gripping and sobering testaments to the horror of life under the Taliban," where women were prohibited from attending school, working, or making basic lifestyle choices such as the freedom of movement or marriage.

"‘Osama' does not have a happy ending," she said. "As with all too many people who lived under the Taliban, the main character in this film has some very traumatic experiences. But you can take some solace in the fact that ... the culprits identified in this film are gone from power, and our coalition is working with the people of Afghanistan to ensure that the egregious human rights violations are never again the norm in that country."

Dobriansky said post-Taliban civil society in Afghanistan "is making a comeback and is thriving," and praised the country's new constitution, which guarantees equal rights for women and men. She also noted that Afghan girls had returned in large numbers to the classroom.

Senator Clinton mentioned the work in Afghanistan of the non-profit organization Vital Voices (http://www.vitalvoices.org/), for which she and Senator Hutchinson serve as honorary co-chairs. The organization works to end worldwide human rights abuses, expand women's roles in society and increase their success as entrepreneurs.

Clinton announced the establishment of a Vital Voices Afghan-Iraq Women's fund, which will be used to support programs aimed at women's engagement in the democratization process in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and said United Artists, the U.S. promoter of "Osama," would be the first to make a donation.

In Afghanistan, she said, Vital Voices has already implemented a project to employ Afghan widows as seamstresses to make school uniforms for girls, with the cooperation of the U.S. Department of Labor led by Secretary Elaine Chao.

Speaking at the film screening, Secretary Chao said the project was part of a $6 million grant from her department, and has enabled Afghan women and girls to attend school, find work, and "build better lives for themselves and their families."

Chao also called attention to the plight of Iraqi women, having recently returned from a visit to a women's rights center in Hilla. The center, she said, was one of seventeen that have been established in that country to provide women with education and training in business skills and democratic participation. "These women are hungry for democracy and they want to participate fully in all aspects of their government," she said.

(Distributed by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)

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