By Pary Shuaib – Leena Alam is a well-known actress and advocate from Afghanistan. She has won awards for her roles in movies including Unknown, Moving in a Circle, and Qamar, and is celebrated as the star of a feminist show titled Shereen that aired on Afghanistan’s most prominent Television station, Tolo. In addition to her groundbreaking work in cinema, a male-dominated field in Afghanistan and around the world, Alam is an outspoken supporter for equality and progress in Afghanistan. We recently had the chance to speak with her about what drives her work…
Tell us about how you started working as an actress. How did you think of this career path that is thought unconventional for women?
Leena Alam: I never thought about being a woman and being an actress in the same context because I was passionate about acting from a very young age. When the opportunity presented itself, I didn’t hesitate.
What are some of your positive experiences during your journey as an actress?
Leena: I think I have a lot of positive experiences while working on different projects. My favorite parts of the job are meeting new and interesting people, visiting extraordinary places which otherwise would have been not possible, and learning from fellow actresses, actors, directors and others participating in the projects that I was part of. The greatest experiences that I have had was playing and temporary living the characters and giving voice to those that their voice or faces may have otherwise gone without notice.
Why do you think it is important to have more Afghan women involved in acting, filming, photography, and other forms of visual and performance art?
Leena: It all depends on one’s own choice and selection of career, but I do think that women are equally talented and can be creative if given the opportunity. It would be a terrible shame if the creativity and voices of women were silenced or pushed aside into the shadows. Having more women on the field means an opportunity for all our talents to shine and be brought to life. That is why, it is very important to provide equal opportunities for women in the arts.
In addition to being a famed actress, you are known as a voice for equality. We are still in awe of your activism following Farkhunda’s brutal murder. Tell us about why you did a public reenactment of the lynching of this young woman to commemorate her and demand justice.
Leena: I felt that Farkhunda was not given a chance to speak her side of the story. She was judged, prosecuted, and murdered without having an opportunity to defend herself. I wanted to be a voice in her defense, and give her a voice when she was not allowed. I felt it my sacred duty to defend Farkhunda as an example of the thousands of women who have been killed without justice. I am saddened to say that Farkhunda’s murder was not an isolated case. There are many many more Farkhundas whose voices and lives go to waste in tragic ways And I will continue raising my voice even if it is by ensuring that in every role I choose, I will be able to tell Afghan women’s stories and experiences.
What are your dreams for Afghan women?
Leena: My dream, actually it may not be a dream anymore, is to see strong, courageous, and aware women emerging to take part in all aspects of Afghanistan’s society, and claim their right and place. Still there are many women who live in fear and in the shadows of their male counterparts. For those women, I want freedom and the courage to be able to recognize their value and come forward when they are treated unfairly. I am certain this will take time- perhaps generations. However, in the meantime even if one woman recognizes her power and courage and comes to the realization that she is worthy, many more will follow. Although change will take time, but without the fight of that one woman, it will certainly be impossible.
What have been some of your biggest challenges as an Afghan woman and as an actress?
Leena: There were definitely times when I wanted to give up on a project that we were working on, but I kept myself motivated as I saw how much need there was. In today’s Afghan society, both being a woman and an actress come with challenges because neither get enough respect. As an actress, you are disrespected because you are thought to be doing something demeaning and lowly. Many think that women like me- an actress- are filthy and will contaminate or infect the society with immorality. And even when you are finally able to cope with people’s misconceptions towards your profession, as a woman, you are always concerned about security. What if someone puts acid on you, or, blows himself on your production set, or drops a bomb on your workplace, which that has happened to me. These thoughts haunt you daily. Insecurity is the biggest challenge.
What tips do you have for women pursuing acting? Or other young afghan women who look up to you as a role model?
Leena: As an Afghan woman, regardless of what you want to do in life, you need three things to go forward: a strong will, extreme patience, and the courage to fight without giving up. I want to insist that, with all the difficulties and challenges, you should not give up your dreams and should not stop fighting. Those who succeed will open doors for others to follow.
Read this piece in Persian here. Translation by Free Women Writers member, Rohina Sidique.
About the author
Pary Shuaib is a Free Women Writers member with a relentless passion for gender equality. She has a BA in Communication from George Mason University and sometimes does yoga to soothe her soul.
This article previously ran on Free Women Writers and is republished on Women You Should Know with express permission from the organization. Photos provided by Leena Alam and republished here with her permission.