Inside a posh shopping mall in Kabul, a quiet gender revolution is under way. Compared to other movie theaters in Kabul, the cinema inside, the Galaxy Family Miniplex, looks tidy and modern. But the biggest difference is the audience.
"Here you see women coming in often without a mahram [an unmarriageable family member, which for women can also be an escort] and you feel free," says 29-year-old Rohina Haroon. The Galaxy Family Miniplex is Afghanistan's first cinema for women; Haroon has been there four times.
For the past 15 years, cinemas have been almost exclusively men's territory in Afghanistan, considered off-limits and inappropriate for women. On a recent visit to Pamir Cinema, one of Kabul's oldest movie theaters, marijuana smoke thickened the air, and seats were full of boys and men who whistled and clapped when a female character appeared on the silver screen. "This is really something quite radical in Afghanistan, to build a cinema for women," says 34-year-old Abu Bakar Gharzai, who opened the Galaxy Family Miniplex in March of last year.
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Gharzai grew up as a refugee in Pakistan and later studied in India. When he moved back to Afghanistan in 2008, he quickly noticed there weren't many places to go out as a family: Suddenly, going to the movies—something Gharzai had done on a regular basis in India—was out of bounds for his wife. He soon decided to open a cinema where women could go.
Cinemas in Afghanistan were not always male dominated. During King Mohammad Zahir Shah's rule, from 1933 until 1973, and the communist regime, from 1978 until 1989, Kabul looked quite different than it does today; it was not unusual to see women in short skirts, without headscarves, studying or working, and cinemas were a common form of entertainment for both men and women. "My uncle's daughters used to even eat their lunch in cinemas during that time—there was no problem then," Haroon says.
But once the civil war broke out and the mujahideen—Islamic resistance fighters—took over in the early 90s, cinemas became neglected. Though theaters were permitted to continue operating, songs, popular especially in Indian films, were censored out. Then, when the Taliban seized power in 1996, films, television, and most types of music were banned, and movie theaters were forced out of business.
After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, cinemas opened their doors again after a long break, but the impacts of religious fundamentalism have been slow to fade; for more religious sections of society, movies have remained an almost illicit form of entertainment. Even many men are often embarrassed to admit they go to cinemas. Gharzai says he has received threats online from religious fundamentalists because he is running one. And while there's no specific policy prohibiting women from spending an afternoon at the movies today, most women stay away out of fear of harassment, or because their families don't let them go.
"I think [women in Afghanistan don't go to movies] because their husbands and family wouldn't like it," says Sevita Durrani, 28, who recently visited the Galaxy Family Miniplex for the first time. "Maybe they think there would be too many boys there and they don't allow them to go. Maybe with their families women could go [to other cinemas], but not alone—the men would try to talk to them, and so on."
Haroon has also never been to another movie theater in Kabul. She says this is because there are too many single men there, and it makes her feel uncomfortable.
Most of the city's cinemas draw a crowd of day laborers, shopkeepers, butchers, and unemployed people in search of a couple of hours of entertainment; tickets at Pamir cost less than a dollar. The men often get quite rowdy, standing up from their seats and breaking into song and dance in the middle of the film.
"If there were women here, [the male audience] would definitely harass them," says Rohid, a 20-year-old patron of Pamir Cinema. "You can see how women are harassed on the streets. Once [men] found out women were coming here, they would rush to the cinema and start harassing them. Society has not developed enough for women to be able to come here."
At Galaxy Family Miniplex, tickets are almost five times more expensive, and men can still attend showings—though they can only do so as part of a family, or if there are no women present. While some showings still play for more men than women, for some women, the family cinema has already turned into something much more than a movie theater: It's a place where women can go to relax. Helen, 16, who requested anonymity, often comes to the cinema "just to hang out, not for a movie." When I visited, she was sitting in front of the ticket booth with a friend, munching on popcorn. Although there is hardly any space for the girls to sit around and talk, they still prefer the cinema lobby to the many cafes and restaurants that are housed in the same shopping mall. "This is a much better place to hang out—it is much safer for women," Helen says.
"It is good that there is a place like this in Kabul. Women need entertainment," Durrani says.
Gharzai agrees. "Sometimes people forget that women are human beings, too."