Afghan Americans Finally Got A Show That Isn’t About War

“Secrets and Sisterhood” has done more to introduce the American public to Afghan culture, beauty and chaos than decades of war stories ever could.

For over 40 years, the United States has been involved in Afghanistan’s affairs, either covertly sending arms to Afghan “freedom fighters” or occupying the country in an attempt to “liberate” it. Season after season, I’ve watched Afghan characters only be portrayed as victims or perpetual warriors, unable to find stories of our diaspora’s culture that aren’t linked to war or political conflict.

That is, until now.

“Secrets and Sisterhood: The Sozahdahs,” a new reality show that premiered on Hulu/Disney+ on June 7, follows the trials and tribulations of a Los Angeles-based Afghan family of 10 sisters. The show is structured like a nostalgic recipe from back home: A few scoops of petty drama, a healthy dash of tension and seasoned with subversiveness that marinates for 10 episodes.

For decades, most of Hollywood’s scripted films and TV shows featuring Afghans have been based around war. Hollywood tends to cast brown characters from the Middle East or Central Asia as seasoned, scary terrorists or helpless victims needing a white savior. If you are an Afghan millennial or older, you might remember watching Sylvester Stallone’s “Rambo III” (released in 1988, one year after I was born) fight those evil Soviets massacring Afghan civilians in the countryside.

Years later, America’s attention turned yet again to Afghanistan in the wake of the U.S. invasion in 2001. Around that time, Afghans were at the heart of the successful film “The Kite Runner,” based on the book of the same title by Afghan American novelist Khaled Hosseini. That story, although meaningful, conveyed painful scenes of sexual assault and brutality with a background of the rise of the Taliban.

Since then, we’ve gotten films such as “The Outpost,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Lone Survivor,” “12 Strong,” “Charlie Wilson’s War,” “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” and “Rock the Kasbah.” All these featured white protagonists at the heart of the story, while the backdrop just happened to include a few Afghan characters or the country’s beautiful mountain ranges. Even when we got 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 white veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder. Time after time, anything mainstream involving Afghans featured one thing over and over: war, loss and displacement. This may come as a surprise, but we, as a people, know joy too.

Afghans are more than the pain we’ve endured from those 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 coming out of Hollywood that has been able to convey that to the general public.

The show feels as ridiculous as it feels refreshing. The sisters, decked out in designer clothing and dripping in confidence, passionately squabble over trivial things, then quickly pivot to important topics such as domestic violence or miscarriages. This makes the show teeter on revolutionary if you compare it to what Hollywood has been selling us in the past. Here are 10 Afghan sisters, undeniably in control of every aspect of their lives, showcasing a side of them that feels, well, foreign. Unlike the submissive women characters of the past, these sisters are chaotic, powerful and raunchy, giving us Kardashian vibes with a little more culture.

The show discusses the complexity of assimilation that so many immigrant communities face as we try to figure out the right balance between honoring our elders and fighting the heteronormative, patriarchal norms that are too often attached to our traditions. In the show, one of the younger sisters quickly reveals her queer identity on the show. For the next few episodes, we follow her struggle to stay true to herself while also 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 plotlines. These experiences, though, aren’t specifically Afghan. They are inherently human. This simple nuance Hollywood and the media haven’t afforded Afghans and other communities for so long and often to our detriment. In fact, it reinforces Orientalist stereotypes as people addicted to war or women needing to be rescued.

In one season, “Secrets and Sisterhood” has done more to introduce the American public to our beauty and culture than decades of war stories have done for us. Hell, this show features more Afghan women than any congressional hearing has ever had. One can argue that the bar has been low. Still, that bar has been set by the Hollywood execs who could only consider us an afterthought and failed to hire talented screenwriters from within the Afghan American community to tell real stories.

To be fair, many Afghan Americans will argue they won’t see themselves in the Sozahdahs. They are brash, wealthy and dramatically over the top. I think that’s exactly the point. These sisters are surrounded by abundance when we’ve had scarcity instilled in us from an early age.

Too often, the media wants to portray 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. Portrayals of a community like ours are so scarce in the first place that Americans have only been allowed to digest one view and one experience of Afghans.

“Secrets and Sisterhood” prove that our existence in this country is both fraught and rich, worthy of examination and celebration.

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