For on 40 years, the United States has been involved in Afghan affairs, whether secretly send weapons to Afghan “freedom fighters” or to the occupation of the country in an attempt to “liberate” it. Season after season, I’ve seen Afghan characters portrayed only as victims or perpetual warriors, unable to find stories about our diaspora culture that aren’t tied to war or political conflict.
“Secrets and Sisterhood: The Sozahdahs,” a new reality show premiering on Hulu/Disney+ June 7, follows the trials and tribulations of an Afghan family of 10 sisters based in Los Angeles. The series is structured like a nostalgic recipe from home: a few scoops of petty drama, a good dose of tension and seasoned with a subversiveness that marinates for 10 episodes.
For decades, most Hollywood films and television shows featuring Afghans were based on the war. Hollywood tends to portray brown characters from the Middle East or Central Asia as seasoned, frightening terrorists or helpless victims in need of a white savior. If you’re an Afghan millennial or older, you might remember watching Sylvester Stallone’s “Rambo III” (released in 1988, a year after I was born) fighting those evil Soviets massacring Afghan civilians in the countryside.
Years later, America’s attention once again turned to Afghanistan following the US invasion in 2001. At that time, Afghans were the focus of the hit film “The Kite Runner ”, based on the book of the same title by Afghan American. the novelist Khaled Hosseini. This story, although significant, recounted painful scenes of sexual assault and brutality against the backdrop of the rise of the Taliban.
Since then, we’ve had films like “The Outpost,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Lone Survivor,” “12 Strong,” “Charlie Wilson’s War,” “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” and “Rock the Kasbah.” All of these films featured white protagonists at the heart of the story, while the backdrop included a few Afghan characters or the country’s magnificent mountain ranges. Even when we were treated to a mainstream sitcom on CBS, “The United States of Al,” it was about an Afghan interpreter – not played by an Afghan, by the way – supporting a troubled white veteran post-traumatic stress. Time and time again, everything about Afghans consistently focused on one thing: war, loss, and displacement. It may come as a surprise, but we, as a people, also know joy.
Afghans represent much more than the suffering we have endured because of these conflicts. We are not just victims. Our stories are complicated, layered, messy and modern. And for better or worse, “Secrets and Sisterhood” is the first mainstream product to come out of Hollywood that managed to convey that to the general public.
The show is as ridiculous as it is refreshing. The sisters, decked out in designer clothes and brimming with confidence, bicker passionately over trivial things, then quickly turn to important topics like domestic violence or miscarriages. This makes the series revolutionary if you compare it to what Hollywood has sold us in the past. Here are 10 Afghan sisters, undeniably in control of every aspect of their lives, showcasing a side of them that seems, well, foreign. Unlike the submissive female characters of the past, these sisters are chaotic, powerful, and raunchy, giving us a Kardashian vibe with a little more culture.
The show discusses the complexity of assimilation that so many immigrant communities face as we try to find the right balance between honoring our elders and fighting against the heteronormative and patriarchal norms that are too often attached to our traditions . In the show, one of the younger sisters quickly comes out as queer on the show. In upcoming episodes, we follow her struggle to stay true to herself while battling the rejection that queer and trans people of color so often face from our own elders “at home.”
For many of us, these are relatable storylines. These experiences, however, are not specifically Afghan. They are intrinsically human. Hollywood and the media have failed to give this simple nuance to Afghans and other communities for so long and often to our detriment. In fact, it reinforces orientalist stereotypes that people are addicted to war or women need rescuing.
In one season, “Secrets and Sisterhood” did more to introduce American audiences to our beauty and culture than decades of war stories did for us. Hell, this show features more Afghan women than any congressional hearing has ever had. It can be said that the bar was low. Yet this bar was set by Hollywood executives who could only consider us an afterthought and failed to hire talented screenwriters from the Afghan American community to tell real stories.
To be fair, many Afghan Americans will say they won’t see themselves in the Sozahdahs. They are brash, rich and dramatically over-the-top. I think that’s exactly the point. These sisters are surrounded by abundance while scarcity was instilled in us from a young age.
Too often, the media wants to present the diaspora, immigrants, and communities of color as having a monolithic experience, arguing that there is no room for complexity, nuance, or even multiple experiences in pop culture. Depictions of a community like ours are so rare to begin with that Americans were only allowed to digest one perspective and one experience of Afghans.
“Secrets and Brotherhood” proves that our existence in this country is both difficult and rich, worthy of examination and celebration.