“Secrets & Sisterhood” and the Burden of Afghan Representation
By Azeta HatefNovember 12, 2023
At first glance, the show may remind viewers of the Kardashians—Southern California, Brown women, excessive wealth, tons of Botox, and manufactured family drama. However, Secrets & Sisterhood also provides a complicated and disruptive perspective on growing up Afghan in the United States. Such portrayals are rarely found in American media, and the show thus represents a welcome divergence from tired tropes of war and oppression. Yet, as one of the first shows to feature Afghan Americans and their experiences front and center for a US audience, the reality program bears a heavy burden of representation. In many ways, Secrets & Sisterhood is expected to address the historical misrepresentation of Afghans in American media while also fulfilling the desires of Afghan audiences to see dynamic, multifaceted characters and “deep” storylines.
Initial trailers for the reality show provoked a knee-jerk reaction within the Afghan community. Many dismissed the program as trashy, fake, and damaging to Afghans even before it aired. As a scholar of Afghan and Afghan American representation in US media, I understood this response. I was both struck by the potential subversiveness of the show and weary: during the so-called “war on terror,” Afghans became hypervisible as villains or victims in US media. In light of the public’s response to such harmful dichotomies, Afghans remain rightfully protective of their on-screen appearances.
Afghan Americans are aching for fair representation—that is, storylines, characters, and themes that reflect diverse experiences. So, when a show about Afghans gets picked up by a mainstream distributor, we can’t help but expect the program to fulfill our greatest hopes and offer an “authentic” perspective. On the surface, Secrets & Sisterhood delivers. Afghan women are typically portrayed through Orientalist tropes as helpless, conservative, and backwards; Secrets & Sisterhood turns those stereotypes on their head. Perhaps it even goes too far in the opposite direction—in a postfeminist, “you can have it all” kind of way.
Identity, Authenticity, and Audiences
The series opens as the sisters prepare for Eid. True to reality TV form, they share “secrets” with the audience by way of intimate-seeming confessionals. Shakur, sister number five, plans to host the family and invites AFG Fashion House—an Afghan clothing brand and “the best in the Southern part of Los Angeles”—to provide “traditional garb” for the celebration. Trying on an Afghan hat, Rabya (sister number four) notes that “it’s so authentic,” to which her sister (number seven) Jamila replies, “This reminds me of kindergarten when Mom made our clothes and we had to wear them for picture day and everyone made fun of us.” However casual, the exchange is a significant one. Not only is Jamila’s memory relatable to many immigrant children; it also invites those who may not be familiar with such experiences to better understand the day-to-day challenges of growing up Afghan in the States.
After the women settle on dresses for the celebration, we follow them as they choreograph an attan performance for their mother. Naturally, the exercise teems with dramatic disagreements: who should stand where during the dance, for example. In subsequent episodes, the sisters perform various cultural practices sure to resonate with Afghan audiences while also providing viewers unfamiliar with Afghan culture a glimpse of their world. They burn aromatic seeds to create an incense for espand (or esfand), a ritual that wards off evil eye. During another gathering, the sisters prepare mantu, teasing one another about their different ways of wrapping the savory dumplings. The season builds to the finale, where the sisters plan a fundraiser to benefit women’s education in Afghanistan. Jamila, who leads the event, explains that their mother never received a formal education and, as such, it is something that she has encouraged all of her daughters to pursue. This fundraiser’s theme is baraka—paying blessings forward—and, fittingly, the sisters raise over $170,000 to aid refugee women and children.
Over the arc of the season, the young women grapple with how to honor their Afghan heritage while paving their own way. The show leans into these tensions; on-screen, the women negotiate what are, in some Afghan homes, competing values and beliefs. In the words of the youngest sister, Hamida, the young women like to “party and pray.” They dress conservatively around elders while freely baring their breasts and midriffs around each other and friends. They also date and have sex before marriage. These decisions are presented as being at odds with traditional Afghan cultural practices, and the drama that ensues forms the heart of the program.
