Life as an Afghan Soap Opera Actress

This article is from the archive of our partner .

What's it like to be an actress in Afghanistan's first-ever soap opera? In a country where female stardom is taboo and where both sides of the 30-year-war routinely subjugate, harass, and brutalize women, it's not like starring in an American soap opera. The New York Times Magazine's Elizabeth Rubin interviews the female actresses of "The Secrets of This House." Her story also includes a captivating photo gallery. Many have been threatened, harassed, or disowned for daring to appear on television. Rubin writes of one actress, "Was it a métier, a calling? Not really. It was a job. She has been acting now for three years. Often she finds herself acting her own life out onstage."

Arzoo, who portrays Soraya, comes from such a conservative Pashtun family that when she became an actress, she says, her uncle tried to kill her and the neighbors beat up the taxi drivers who took her home. Since childhood she had dreamed of being an actress. She refused to give up. “My family were very close, but once they saw me onscreen, they disowned me,” she whispered to me in a corridor of the Tolo TV set. “My father said if you are happy to work in films, you are dead for us. You are not our daughter.”

Every single woman I met working on “The Secrets of This House” faces scorn, ostracization and even death threats. “We are hypocrites,” Mohseni told me. “We all watch TV, but we don’t want women to appear on TV.” Actually it’s not that they don’t want women on TV — dancing Indian girls are as popular as ever. It’s that families don’t want their women to be on TV. Arzoo’s father told her, “You took all the honor of our family away.” And it is this honor — the family asset — that is at stake in every women’s issue in Afghanistan. If the honor is tainted, the family is tainted.

Rubin also talks to the women for their thoughts on the ongoing peace process, which includes a possible role in the government for Taliban leaders who renounce violence.

We were discussing the possibility of official negotiations with the Taliban. “If the Taliban come back, they’d behead all of us,” Shekiba said.

Abada, who’d been quiet, jumped in: “There’s no need for the Taliban to come back. Even now my brother-in-law tells my husband that he’s not a man anymore because I appear on television.” And then out flowed Abada’s life story. “I still think of suicide,” she said, “but then who will take care of the children? I have to pay the rent, feed them, my daughter has a liver problem. It’s for these reasons that I act, though I take so much humiliation for it, even my fellow teachers tell me things. . . . ” She broke off. She cried. Her daughter fiddled with a string hanging off her school backpack. Everyone in the room became sad. Then the assistant director, a woman named Shahla Rachidi, leaned in the door and asked us to be quiet for the shoot.

Here is a documentary on "The Secrets of This House," which includes revealing snippets of the show:

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.