An Afghan handmaiden’s tale

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Osama, by Afghan filmmaker Siddiq Barmak, provides a stunning and sobering view of life under the harsh fundamentalism of the Taliban.

The award-winning movie, the first film to be made in Afghanistan since the fall of the regime, brings home what it meant to live under their super-conservative military rule.

It tells the story of a small family of women: a loving grandmother, a frustrated and desperate widowed mother, and a 12-year-old daughter —all of them unnamed. Through them, one feels the impact of women being prohibited from working, from going out in public without a male escort, or from showing even a few inches of toe under the hem of the completely enshrouding burqa. For the huge number of widows in a country wasted by war, these laws amounted to a sentence of starvation.

Face-to-face with this prospect after her hopes of finding work are dashed, the mother mourns the fate of women and wishes she had a son instead of a daughter. The grandmother comes up with a solution: cut the young girl’s hair and dress her as a boy so she can find work to allow the family to survive.

Far from the Hollywood version. Such a remedy produces fairy-tale success in many familiar stories. But this was not to be under the patriarchs, who would consider the disguise an abomination punishable by death. The child does not want to take on the role. She is an average little girl, not a hero or even a tomboy. But there is no alternative. She is willing to try, though terribly afraid and totally unfamiliar with the complexities of boy-behavior.

Initially, the switch allows the girl to earn food by working for a struggling, but kind, shopkeeper who is brought in on the ruse. But soon things unravel when the mullahs require all village boys to attend school for religious and military training.

Swarmed by merciless classmates who taunt her for being effeminate, the girl has only one defender, a street urchin who knows her secret. He loudly insists that she is a boy and announces her name is Osama, in hopes, according to the filmmaker, of intimidating the others with the fearsome name of Osama bin Laden.

After nerve-racking trials and horrific punishment, the truth is inevitably discovered. The girl is sent to her fate, which unexpectedly is not death but something perhaps as bad. Without her, one imagines, the mother and grandmother meet a slow death.

Resistance: a redeeming reality. Osama tells a grim story. Yet in its midst are numerous instances of protest, solidarity and beauty.

In the early scenes of the movie, hundreds of women covered in blue burqas march through the streets demanding the right to work. “We are widows,” their banners say; “We are hungry.” The girl wants to run away, knowing the Taliban will soon arrive to break up the protest. But her mother seems immobilized by the sight of the women — perhaps wishing she could join them.

In another scene, when the mother loses her job in a hospital, a stranger puts himself at risk by claiming she is his wife and accompanying her home to prevent her arrest. The boy from the streets, too, while initially threatening to turn the girl over to the authorities, ends up her ally and teacher.

Ordinary men question the dictates of the mullahs. The women, amongst themselves, denounce the Taliban for leaving no option for survival except enslavement in forced marriages. In one striking scene, a mullah welcomes his unwilling child bride by offering her a choice of padlocks. Which one would she like to restrain her in her room?

The overpowering realism of the movie is aided by the fact that none of the actors are professionals; many had never seen a movie before. Their roles and their lives were closely intertwined.

The girl is beautifully played by Marina Golbahari, who was discovered begging on the street by the filmmaker. The young boy (Arif Herati) had been surviving by capturing and selling dogs. The mother (Zubaida Sahar) and grandmother (Hamida Refah) were recruited from refugee camps. The women protesters came from a Red Cross list of 4000 widows in need of humanitarian assistance.

Not a defense of U.S. war. Though it condemns the Taliban, the movie makes no argument for U.S. intervention against the regime it initially helped bring to power. In fact, the director says, since the end of the Taliban government “there are some changes, but no big change on the whole” for women. He explains, “Some girls now go to school and work, but most women are poor and uneducated, many have to beg and most are still afraid of the Taliban.”

And, one might add, of their counterparts in the U.S.-supported Northern Alliance.

Osama is a wrenching reminder of the human cost of U.S. policies of support to repressive dictatorships and of the instinct for solidarity and resistance that can’t be stopped — even when opposition seems impossible.

Helen Gilbert, an active foe of Taliban types whether they are in the Middle East or the White House, can be reached at

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