A voice for Afghan women: Roya Sadat believes in the power of film to create positive change

A voice for Afghan women: Roya Sadat believes in the power of film to create positive change
Roya Sadat was one of the first female filmmakers to make her name after the fall of the Taliban: “I turned to cinema when I had a lot of things to say; I had come from a very oppressive period.” (Supplied)
Short Url
Updated 03 March 2020

A voice for Afghan women: Roya Sadat believes in the power of film to create positive change

A voice for Afghan women: Roya Sadat believes in the power of film to create positive change
  • “I feel concerned when I remember how we had simply been forgotten during the five-year Taliban rule until 9/11 happened”

KABUL: For a generation, Roya Sadat has been a voice for Afghan women in one of the world’s worst places to be one.

One of the first female filmmakers to make her name after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, she has won plaudits at home and abroad for works such as “A Letter to the President” and “Three Dots.”

She has lived through the Soviet occupation — fleeing with her family for their lives at times —endured the brutality of civil war, and then the violent oppression of Taliban rule, where women existed only in the shadows and basic freedoms were lost.

Her fear is a return to that fundamentalism: The Feb. 29, US-Taliban deal may be a potential first step for peace in a nation that for decades has only known war, but it offers no guarantees the few women’s rights set out in the current constitution will be upheld.

“I feel concerned when I remember how we had simply been forgotten during the five-year Taliban rule until 9/11 happened,” said the 37-year-old. “If the international community approaches (Afghanistan) as an open-and-shut scenario and abandons us again, there will undoubtedly be grave consequences.”

Almost 39 percent of girls go to secondary school according to World Bank figures for 2017, while USAid says that of the 300,000 students in universities, about one third are female, citing figures from the Afghan Ministry of Higher Education. These figures are predominantly for urban areas but 20 years ago it would have been all but impossible everywhere.

“There are many good changes happening, coming from the heart of society,” Sadat said, but concedes there is a huge amount to be done.

Afghanistan ranks last in the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security index which measures well-being and self-reliance. In rural areas, female literacy can be less than 2 percent and rights are often even more constrained by tradition. She is not alone in fearing that the small inroads made in women’s rights may disappear — in urban centres young people have grown up listening to music, watching television, and more recently accessing the Internet and social media. Many have only seen the Taliban on the news.

Sadat, who has been writing stories, poems and plays since she was a young girl, recalls how her life ground to a halt in 1996 as the Taliban rolled in.

Schools closed, women were confined to their homes, the televisions and radios stopped playing. A precocious teenager, she continued to write indoors, and read books on directing from her father’s collection.

She was allowed to work as a nurse as women could only get female medical help, and even set up clandestine cultural performances of her plays in the hospital, even though the head of it was linked to the Taliban.

“It was very dangerous. I still find it hard to believe that we were able to,” she said.

Her first work, “Three Dots,” which tells the tale of a single mother who is forced to marry a warlord and become a drug smuggler, was penned during this period, but only made — using simple equipment — once the regime changed and she could channel all the knowledge accrued from surreptitious reading into real-world creativity.

This determination and persistence has defined her career, and she feels strongly that film has a social purpose.

The mother-of-two said: “I turned to cinema, when I had just come out of an era of suffocation, and had a world to express.

“I strongly believe in cinema and that this is the most important art that can influence a positive change in our society. But change cannot come overnight. The change has to come to the thoughts and minds of people.”

In her twenties she set up an independent film company — Roya Film House with her sister Alka — and was awarded a scholarship to study film in South Korea.
She has also written television dramas for prominent media firm Moby Group.

From the outset she has faced questions from her family and criticisms from the community, but she argues that when locals come to see her work — they understand.

Her 2017 film “A Letter to the President,” shows a woman slapping back at her violent husband when he hits her, before accidentally killing him.

Sadat recalls how she expected a “bad reaction” because of the taboos surrounding female behaviour. Instead the audience applauded during the slap scene.

Cinema remains contentious in parts of the country, and her productions, which shine a light on female inequality and repression, controversial.

She was given the International Woman of Courage Award in 2017.


Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai in custody after fraud charge

Updated 03 December 2020

Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai in custody after fraud charge

Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai in custody after fraud charge
  • Authorities have intensified a crackdown on key opposition figures in the Chinese-ruled city
  • ‘This is about dirtying Jimmy up. It’s Beijing’s policing brought to Hong Kong’

HONG KONG: Hong Kong media tycoon and pro-democracy activist Jimmy Lai was denied bail on Thursday on a charge of fraud related to the lease of a building that houses his Apple Daily, an anti-government tabloid.
Authorities have intensified a crackdown on key opposition figures in the Chinese-ruled city since Beijing circumvented the local legislature and imposed sweeping national security legislation on the global financial center on June 30.
While Lai’s fraud charge did not fall under the national security law, it marks the latest crackdown on pro-democracy figures in the former British colony, which was handed back to Beijing in 1997 with a promise to maintain the free-wheeling city’s way of life for 50 years.
Critics say the law crushes freedoms in the global financial center, while supporters say it will bring stability after prolonged anti-China, pro-democracy protests last year.
On Wednesday, one of Hong Kong’s most prominent democracy activists Joshua Wong was jailed for more than 13 months for his role in an unlawful anti-government rally in 2019, the toughest and most high-profile sentencing of an opposition figure this year.
Lai, 73, and two senior executives of his company Next Digital, were charged on Wednesday on suspicion of concealing from and falsely representing the use of their office to their landlord, a public corporation set up by the Hong Kong government.
The charge stated they were not using the office space as permitted under the lease between 2016 to 2020, and had sub-let a part of the premises, resulting in benefits to Apple Daily.
Reuters was not immediately able to reach Lai or his lawyers for comment. Next Digital suspended trading on Thursday morning, pending an announcement containing “inside information.”
“This is about dirtying Jimmy up. It’s Beijing’s policing brought to Hong Kong,” Mark Simon, an associate of Lai, told Reuters.
An ardent critic of Beijing, Lai has been detained since Wednesday after reporting to the police for his arrest in August. Prosecutors applied to adjourn the case until April next year, according to local media.
In August, Lai was arrested after about 200 police officers swooped on his offices. Hong Kong police later said they had arrested nine men and one woman for suspected offenses including “collusion with a foreign country/external elements to endanger national security, conspiracy to defraud” and others.
Suspicion of colluding with foreign forces carries a maximum sentence of life in jail under the new security law.
Lai has been a frequent visitor to Washington, where he has met officials, including US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, to rally support for Hong Kong democracy, prompting Beijing to label him a “traitor.”
The security law was introduced on June 30 and punishes anything China considers subversion, secession, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison.