- The Washington Times - Monday, March 17, 2008

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) - In a first for post-Taliban Afghanistan, a woman from the conservative Pashtun belt is one of the top three contenders in the country’s version of “American Idol.”

Conservative detractors decry the fact an Afghan woman has found success singing on television, while others — younger Afghans — say the show is helping women progress. Under the Taliban regime, which was overthrown in 2001, women were not allowed out of their homes unaccompanied. Music and television were banned.

With her hair tucked under a wispy blue head scarf, Lima Sahar brushes off her critics, saying there can be no progress for women without upsetting the status quo.

“No pain, no gain,” she told reporters Wednesday in Kabul.

Miss Sahar beat out 2,000 other hopefuls who auditioned for the third season of “Afghan Star.” On Friday, the six-month-long TV show will name the final two contestants, based on votes sent in from viewers via text messaging. The format is the same as for “American Idol,” although the shows are not connected.

Afghanistan’s conservative clerics council has protested to President Hamid Karzai over “Afghan Star” and Indian dramas shown on Tolo TV, the country’s most popular station.

“In the situation that we have in Afghanistan right now, we don’t need a woman singer. We don’t need ‘Afghan Star.’ We are in need of a good economy, good education,” said Ali Ahmad Jebra-ali, a member of the council. “If Lima Sahar wins ‘Afghan Star,’ how can she help the poor? This is not the way to help the Afghan people.”

Haji Baran Khan, a farmer from Kandahar, the Taliban’s spiritual birthplace and the city Miss Sahar now calls home, said a Pashtun girl singing on TV goes against the country’s culture.

“She is also affecting the minds of other good girls. She should stop singing,” said Mr. Khan, whose three sons and two daughters told him about Miss Sahar’s success.

Miss Sahar says she’s just the latest in a long tradition of Afghan artists, albeit in a more modern form.

“Artists are historical and cultural in our country. Artists have been around a long time,” Miss Sahar told a press conference last week. “I came by the vote of the people of Afghanistan.”

Several hundred supporters lined up to get the three finalists’ autographs at an event last week in Kabul. One of the fans, Shohabidin Mohammad, called “Afghan Star” part of a democratic revival for Afghanistan.

“Women’s and men’s rights are equal. There are no problems,” said Mr. Mohammad, dressed in a bright-colored shirt, brown hipster hat and a gold necklace from which dangled a tiny Koran.

The three finalists represent each of Afghanistan’s three main ethnic groups: Pashtuns, Hazaras and Tajiks. Mr. Mohammad, who is ethnic Hazara, said he doesn’t believe ethnicity should play a role in the vote. However, he acknowledged somewhat sheepishly, he will vote for the Hazara finalist.

Standing beside Mr. Mohammad was Abass Nariwal, a fan of Miss Sahar’s. Both are ethnic Pashtuns. Another of her fans, Nematullah Khan, is a 25-year-old student at Kandahar University.

“She took a bold step. She has a lot of courage,” Mr. Khan said. “Whether she wins or not, she’s a good example for our youth.”

“Afghan Star” has become one of Afghanistan’s most popular TV shows, gathering large crowds around TVs in restaurants and homes.

The singers perform in front of a studio audience and three judges, and past winners have been given recording deals. A woman finished fifth in the show’s first season, but no woman has risen as high as Miss Sahar.

The winner this year will take home around $5,000, a king’s ransom in Afghanistan.

Daud Sadiqi, the show’s host, said “Afghan Star” has been a runaway hit that shows the world the “peaceful face of Afghanistan.”

Another finalist, Hameed Sakhizada, a 21-year-old Hazara with a mop of black hair, said that before the show, he was “an ordinary person going to work.”

“But now I feel like I’m the representative of a nation,” Mr. Sakhizada said.

The other finalist, and perhaps the odds-on favorite judging by the number of fans seeking his autograph last week, is Rafi Naabzada, a 19-year-old ethnic Tajik wearing a white leather jacket, who calls the show “a symbol of unity.”

“‘Afghan Star’ belongs to all Afghans,” he said. “My idea is not to get votes from just my tribe. I think that attitude is now finished — he’s a Tajik or he’s a Pashtun,” Mr. Naabzada said. “Of course, we still have special support from those ethnic groups.”

That is what bothers Mohammad Qasim Akhger, an independent political analyst. He says the most talented singers aren’t necessarily the ones who get voted through. He singled out Miss Sahar as having little talent.

“Now there is one Pashtun, one Hazara and one Tajik, so now what will happen is that nobody will care about their talents, they will just vote for their tribe,” he said. “If Lima Sahar is not talented enough, it doesn’t matter for [Pashtuns]. They are just voting because she is Pashtun.”

Gender loyalties, however, don’t seem to be a factor. When the crush of autograph seekers surrounded the singers this week, the women made a beeline for Mr. Naabzada. One fan, Shabana, who goes by one name, was dressed in a pink shawl and bright pink lipstick. She said she was supporting Mr. Naabzada over Miss Sahar because he was the better singer.

Would she support a woman? “Yes,” Shabana said. “But on condition that she has talent.”

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