When the Taliban took control of Kabul in 1996, television, music and movies were outlawed. Movie theaters were either shut down or destroyed. Then the U.S. invasion in 2001 ousted the group from Kabul, and the culture of cinema re-emerged, with dozens of movie theaters reopening across the city.
But the Taliban’s lasting hold on Afghanistan becomes clear with just a glance inside any of Kabul’s cinemas. The seats may be filled again, but only by men. Although legally women can go to the movies, culturally it is still considered taboo. Some people even declare the act haram – forbidden by Islamic law. And that attitude extends to most public areas in the country: Since Afghan society looks down on the mingling of men and women, there are few places where women can feel comfortable enjoying themselves. Public parks, cafes, restaurants and many other places where families might gather for fun are unofficially no-go areas for women.
Frustrated by the lack of truly family-friendly entertainment options, Abubakar Gharzai got together with five friends and built the Galaxy Family Cinema. With the aim of giving women a safe space to relax, away from the stares and sexually aggressive comments that men often subject them to in public, the theater runs family hours between 9:30 a.m. and 7 p.m. – no single men or unaccompanied boys are allowed. Screenings after 7:30 p.m. are open to anyone not attending with family.
“I was tired of taking my family to Qargha and Paghman, which is the only form of entertainment here,” says Gharzai. Qargha reservoir and Paghman valley, both situated only a few miles away, are popular places for families to picnic. But even there, women are restricted to designated areas – to step outside your picnic tent is to invite unwanted attention from passing men. Paghman also happens to be where Afghans watched a silent film for the first time in 1923. “We have built this cinema to help our women enjoy watching a movie on the big screen in an environment free of harassment,” Gharzai explains.
Since it opened about five months ago, the Galaxy Family Cinema has done fairly good business, according to Gharzai, despite limited marketing. The owners rely on word of mouth instead of advertising on billboards and TV, to avoid being targeted by conservative groups. According to Gharzai, more women than men attend the screenings, and reaction to the movie theater has been mixed.
“There are still some Afghans around who believe cinema is haram,” he says. “One man who previously worked for a soundproofing company was hired to work in the cinema hall during the first days of its construction. When he found out what exactly was being built, he gathered his tools and promptly left the job, saying he didn’t want to be a part of it.”
The anger is echoed on the cinema’s Facebook page, with some users calling the owners “infidels” for bringing western culture into Afghanistan. “Whatever you have built, may Allah destroy it. Instead of building a madrasa [school for Islamic instruction], you have built a cinema!” writes one user in Pashto.
But many others are rallying behind the cinema, showing their approval and enthusiasm both on social media and in person. Gharzai recalls one elderly man who came out of a screening with his family of 12 with tears running down his face. Reminded of his past, when families could go to the movies without controversy, the man said he was amazed by the mere existence of a family cinema in modern-day Afghanistan.
To the female moviegoers, the Galaxy is about more than just films. It’s about feeling safe enough to relax, for a few hours at least, without worrying about their scarf slipping off or being stared at by men.
“At first, my family got angry when I told them I went to this cinema. They thought it was an inappropriate place,” says Aqdas Ghanizada, who goes to the cinema twice a week with her college friends. “But when I brought [my family] along with me one day, they were impressed by the environment and the behavior of staff and now they happily allow me. I feel free when I am here.”