Roya wants to take a job in a local media company, but her father and brother aren’t keen. “What is the need for a young girl to work outside?” asks her father, seated on a , the traditional Afghan low-seating cushions, sipping the customary post-dinner chai. Her brother chimes in with an answer. “There is no need for women to work,” he says.
And so begins the pilot episode of a series that is set to air on prime-time Afghan television in November.
The show, named after its central character, Roya, follows the life of the single, 20-year-old, educated woman in a post-Taliban Kabul, and that of her family – parents, two younger sisters and a brother. Inspired by the US hit show Ugly Betty, the series takes a lighter, and more humorous approach to some of the pressing challenges women face in . Its central message is that women should get out of the home and join the workforce.
Roya is the first woman in her family to seek employment. However, the challenges she faces go beyond having to convince her family to let her work. Roya’s experiences and interactions are often awkward, and complicated by characters who aren’t accustomed to being around working women.
“The story, infused with humour, traces Roya’s journey as much as that of the other characters who get to evolve and grow from the experiences of working alongside women,” says Masooma Ibrahimi, the show’s scriptwriter. “Over the course of 10 episodes, she encounters a variety of characters. Some are supportive and helpful, while others are negative and do not approve of the idea of women in offices,” she adds.
The show is funded by the Promote project, which seeks to improve women’s lives, and produced by Kabul-based Rumi Consultancy.
Although loosely based on the concept behind the US sitcom, Roya travels in a different direction. “While the Ugly Betty premise is that she is just an awkward girl, in this programme it shifts to the main character being one of those Afghan girls who is the first in her family to enter the workforce,” explains Mina Sharifi, project lead with Rumi Consultancy. “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.”
Before writing the first draft of the script, the all-Afghan production team – the majority of whom are female – interviewed several working Afghan women to document their experiences, challenges and triumphs, to make the characters relatable.
“Right from the awkwardness of working with men, dealing with social pressure, and navigating the environment of an office in Afghanistan, these stories have happened to someone,” says Ibrahimi.
Lima Nawabzada, a 23-year-old production manager at Rumi Consultancy, was moved to tears when she saw the first episode. She saw herself in Roya, when the character takes her mother along with her for a job interview. “My mother and brother also accompanied me to the interview and to check the office environment,” she recalls, 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,” she says.
During decades of fighting, women in Afghanistan have been deprived of their basic rights. The Taliban government ushered in an era of extreme patriarchy that discouraged unaccompanied and uncovered women in public spaces. In July 2000 the Taliban issued a decree , the one sector in which they were allowed to work. Many women fought this and continued to study and work, at times discreetly and at great risk. Women who were caught outside their and usually without trial. While things improved after the fall of the Taliban, some into society.
After the Taliban’s fall and under US occupation, Afghan women quickly grabbed the opportunity to reclaim their rights and spaces in the society. The struggle, however, has never been easy. According to Afghan government data from 2014, was as low as 29% nationally. “Some families in Afghanistan still think that an office space is very bad for women,” says Ibrahimi, adding that working women are at times considered dishonourable and would bring shame to the family. “We made sure that such realities were represented fairly.”
Sharif adds: “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 fiance 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 says. “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.”
So what about Roya’s job? She does manage to convince her father to let her work and eventually becomes the main breadwinner for her family, and slowly changes the dynamics within it.
Perhaps Roya describes the struggle of Afghan women most accurately during her introduction in the pilot episode. “Women of [Kabul] have been through a lot. But women of this city are also, slowly and steadily, making their own destiny.”