The show further engages with typically taboo topics like pregnancy out of wedlock, domestic violence, substance abuse, and sexual exploration. Predictably, these storylines have divided viewers. Some embrace the way the sisters do not shy away from discussing the thornier realities of growing up Afghan and Muslim in the United States. One storyline, which follows Hamida as she explores her sexuality, has particularly resonated with audiences. In a confessional, Hamida says, “When it comes to my culture, I do find conflict with balance. I’m a modern woman, but I’m also very much a traditional one, which is why it kinda makes it difficult for me to kinda understand how I feel about exploring and whatnot.” Hamida’s older sister and closest confidante, Nooreya, notes a similar tension: “I think there are things in my culture that can be very archaic, especially when it comes to views on homosexuality.” The leader of the “sister wolf pack,” Shakur, identifies the difficulties that stem from “trying to respect the religious aspects” of their culture while “still trying to live our truths.” She stresses that “it’s a fine balance.”
For Afghans, such comments—much less sustained storylines in popular media—are rare. Many appreciate how candidly the sisters discuss topics that are often swept under the rug. In an online review, one audience member who identifies as a “Muslim American who grew up here in the US and [has] lived a large portion of [their] life in LA” lauds the “really relatable show” for “authentically touch[ing] on A LOT of internal conflicts that come with growing up Muslim in America.” They add that, “[l]ike it or not, there are many practices and teachings of Islam that conflict with American practices and traditions.”
Not all audience members, though, appreciate what the show has to offer. Many call out what they believe to be harmful depictions, suggesting that the sisters’ choices and experiences are not representative of all Afghan women’s experiences. One online reviewer who identifies as Afghan criticizes the show for “undermin[ing] the complexities of Afghan heritage.” They write that “[t]he show perpetuated negative stereotypes, lacked authenticity, and exploited Afghan culture for sensationalism,” adding that the program “missed an opportunity to promote understanding.” These negative responses are rooted in the show’s potential provision of fuel for Afghan stereotypes firmly embedded in the American imagination. Upon learning about Jamila’s pregnancy out of wedlock, Rabya remarks, “If we were back home, this would get you stoned. One hundred percent.” The curtailing of women’s rights and the abuse of women are profound, ongoing issues in Afghanistan. But, at its worst, the reality show plays into these fears and stereotypes, painting Afghanistan as backwards and repressive—because Rabya’s comment isn’t an outlier. The sisters bring up being stoned for their choices on more than one occasion—for example, in response to wearing bathing suits to the family pool party. Ultimately, this rhetoric reinforces damaging US–Afghanistan binaries: civilized and uncivilized, liberal and conservative, free and captive.
Of course, extreme reactions to a program that engages with unstable questions of identity, authenticity, and culture are to be expected. Many negative responses illustrate the anxieties about the expanding, often controversial boundaries of what it means to be Afghan and Muslim in the United States. The sisters defiantly challenge expectations placed upon Afghan and Muslim women, rendering some viewers uncomfortable along the way.
Forcing a Reckoning
Secrets & Sisterhood spurs audiences, especially Afghans, to reflect upon their own insecurities. Why does the public care so much about these 10 sisters and how they choose to live their lives as Afghan American women? Why does their particular way of practicing Islam or engaging with their heritage divide audiences to such an extreme extent? Where the words “what will people think” have torn so many Afghan families apart and shamed many into silence, the Sozahdahs emphatically demonstrate that they do not care what people think—publicly voicing the many internal conflicts that other Afghans and Muslims may experience in private. Of course, the sisters endlessly discuss how their mother or older sisters will respond to their approaches to dating, sexuality, and partying. Yet the show effectively and preemptively interrogates audience reactions too. It forces viewers to reckon with their own interests, including many generally monolithic perceptions, prejudices, and fears.
