“There is no need for women to work,” says Roya’s father, after she says she wants to take a job at a local media company. Roya is the 20-year-old, single, educated star of a new 10-episode TV show of the same name in Afghanistan. It follows her as she joins the workforce in post-Taliban Kabul, as the first woman in her family to seek employment.
Although it was inspired by the hit US sitcom Ugly Betty, its creators say the show aims to dig a little deeper. And, of course, it sits in an altogether more complicated context. In 2000, the Taliban banned all Afghan women from taking jobs in aid agencies, the one sector in which they were allowed to work. Many women fought this and continued to study and work, often putting themselves at risk.
Women who were caught outside their homes, unescorted by a male relative, were punished, often subjected to public flogging and usually without trial. Some restrictions remain deeply embedded into society today, even though the Taliban no longer have control.
And, so, before writing the first draft of the script, the all-Afghan production team – most of whom are women – interviewed working Afghan women, to document their experiences in order to make the characters relatable.
“The awkwardness of working with men, dealing with social pressure, and navigating the environment of an office in Afghanistan, these stories have [all] happened to someone,” said the show’s screenwriter, Masooma Ibrahimi.
Mina Sharifi, the project lead with Kabul-based Rumi Consultancy, who produced the show, explained that, while the Ugly Betty premise is essentially her awkwardness, Roya focuses on being the first in the family to go to work. “In Afghanistan, especially in Kabul, there are so many girls like that. Being that first girl – as a sister, or a daughter – to make that shift, that’s where the stories come from.”
The storyline is already resonating with members of the crew and production team. Twenty-three-year-old production manager, Lima Nawabzada, was moved to tears seeing the similarities between her own life and the show, which is funded by USAID’s Promote project that seeks to improve women’s lives. “My mother and brother also accompanied me to the interview and to check the office environment,” she said, adding that the show accurately reflects the real problems of working women in her country. “I know a lot of girls who, like me, get uncomfortable working in a room full of boys who might not always be supportive.”
In 2014, women’s participation in the labour force was as low as 29%, nationally, according to data released by the Afghan government. “Some families in Afghanistan still think that an office space is very bad for women,” said Ibrahimi. Working women in the country can be considered dishonourable and bring shame to their families. “We made sure that such realities were represented fairly.”
Sharifi added: “A lot of thought was put into the characters to make sure they were balanced. While there are characters who support Roya, there is also one who is openly against working women. There’s another girl who’s defying her fiancé who doesn’t want her to work, and there’s also a man in the show who stalks Roya via texts, making references to workplace harassment, an increasingly common issue Afghan women face.”
“We are hopeful that this show can help change the overall narratives of working women in popular culture in Afghanistan,” Ibrahimi continued. “Sure, we still have some radicals in Afghanistan, but as part of the media it is our responsibility to inform and educate the public. If we can influence just one person we have made a worthy impact.”