KABUL, Afghanistan – When she returned to the country of her birth last year, 33-year-old Fereshta Kazemi was shocked to discover that fellow actresses in Afghanistan are often considered prostitutes.
“It’s true that that’s what many think, but are the actresses prostitutes? Absolutely not,” the Afghan-American said. “They’re taking a risk for art to represent our culture."
In a country where many see stepping onto a stage or in front of a camera as "un-Islamic," being an actor in the slowly evolving television and movie industry is less about fame and more about trailblazing.
And being a trailblazer comes with risks.
In August, an Afghan television actress was stabbed to death in the capital Kabul. Two surviving fellow actresses were also stabbed but then subjected to the ultimate indignity -- virginity tests at a local police station and prostitution charges.
Soon after, the country's most famous actress, Sahar Parniyan, went into hiding following a slew of death threats.
It isn't just women in the performing arts who have a difficult time. Twelve years after U.S.-backed forces toppled the Taliban, Afghanistan remains one of the most difficult countries in the world to be a woman or a girl.
There have been improvements. In 2004, the government signed into law a new constitution granting equality for all its citizens and ensuring women’s rights. And in 2009, the country passed the Elimination of Violence Against Women law, intended to protect women from abuse, rape, and forced marriages.
'Failure of imagination'
Despite the pledges to help improve women's lives, the country has one of the highest levels of maternal mortality and, according to U.N. estimates, around 90 percent of women suffer from some sort of domestic abuse.
Lawlessness is central to the problems facing Afghanistan's women, according to John Sifton, Asia advocacy director for the international organization Human Rights Watch.
"In the grand scheme of things, sure it has been a huge improvement (for women in Afghanistan) since the late 1990s, but it remains very, very difficult for women to go about activities that they are able to in neighboring Pakistan and even neighboring Iran … including acting," he said.
He called it an "enormous failure of imagination" to have laws that enshrine women's rights but largely exclude women from being involved in the legal and law enforcement system.
It is within these constraints that a tiny group of brave women decided to become actresses.
The profession has thus taken on an altruistic quality in Afghanistan, where the entertainment scene is reemerging in fits and starts after decades of violence and suppression by the Taliban.
“Most of the time (actors) haven’t had the opportunity to express this love for the arts," said Mina Sharif, an Afghan-Canadian TV and film producer in Kabul. "As soon as things were different here in the last 10 years or so, the boom in the art industry shows you that this was here all along, there just wasn’t the opportunity to express it.”
Sharif is currently producing a new series of Sesame Street for Tolo TV, the self-proclaimed most popular channel in Afghanistan.
The word “tolo” itself means sunrise or dawn in the native Pashto and Dari languages. It’s a fitting name, since producing shows and movies is new in the country. Resources are limited, as are the talent and money pools.
But perhaps the more significant hurdle is the attitude toward acting, and especially toward actresses.