Osama (review 1)

Barmak's loosely fact-based story of a family of women forced to invert the Taliban's strict gender order is a stark reminder that some feminists are more equal than others. Tamlyn Monson reviews Osama.

Tamlyn Monson, 16 March 2004

In the wake of Taliban, water cannons are unleashed to disperse a march for women's right to work, and a sodden burkha slides wetly along the muddy street. If only the divide it represents could be so easily washed away.

Osama examines the precarious existence of women under Taliban forces - their claustrophobically narrow horizons and the grave plight faced by those who don't belong to a man in a world that offers unattached women virtually no public life.

the conditions of Muslim women under fundamentalist rule became a feminist bandwagon

The connection between Osama Bin Laden and Afghanistan brought the plight of Afghan women to the fore once more in 2001/2002 - a valid cause rather dubiously plumped to help justify American intervention in Afghanistan after 9/11. Consequently, in my experience at least, objections to the conditions of Muslim women under fundamentalist rule became the feminist bandwagon of the moment, and in the press and at dinner tables across the nation, the usual slings and bows were drawn in the rhetorical trenches of fundamentalist cultural relativism versus precocious Western feminism.

Barmak's film exposes the flaws of both camps, revealing women's issues that are at once a question of universal human rights and of a uniquely local concatenation of cultural practice and dire need.

The film begins with a demonstration that quickly exposes the chasm between Western feminist concerns and those of these blue-veiled women: a placard justifying this collective action reads: "We are not political. We are hungry". The motivation for this demand for the right to work issues not from an overtly feminist desire for ideological revolution or an ideal of women's liberation, but from the more urgent and immediate need to eat.

In the village in which the film is set, widows of the Kabul and Russian wars, and those without the good fortune of sons left behind to take care of them, face possible starvation with no means of earning a living. Even if they manage to work surreptitiously - an act which under the capricious whim of the Taliban leaders carries the risk of capital punishment - they are doubly constrained by rules that restrict their mobility. A woman may not be seen unaccompanied in the street, and is therefore effectively confined to the home in the absence of a husband or male sibling.

So it is that the unnamed protagonist, a 12-year-old girl played by Marina Golbahari (recruited by the director while begging in Kabul), is disguised as a boy by her mother and grandmother, and sent out to work in a desperate attempt to secure the three women's survival. Drafted into religious education with other village boys, and assigned the name 'Osama', she is ultimately, and very literally, betrayed by her sex and abandoned to her fate according to the Taliban version of justice.

one is poignantly aware of one's own privilege as a Western feminist

When the credits begin to roll, one is poignantly aware of one's own privilege as a Western feminist. We may leave the cinema and this experience, behind; I, for example, went out, bought lunch, contemplated 'women's issues', and then returned to a room of my own to write a review. In the meantime, somewhere on the other side of the world, thousands of women must continue to tolerate quotidian hardship. However far we may have to go in securing equal rights in our own society, however valid our complaints about gilded cages, unrealistic body images, and unequal pay, we have the unimaginable luxury of taking for granted our freedom of movement and the food on our tables.

While reminding Western feminists that women cannot yet speak with one voice, Osama also provides a grave lesson for extreme ethical relativists who decry the imposition of 'Western' standards (a.k.a. 'human rights') upon other cultures, effectively championing the supposed 'cultural integrity' of abusive states and nations whose 'culture' is assumed to speak equally for those it deems invisible.

Sadly, this vision of women's lives is not entirely a ghost of Afghanistan's past. According to a recent Amnesty International report, Afghan women's most basic human rights are still something of a mirage in the middle distance, with forced underage marriages, physical abuse, sexual violence, and imprisonment without proper trial still occurring on a large scale.

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