KABUL, Afghanistan — Coarse mud was clinging to Fereshta Kazemi's high-heeled boots as she tottered on a slippery footpath. No one noticed. Everyone was staring at her legs.
Her legs! They were exposed! And worse — she wore sheer hosiery that only accented her limbs and emphasized that her tight skirt ended somewhat above her knees. Her hair was uncovered too. It cascaded like a dark blanket across her shoulders.
The popcorn peddler stopped filling his soiled bags and ogled her. The vegetable man leered, and so did the security guard. Two women wearing burkas stared hard. A herd of boys and men bird-dogged this exotic figure from America, pointing and scolding in an alleyway in Old Kabul's Shar-e-Kohna neighborhood.
PHOTOS: Kazemi in Kabul
One boy was so transfixed that he tumbled into a sewage ditch, drawing howls of laughter from his companions. And still everyone gawked at the Afghan woman from America.
Kazemi offered no apology, no explanation. She was born in Kabul 33 years ago and left at age 2. Raised in the U.S., she is back now for the first time, determined to radically alter the way Afghans view women — particularly women who act.
If making it in Hollywood, Kazemi's previous endeavor, is demanding, making it in Kabul is brutal. In August, Benafsha, 22, an Afghan actress from a TV satire, was stabbed to death outside a mosque and two fellow actresses were knifed. Witnesses said the women had been threatened by men for "un-Islamic" behavior.
The two survivors were taken to a police station for virginity tests — and prostitution charges. Another actress, Sahar Parniyan, received death threats after the stabbings and went into hiding.
On this day in Kabul, Kazemi was on her way to a film location. It was a serial, an Afghan soap opera. Kazemi had accepted an ironic role, playing a liberated Afghan American woman who returns home to Kabul; dramatic cultural clashes ensue.
On the outdoor set, the director, Mirwais Rakab, greeted her with a startled look. "Fereshta!" he said.
"I almost passed out," Rakab said later. "Oh, the way she dresses. The way she walks. I was shocked! I loved it, but I was shocked."
Rakab pointed out that he is no prude. He's attended film festivals in Europe and Aspen Filmfest in Colorado.
"Ah, but this is Afghanistan," he said. "We are under great stress."
Kazemi is violating two Afghan codes — one that demands the submissive, fully covered Afghan woman and another that assumes every actress is a whore. In fact, Kazemi and others say, for many years the only women who could be persuaded to act here were, indeed, prostitutes.
While in Kabul, Kazemi is also filming a documentary on the lives of Afghan actors and actresses, focusing on the risks of daring to act in a repressive society. One actress she's following works as a prostitute.
Her subjects will not allow her to interview family members, who object to the disreputable craft. Kazemi herself declined to allow her relatives in Kabul to be interviewed for this article because they consider acting shameful — and a threat to their dignity and safety.
PHOTOS: Hollywood backlot moments
Kazemi realizes that the way she dresses and acts — literally, that she acts — is a dangerous provocation. Death threats are common. This is a country where censors blur the offending legs or shoulders of actresses in foreign-made dramas. Kissing is scandalous and forbidden, even between actors portraying husband and wife.
Kazemi knows too that merely dressing in a way that would be unremarkable in Los Angeles, where she found roles in small independent films, can signal to Afghan men that a woman is, to put it mildly, available — or, worse, soliciting for paid sex.
"I want to make sure I'm putting up a big 'No Vacancy' sign," she said.
But the eyes of Afghan men and boys follow her footfalls. One man told his friends after watching Kazemi walk to the serial set: "She should be beaten."
"Fereshta needs to be careful," said Tarique Qayumi, 37, an Afghan Canadian filmmaker here who cast her in an Afghan-themed movie shot in California. "She's very aggressive and a total feminist, and that's good. But it can be dangerous here."
Other Afghan friends have warned her: "They tell me, do not show 1 inch of skin, Fereshta," she said in her rapid-fire, New York-inflected diction.
But other Afghans have thanked her for championing actresses as artists and even patriots. "One guy, a security guard, saw me and smiled," she said. "He said, 'nooshe jan-et' — enjoy deeply — like, look at this crazy girl, no head cover, smoking, just going her own way.''
Reviving Afghan film
In the 1970s and early 1980s, Afghan cinema was modern and vibrant. Kazemi's documentary follows Maimoona Ghezal, an Afghan actress in her 60s who was a glamorous star of the era.
"I worked in cinema then, and I remember all the women's gorgeous legs — I'm hungry for all that again," said Rakab, the director.