Thoughts On: Osama (2003)
A film made by Siddiq Barmak that chronicles the consequences of the Taliban closing down a hospital on a family of three women.
Osama is an overwhelmingly tragic film accumulated from real stories about the persecution of the Taliban during their rule over Afghanistan in the late 90s and early 2000s. In such, this follows a girl whose family has been left without any men due to the Soviet-Afghan War. Without any males in the family, it becomes incredibly hard to leave the house, let alone find work and food, due to the enforcement of an interpreted Sharia law by the Sunni Islamic fundamentalist Taliban. So, to find work and secure some source of income, the mother and grandmother of this family decide to disguise their daughter/granddaughter as a boy. However, working in a small milk shop and mistaken to be a boy, she is found and recruited into a military school by the Taliban where she is given the name Osama by a friend as a means of concealing the truth – an effort that becomes of apparent futility.
The core of this film is not just the voicing of numerous cases of inhuman persecution, but also an exploration of the established divide between men and women in this place and time. This is emphasised by the glimmers of Barmak’s original script – which was supposed to have been far more positive – that seep into this dismal tale. We see this as the grandmother tells a story about a rainbow, one that can be walked under to change the gender of a boy to a girl and vice versa. This story affirms the mother’s choice to send her daughter into the world as a boy, as it implies the facades that separate men from women can be shattered – in that the actions of people can hold equal weight; men and women can work as hard as one another, can provide for themselves and persevere in life.
It’s with this positive perspective that the absurdity of the gender-based oppression depicted becomes glaringly overt. And this is something that Roger Ebert picked up on as he suggests that this narrative seems to have come from a long-lost era of centuries ago. Ultimately, it’s this conflict between seeming normality, men and women being treated as equals, and arbitrary absurdity, as represented by the persecution of women in particular by the Taliban, that sets deep within you an immense inundation. What is then left to echo as this narrative concludes is a haunting and resounding, “Why?”.
The justification that the Taliban may have provided would have been founded in an interpretation of Pashtunwali ethical codes, which, non-written, is to be the way of life for the Pashtun (Eastern Iranian people who live in Pakistan and Afghanistan). With Pashtunwali ethical codes being integrated with further interpretations of Deobandi Islam, initially, a reactionary movement against British colonialism, the Taliban, among other things, meant to control the purity of women. In such, this regime was focused on the complete concealing of women from men; they could not be photographed, be present on the radio or television, be seen through windows or on balconies, nor without a burka, and they could not be heard in public – not their raised voice or their footsteps (hence the banning of high heels). This, of course, lead to the segregation of men and women – they could not be in mixed work places or schools, and could not be around one another in a public place without a mahram (a male blood-relative who is not marriageable).
What belies this persecution is then clearly a misogynistic fear of sexuality, one that is controlled through the supressive management of women. What this reveals about the narrative of Osama is the subtext of the rainbow story. The changing from girl to boy and vice versa, as motivated by the assumed benefits afforded by being of another gender, is about the bond humans share that were entirely disregarded by the Taliban and those alike. In such, instead of seeing the shared will to live, work and eat in all people, the Taliban only saw the human inclination to seek pleasure through sexual acts facilitated only by the differences between men and women. The passing of male to female, as demonstrated by both this rainbow story and the wider narrative, affirm the former; the idea that, whilst it may seem like we sometimes want to step into one another’s shoes, the steps we take into them are one and the same – they are motivated by the same wants and needs.
What is ultimately the conflict expressed through this narrative is then an ignorance of why people do the vast majority of the things we do. Humans are not inherently broken and evil; our base inclinations are not corrupt. At our core, almost all human beings only want to live comfortable, secure lives. This is something that work and sexuality, in equal measure, facilitates. However, it takes two halves for both of these functions to work; men and women need to work and be together. To reduce one of these halves to a near-human object as a means of sterilising this process is the absurdity we see put in face of natural normalcy within Osama. This then is entirely encapsulated by the duality of the title that is both a reference to Bin Laden, but also the struggle of our protagonist against such a paradigm.
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