My story is common among Afghan people. I was born to a middle-class family in Kabul months before 9/11. Back then, the Taliban regime was at the zenith of its power, having conquered most of the country.
At the time, my family saw no prospect for me growing up in Afghanistan. After all, girls were banned from going to school or even stepping out of their own homes without a male guardian. At the same time, Afghanistan was a country closed to the world. The economic situation was desperate and a sustained drought had destroyed what was left of the countryside’s farms.
It was then that my family decided to emigrate to Iran.
Life as a refugee was hard. My father had to do manual labor. But worst of all was the discrimination against Afghan refugees that we had to endure. Even though I was a child, I was not spared either.
From a very young age, I was obsessed about learning and going to school. But because Iran did not allow children without legal residency permit to attend school, I could not enroll in an Iranian school. As a child, I could not understand this. I remember crying every night in bed and begging my parents to enroll me in school. I would sit outside watching little girls of my age walking to school with their school bags. I remember I often imagined walking with them, wearing the uniform and having a school bag.
My parents finally found an Afghan-run school for me. I was elated! Now I could learn to read and write and walk to school with my favorite school bag.
A few years after 9/11, my family wanted to return to Afghanistan but we were constantly hearing about the war and how bad it was in the country. Finally, when I was around 13, my family decided to leave Iran and move to Kabul.
It was a joyous moment for me as a 13-year-old girl to return to my homeland, a place I had only dreamed about.
The first few years did seem like a dream to me. I was able to enroll in a school with no problem. I was excelling in my studies and dreamed of becoming a doctor. But when I was around 15, I faced a lot of harassment. This led me to seek seclusion and lose interest in my dreams. I was starting to feel depressed.
This was the moment when I came across a casting call on Facebook from Rumi Consultancy, which is an Afghan media and communications firm. They were looking for actors for a TV show to highlight the struggle of Afghan girls to seek acceptance and equal footing in the society. When I read through the script, I strongly related to the story of the main character, Roya, whose story was almost line by line my life story.
I decided to give it a shot even though I knew my family would oppose it and I had no acting background. So, I shared a photo of mine with the producers without letting my family know. In the context of Afghanistan, this was a huge risk.
To my utter surprise, I received a call from the producers to come for an audition. I was so nervous, I was literally trembling during the first audition. The producers noticed this. They told me that I didn’t do well but they were willing to give me another chance.
I left the audition thinking I was not going to be selected. I went home and waited. But I could not stop thinking about having the chance to play the story of my own life. After a few days, I went back for a second audition. This time I delivered the lines perfectly and I was selected.
Now I was nervous about telling my family. One evening over dinner, I broke the news to my parents. I told them that I was to play in a TV show as the main character. My father was furious.
“If you are doing this for money, I have enough money to support you and your brothers and sisters,” my father told me angrily. “What would people say about this? I’m unable to take care of my kids and my daughter has to work to feed us?”
My mother stood by me. I was persistent with full support from my mother. Finally, my father gave up. He told me through my mother that I could be part of the TV show.
I was ecstatic! And the filming began.
To be honest, with no background in acting, I was really struggling in the first three episodes. But thanks to the support of the producers of the show, I started to improve. At times, I actually cried in the show, especially during a scene when the character I was playing had to go to her father to ask his permission to get a job offer. The script was revised and the producers used the same lines that my own father had used when I was seeking his permission to act in the show.
After about eight months of shooting, the show premiered on January 31 of this year on Khurshid TV, one of Afghanistan’s top TV stations. It’s called “Roya” or “dream,” which is the name of the main character. It brings to the screen the many challenges Afghan girls face even in the post-2001 Afghanistan: harassment at school and at the workplace, undue restrictions at home from the family, and the enormous social pressure to always be on guard. Yet I hope that my part in the show inspires families to take a deeper look at the ambitions of their young daughters, who want to pursue their dreams and be active contributors to the development of Afghanistan.
As for me, I have bigger dreams now. I want to represent my country in the Oscars and walk with pride on the red carpet one day.
Mursal Abasi is an actress based in Kabul.