Sonia Sarwari is a celebrity in Afghanistan. Turn the TV on any given day, and her face is bound to sooner rather than later. The 20 year old has been in countless adds, music videos TV series and recently signed five films with a major production company--the first one to emerge after the fall of the Taliban regime, which had banned acting, music and television.
But here fame doesn't come with perks and glory. Sonia shows us a video taken with her smart phone of her patched eye. The nature of her job means she is considered fair game for constant harassment and insults for being "too liberal."
Even though women have gained some tenuous rights since the religious fundamentalists were toppled, society is still ultra conservative. The most vicious attack on Sonia came one night when she was walking to her male colleagues' car after attending a festival. For this simple act she had acid thrown in her face. Luckily doctors acted fast, and her eye, and appearance, was saved. She says the attacker was probably outraged by the fact that she was leaving home late accompanied by a man that was not her husband or relative.
Wearing western clothes, or makeup and working still carries a huge stigma in Afghanistan. Just three months ago an actress that Sonia knew was murdered. She was not friends with her, but was shocked to hear the news. "You cannot trust anyone here, it's a dangerous place", she says, kohl-rimmed eyes wide with terror.
Sonia still lives at home with her parents and younger sister, in a small apartment in Kabul. It's a modern building, with floors covered in traditional Afghan-style carpets where the family sits to eat or have their tea. Sonia's high-risk income is vital--she supports her entire family. She shows as a few of her commercials in her laptop. Television personalities here have to do it all: sing, act and endorse products like energy drinks or cell phone providers.
Most advertisements are shot in one day, and can pay up to 200 dollars--more than the minimum salary for an entire month for most people here. Sonia's father Muhammad Sarwari says he would have liked to have a son, but adds that he is proud of Sonia, and supportive of her career. Since the attack he picks her up after work every day.
"Now I'm famous friends and colleagues appreciate me. I'm happy but I would be happier if the conditions for women in Afghanistan were better. Girls should be able to move freely, go to the movies or wherever they want," she says.
Women here acknowledge that there is a painful double standard at work. While the international community has tried to empower local activists and promote gender equality, with local female role models much admired by foreign organizations, they simply do not have grassroots support. In fact, a large portion of Afghan society rejects what they do--women included. Many say the litmus test will come at the end of 2014 when foreign troops leave the country. An aspiring actress we spoke to, who preferred not to be named, said she will be on stand by next year, ready to move out of the country if the security situation deteriorates further.