A Depiction of Women Enslaved

First post-Taliban film depicts the horror of government-sanctioned misogyny

We have heard tales of life under the Taliban, how the social repression of woman in an impoverished Afghanistan made it one of the world’s most misogynistic societies. Now, with the release of “Osama,” the first Afghan film made since the Taliban’s fall after the U.S. invasion, these former daily miseries are vividly, unsparingly depicted on film.

The story opens during Taliban rule with a foreign journalist videotaping women in bright blue burkas demonstrating for the right to work. Many of the women are widows. Others are virtual slaves; by forbidding women to hold jobs, the Taliban literally keeps them from being able to stay alive without a man.

Government enforcers arrive and the rights-conscious women are brutally hunted down, beaten, sprayed by water cannons, and later locked up in chicken-wire cages.

Unlike other periods in human history when tyrants persecuted particular ethnic, racial or religious minorities, the persecution here is driven by hatred for the female gender––not just foreign women or educated women or rich women, but any woman.

Mandating the wearing of burkas allows men to depersonalize the strictures they inflict on women. The burka serves double duty; it allows women to be identified as such, as if forcing their very gender to betray them, to make them vulnerable.

In “Osama,” we witness the institutionalized misogyny through the eyes of a 12-year-old girl whose mother, a doctor, can only earn money if the male relatives of her patients are willing to escort her through the dangerous streets, pretending to be her husband or another male relative.

It sounds very much like “The Handmaid’s Tale,” but it’s all shockingly true.

As earning opportunities for the mother dwindle, the grandmother suggests that the girl be disguised as a boy. Her hair is cut and her clothes tailored. An old friend of her father’s is pressed into taking on the “boy,” as his shop assistant.

Now named Osama, she nervously navigates her daily life, terrified of exposure. Particularly unnerving is the day when the Taliban rounds up every pubescent boy in the village to send them for religious instruction. It doesn’t take long for the boys to notice that Osama has many feminine features. Going hand-in hand with the misogyny is a good dose of homophobia. Osama is chased around the courtyard and forced to prove her masculinity by climbing a tree. Eventually, she is punished and hung by her wrists inside a well—for being feminine and causing a ruckus.

In one of its more perverse moments, an elderly mullah instructs the boys how to ritually bathe after waking from their wet dreams, and notices Osama, wistfully calling “him” a nymph. It’s a moment of multiple tensions for all, including the audience. The mullah’s gaze is oddly lustful. The girl of course is reluctant to undress––in an anxious moment reminiscent of the circumcised protagonist of “Europa, Europa” fearing exposure as a Jew in the shower at a Nazi school.

What’s particularly frightening is how the horrors in Afghanistan are real enough, and on top of it, the girl has imagined horrors as well. In one particularly memorable sequence, Osama nervously runs home with a melon, convinced she’s being followed.

The out-of-focus figure of a lone, turbaned man at the end of her alley is sheer terror, and possibly invented in her mind. The Taliban’s enslavement of women might very well have caused this sort of hallucination.

Director Siddiq Barmak does a remarkable job of juxtaposing the terror of the Taliban’s tactics with the hopes and joys of a young girl with everyday wishes. While enduring all of these abuses, she still day dreams of being free, of jumping rope, something so simple and pleasant, but something that could also get her killed.

Everything about this film is alien from an American perspective, not just the strict, fundamentalist interpretation of the Koran by observant Muslims, but also the devastating poverty and deprivations suffered by the people.

Everything about Afghanistan is bleak. Mud-brick buildings are the only structures that break up a dusty landscape. Decades of war and poverty have rendered the despots armed oppressors of their own wives and daughters. Attributing their legitimacy to divine approval legitimizes the abuse inflicted by cruel laws.

Women under Taliban rule were utterly powerless. Even an educated woman, like the girl’s doctor-mother, breaks down in tears and says to her own daughter, “Why couldn’t you have been a boy?”

Hers is a mournful wail that is echoed throughout the movie by these enslaved spirits. “Osama” is a film that offers very little hope for any woman living under these circumstances. And while the Taliban government may be vanquished, “Osama” makes it clear that the circumstances for further torment are still ripe for Afghanistan’s women.

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