After 30 years of civil war, foreign invasion, and Taliban rule, Afghans finally have the opportunity to vote in free elections. They have learned to campaign, solicit votes, and support candidates of varying ethnicities. Even women are part of the process. It is likely the most democratic, egalitarian process Afghans have witnessed in decades. Am I referring to the Presidential elections? No. It’s Afghan Star, the new TV show modeled after American Idol. The show is popular, controversial, and it’s paving the way for true political reform in Afghanistan.
Though traditionally Afghanistan had music as part of its culture, in recent decades music was heavily censored. During Taliban rule from 1996-2001, music, dance, television and films were outlawed altogether in accordance with Islamic Sharia law. Anyone caught engaging in these crimes was subject to harsh penalties including death.
After Operation Enduring Freedom toppled the Taliban, these activities became legal. In 2005, shortly after the new parliament was in place, Afghan Star emerged. However, music and dance are still shunned by Islamic fundamentalists and the more conservative Muslim community. Those who enter Afghan Star’s singing contest are, in effect, making a bold political statement and risking their own lives.
In Afghanistan, equality is still a radical concept. Despite this, Afghan Star places no age, gender, or ethnic restrictions on its participants. Last year, approximately 2000 people auditioned for the show, including three women. Two of them were among the top ten finalists, showing great strides for women who, under Taliban rule, were not allowed out of the house unless in a burqa and accompanied by a close male relative.
The show is produced by Tolo TV, the country’s first commercial station, and it is broadcast to fourteen cities nationwide. Because not every Afghan household has a TV, large crowds gather together on Friday nights at restaurants and friends’ homes to watch the contest. It is the most popular show in Afghanistan, and dominates the airwaves for six months of the year.
The film follows the lives of the top four contestants as they compete for the Afghan Star title and $5000 (a small fortune by Afghan standards). This no-frills version of American Idol takes place against the backdrop of a visibly war-torn and poverty-stricken country. The documentary does an excellent job of portraying Afghanistan’s politics, religion, culture, ethnic conflicts, and artistic struggles through the eyes of each singer’s personal experience. It brings Afghanistan’s triumphs and conflicts to life, making them a reality. Indeed, it was filmed amidst bombings and earthquakes, business as usual in Afghanistan. Though the film won two awards at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, it is banned in Afghanistan because it interviewed women on screen.
The final four contestants were Satara, Lima, Rafi and Hamid. Satara, the most rebellious character in the film, is a 21-year-old girl from Kabul, Afghanistan’s most progressive city. Her family hails from Herat, a conservative area on the outskirts of Afghanistan. Growing up she took singing lessons in secret, with her family’s moral support. Singing gives Satara a sense of freedom. Music fills her with happiness which propels her to dance ever so slightly onstage. She allows her hijab to slip, uncovering her hair. She has gone too far and is voted off the show. Almost everyone disapproves of her actions including other contestants. Viewers call her “loose”, “a whore”, and “immoral”. Some believe she deserves to die.
Lima, the last remaining woman, is relatively conservative. Asked if she would consider dancing on the show, she declares “never.” Not even if she were offered thousands of dollars. Not even is she was guaranteed to win. Lima comes from Kandahar, the bedrock of Islamic fundamentalism, where the mere fact that a woman is on TV is considered quite politically charged. Nevertheless, she has the support of most of her Pashtun community and many women admire her for her courage and confidence, talent aside. Lima came in third place.
The two finalists, Rafi and Hamid originate from different ethnicities, Tajik and Hazara, respectively. Though they view themselves as singers, in reality the contestants are politicians of a sort, trying to achieve national unity through music. They are encouraging people to compete in song rather than in war. The two travel throughout the country, putting up posters and yelling through megaphones, asking for votes. As in the US, votes are placed through cell phone text messages. The advance of technology is sharply contrasted with Afghanistan’s seventh century mores when teen girls dressed in full burqas catch a glimpse of the stars and start shooting snapshots of them with their cell phones.
Many in Afghanistan believe that music is a universal language. The older generation recalls a time when music was part of Afghan culture and is eager to restore it. The younger generation sees music as a vehicle for personal expression and freedom. Others, who have suffered the death of a loved one in war, welcome song as a healing agent. It soothes the pain, and facilitates recovery from the grieving process, bringing a sense of peace. Many of the children love to sing, explaining that there is no joy without music.
Yet, the religious elements of Afghanistan remain steadfast and are not without sway. Though it didn’t come to fruition, midway through the show the Taliban threatened to shut down the transmission towers, which would have rendered people unable to text in their votes and would have caused the show’s demise. Additionally, prior to the finale, the Islamic Council issued a strong statement to President Karzai condemning the immorality of Afghan Star and other TV shows that fail to comply with Sharia law. When the show was over, the Council was successful in passing a resolution making it illegal to dance on TV.
All the contestants were subjected to death threats at the show’s close. Those who resided in Taliban controlled localities were at the gravest risk. When the show ended, Satar, the girl who danced, was evicted from her apartment by a disapproving landlord. She had no choice but to return to her parents’ conservative hometown, with all its consequences. Fortunately, she eventually made her way back to Kabul and is currently recording an album. Lima, despite the fact that she refused to dance, received significant death threats and was forced into exile. She currently lives in hiding in Pakistan.
Daoud Siddiqi, Afghan Star’s show host, known as the Ryan Seacrest of Afghanistan, made the mistake of announcing on film that “the Taliban is finished.” They proved him wrong by making him one of their prime targets. Daoud recently was granted political asylum to the United States.
Despite the challenges, Rafi and Hamid are going on tour, trying to pave the way for greater tolerance and national solidarity. Rafi insists that he does not represent only his ethnicity, but represents all Afghans.
Clearly, Afghanistan has a long way to go in securing the exercise its newfound freedoms. Still, the mere fact that singing is legal and that the show is permitted to air demonstrates the country’s progress. Eleven million people voted in Afghan Star’s finale. That is one third of Afghanistan’s population. For many, it was the first time they voted or the first time they supported someone of a different ethnicity.
Presidential elections are scheduled in Afghanistan for August 20, 2009. Let us hope that the freedom, egalitarianism, and message of tolerance that permeated the democratic process on Afghan Star, paves the way for similar campaigns in Afghanistan’s national politics. Many Afghans believe it will.