Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 24, 2011

Silencing the Song: An Afghan Fallen Star

Filed under: Afghanistan,feminism — louisproyect @ 7:20 pm

In 2009 HBO aired the documentary “Afghan Star” that followed contestants from start to finish on Afghanistan’s version of “American Idol” or “Britain’s Got Talent”, including Setara Hussainzada, a young woman who scandalized the country by dancing—modestly–in her final performance and allowing her scarf to drop to her neck. This act was sufficient to cause her to be evicted from her apartment and to receive death threats.

On January 26th (8:00 to 8:45pm ET/PT) HBO will be presenting a follow-up documentary titled “Silencing the Song: An Afghan Fallen Star” that is a close-up study of what has happened to Setara since her ill-fated appearance.

As feisty as ever, Setara insists that she has done nothing sacrilegious. She now lives in Kabul, having left her native city of Herat where conservative Muslims continue to threaten her. Even in Kabul, there is constant harassment, even from the local authorities backed fully by the USA as a counterweight to the misogynist Taliban. During filming for the documentary, a squad of Afghan cops materializes at her apartment, supposedly to protect her. Setara views their intervention as nothing but a provocation and she berates them fearlessly.

One consolation is her marriage to a man who loves her and, just as importantly, defends her right to sing or dance without fear of reprisal. But he is forced to conceal his face from the camera in order to avoid being attacked by religious fanatics. They are expecting their first child as well, a prospect fraught with uncertainty.

I strongly urge you to rent “Afghan Star” from Netflix and to see this HBO follow-up on Wednesday. It is a reminder of the gender oppression that continues in Afghanistan despite efforts by the USA to associate abuses against women as solely the work of the Taliban.

These two fine movies directed by Havana Marking serve as companion pieces to Afghan legislator Malalai Joya’s “A Woman among Warlords”. She writes:

I am the youngest member of the Afghan Parliament, but I have been banished from my seat and threatened with death because I speak the truth about the warlords and criminals in the puppet government of Hamid Karzai. I have already survived at least five assassination attempts and uncounted plots against me. Because of this, I am forced to live like a fugitive within my own country. A trusted uncle heads my detail of bodyguards, and we move to different houses almost every night to stay a step ahead of my enemies.

To hide my identity, I must travel under the cover of the heavy cloth burqa, which to me is a symbol of women’s oppression, like a shroud for the living. Even during the dark days of the Taliban I could at least go outside under the burqa to teach girls in secret classes. But today I don’t feel safe under my burqa, even with armed guards to escort me. My visitors are searched for weapons, and even the flowers at my wedding had to be checked for bombs. I cannot tell you my family’s name, or the name of my husband, because it would place them in terrible danger. And for this reason, I have changed several other names in this book.

I call myself Joya — an alias I adopted during the time of the Taliban when I worked as an underground activist. The name Joya has great significance in my country. Sarwar Joya was an Afghan writer, poet, and constitutionalist who struggled against injustice during the early twentieth century. He spent nearly twenty-four years of his life in jails and was finally killed because he would not compromise his democratic principles.

Long live Setara! Long live Malalai Joya! Long live the struggle for freedom in Afghanistan!


  1. Of course this is directly tied in with the overthrow, and method of overthrow, of the government that issued out of the Saur Revolution (which banned the bride price and forced marriage, opened schools and jobs to women, helped them form militias to defend themselves, etc.). Yet many leftists cheered it on.

    Now the same U.S. that backed the Islamists and warlords props up “moderates” to counterbalance the Taliban? It would be a huge joke if the concrete results weren’t so damn sad.

    Comment by The Idiot — January 24, 2011 @ 7:47 pm

  2. I look forward to seeing this. Unfortunately, I did not have HBO when Woman Rebel, which I was also very excited about, premiered, but now I will finally be able to see these documentaries.
    I was also curious, do you plan on doing any pieces on the current upheavals in Tunisia and Egypt. I am asking, because I did a bit of digging (Wikipedia) and both ruling parties of the countries are nominally leftist, although I don’t know how that’s translated into practice, as I don’t know much about the politics of the region. So I was wondering if these protests are aimed against corruption, or the left-leaning policies of the governments. Again, I’m not sure just how left (the Wikipedia article on Egypt’s ruling party described it as center-left and affiliated with the socialist international) these governments really are.

    Comment by Rob — January 25, 2011 @ 6:09 pm

  3. Rob, your question shows the problem with only long at things in terms of political preference. Left or right. Who cares? Class content is what matters. Each class has its right and left wings, which change in size depending on circumstance. If the capitalists have best been able to rule for the last several decades in Tunisia and Egypt most effectively by relying on “left” strategies, that’s a benefit for them. But it’s meaningless for the workers who are ruled over. Being exploited by “left wing” bosses is no victory. The point is the elimination of classes and bourgeois politics with it.

    PS. The Mubarak dictatorship in Egypt is the second largest recipient of aid from the U.S. government. That should tell you something. Though with the “Social Forum” left being funded by capitalist states and major corporations I can see where you could be confused.

    Comment by The Idiot — January 26, 2011 @ 2:47 pm

  4. I am curious, where is Setara now? How has time helped or hurt her?

    Comment by Kim — February 7, 2013 @ 12:25 pm

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