Watch Jane Ferguson’s report this evening at 9 p.m. ET on America Tonight.
After being violently raped, a woman stands alone, naked and shaking. It’s the kind of scene not usually found in Afghan cinema. In fact, it’s one of the first Afghan movies to openly deal with sexual violence at all.
“The Icy Sun” was shot over a year ago in Kabul, and the movie’s star, Fereshta Kazemi, has struggled to make sure it’s shown uncensored. For her, the scene of a woman coping with her rape is poignant and important in a country where violence against women is widespread and largely unpunished.
“We have seen lots of rape scenes in cinema, because cinema is global,” explained 34-year-old Kazemi. “But this is a scene where she is just alone in the bathroom with herself, dealing with the wounds on her body. And the body is something that for an Afghan woman is not discussed, but yet those are the things that are violated, and that’s the thing that’s under dress and under control. It’s this big elephant in the room.”
It’s an aptly-timed premiere. Violence against women hit a record high in Afghanistan last year, the country’s human rights commission reported earlier this month, and the documented crimes are increasingly brutal. Forced marriages are pervasive, and 95 percent of the girls and half the women in prison are there for “moral crimes,” Human Rights Watch found, like fleeing domestic violence or having sex outside of marriage. According to a Thomson Reuters Foundation survey, Afghanistan is the most dangerous country to be a woman.
‘How Afghan are you?’
Kazemi was born in Afghanistan, but moved to Los Angeles as a child. In 2012, she returned to her native Kabul to act in Afghan movies. She is a thoroughly modern Afghan-American, passionate about challenging conservative interpretations of her culture. But her work, and what she represents, makes her a clear target for the Taliban. In Afghanistan, disapproval often comes in the form of a bullet.
There’s the case of Shaima Rezayee, who was a rising star in post-Taliban Afghanistan. As the first Western-style music presenter to ever appear on Afghan TV, she developed an enormous youth following. In 2005, she lost her job under criticism from Islamic clerics. A couple months later, Rezayee was shot dead in her Kabul home at the age of 24.
Then, there’s TV journalist Shakiba Sanga Amaj, a 22-year-old who anchored a popular show and was killed in her Kabul home in 2007. A few days later, three heavily-armed men entered the home of female journalist Zakia Zaki, who owned Afghan Radio Peace, north of Kabul, and killed her in front of her 8-year-old son.
But Kazemi rejects living in a Western compound with high security and private drivers. Loneliness is already the next greatest enemy. It’s tough, she admits, to gain acceptance from the locals, who don’t see her as one of their own.
“They want to focus on the scope of, 'How Afghan are you? And how much am I more than you?'” Kazemi said. “And I think the scope should be: Where are we going? What is it now? What's possible?”
Kazemi is unapologetic and indignant that anyone should be able to define what being Afghan is, and what it isn’t.
“I believe that nobody really owns culture, even if people try to take it by force,” she said. “We all share in culture. And what I do in art and cinema is I share in culture."
Not your mother’s Afghanistan
Before the first uncensored screening of her film, Kazemi decided to get a special dress tailored. It’s a hip sea-green number, hemmed at mid-thigh. She said it’s a tribute to her mother, who attended Kabul University in the 1960s. That was a more tolerant time, although dresses like Kazemi’s were the luxury of a small elite.
“When I was growing up in the U.S., I heard from all her girlfriends that she had the highest grades, and it had an enormous impact on me and made me motivated,” Kazemi said. “So I am so proud, I am proud of my parents’ history. And I feel like it’s being silenced.”
Kabul’s reign as the “the Paris of Central Asia” was brief. The 1978 coup set off three decades of conflict, causing elites to flee and extremism to flourish. Kazemi must dance a delicate line now, trying to push boundaries without going so far that her message is dismissed.
Asked whether she wants to be accepted, Kazemi replied: “Well, I haven’t posed in girls’ magazines, so to some extent, yeah, why not? But then to another extent I’m an artist and I am expressing myself and I can’t express myself honestly – and honesty is a big part of art – if I’m going to be worried about them accepting me.”
But Kazemi is outraged by the idea that she is any less of a Muslim for how she dresses and the way she behaves.
“I am Muslim. I believe in God,” she declared. “And I’m modern, and there’s hundreds of thousands of Muslims and other Afghans that are, and millions of other people….Why would we be born into modern cultures, raised in modern cultures, but still be connected to the religion, if it wasn’t a part of ‘the plan,’ the bigger plan?”
Members of the press and Kabul’s artistic community gathered for the first uncensored screening of “The Icy Sun” last February. But many of the seats were empty. Kazemi was undeterred, cheerfully setting up an iPad, so that director Ramin Mohammadi, who was out of the country, could participate in a Q&A on Skype.
In the end, the challenge of getting the movie aired in Afghanistan paid off. She told Fox News that young female fans have flocked to her, kissing her with happiness over the movie’s honesty. And at the second International Afghanistan Human Rights Festival in October, Kazemi took home the Best Actress Award.