Secrets & Sisterhood is messy, disruptive, and divisive. The television program bristles with competing views and positions. While the program departs from stereotypical portrayals of Afghan women commonly found in American media, it is arguably undermined by its equally limited focus on “choice” feminism. This contemporary form of feminism suggests that a woman’s ability to choose is inherently feminist and that liberation from gender oppression can be achieved through individual choice—a view that often ignores the pervasive and very real institutional and systemic dynamics underlying those choices in the first place. On the show, the sisters are portrayed as entirely in charge: of their careers, their relationships, and their appearances. (Jamila, for instance, self-identifies as “the empowered boss lady of the family.”) In an attempt to distance the sisters from the stereotype of the oppressed Afghan woman, the show perpetuates many illusions of choice and freedom ostensibly granted to them by way of simply living in the United States. Secrets & Sisterhood thereby promotes postfeminist discourses of agency and empowerment throughout the season, completely eliding the patriarchal structures and systems that shape women’s public and personal lives. A woman in Afghanistan may be stoned for pregnancy out of wedlock; a woman in the US may also be shunned for becoming pregnant, her bodily autonomy determined by the state in a post-Roe American society.
The fact remains: we have never witnessed Afghan women on the small screen in this way. These women are bold, as serious about their careers as they are about who gets dibs on which room during a family vacation. Their fights can be frivolous; for example, they disagree over who started the “sister wolf pack.” They can also be thoughtful, as when the women share their deepest and most personal secrets—such as experiencing a miscarriage or intimate partner violence. The drama at times feels ginned up to fit the reality TV format. But through it all, the sisters are unabashedly Afghan and unapologetically living their lives.
Media Visibility and the Complicated Nature of Representation
Afghans do not have the luxury of seeing their various experiences reflected within American media; we remain a misrepresented minority on-screen. Willingly or not, then, as one of the first programs to screen Afghan American experiences, Secrets & Sisterhood carries the double weight of addressing systemic issues and fulfilling Afghans’ desires to see their lives reflected in media. But the reality is that the show can never and will never meet these expectations. One television program cannot possibly capture the diversity of Afghan experiences. The show represents one family’s reality, and—however much that may resonate with some viewers—it cannot represent everyone’s reality. Even so, we can acknowledge the progress of a television program like Secrets & Sisterhood in making Afghans and their experiences more visible to American audiences while also demanding more diverse storylines and representations. Perhaps, rather than discuss whether or not Secrets & Sisterhood is truly representative of Afghan culture, the more salient point pertains to promoting more stories about Afghans created by and with Afghans. Only by continuing to expand and complexify Afghan American media representation can we chip away at the harmful stereotypes of Afghans embedded in the American cultural imagination and relieve some of the burden currently thrust upon individual programs. The task is challenging. (Certainly, we must consider the economic and cultural logics of American media production.) It’s also undoubtedly worthwhile.
As US demographics continue to change and diasporas grow larger, Secrets & Sisterhood asks: What if those living in these “in-between spaces” did not have to separate their selves? What if we could honor our heritage while also exploring what it means to be a second-generation American? For all its flaws, the show offers a starting point for broaching these questions. It removes some of the shame and stigma around widespread issues while also providing audiences with a site in which to engage in these discussions. Hamida’s internal turmoil—wanting to explore her sexuality while navigating her family’s conservative views—illustrates dynamics that many Afghan Americans can likely relate to. Nooreya’s efforts to reclaim her peace and speak openly about intimate partner violence likewise wield immeasurable power.
The Sozahdahs’ various narratives contribute to a more nuanced, pressing picture of what it means to be second-generation Afghan. We may not feel the same ties to home that our parents did to Afghanistan. But we may know intimately what it’s like to be too Afghan for Americans, too American for Afghans—our childhoods are studded by stories like that of Jamila’s being teased on picture day. Maybe, then, home for us is merging these worlds together as we see fit. For some, maybe it is both partying and praying.
Azeta Hatef is an assistant professor of journalism studies at Emerson College.
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