Racy foreign films prompt cable ban in Afghanistan

One midnight during Ramadan, Sullyman got up and flipped on the TV. His family was sitting down to eat before the 4 a.m. prayer and he decided to do a little channel surfing. But the station he landed on stunned him.

"It was 100 percent sex," says the dapper young man in Kabul's Macroryan neighborhood. "It was the first time I'd seen anything like that."

The prurient film - and the questionable programming being pumped to thousands across Kabul - prompted the Supreme Court chief justice to ask President Hamid Karzai to stop cable broadcasts during the holy season. Last month, a Council of Ministers banned virtually all cable broadcasts in the city. The minister of information and culture created an advisory committee to review the cable networks. Since then, the networks have begun to broadcast again.

Theback and forth between Afghanistan's deeply conservative judiciary and more liberal central government is part of a postwar process of winnowing down what is deemed acceptable for the culture at large to see. If un-Islamic content is defined too broadly, say some here, both the lasciviousness and more ennobling images like career-oriented women and pious non-Muslims will remain closed off to a population still sheltered by the effects of Taliban rule and centuries of tradition.

Yet there remains a widespread concern here about pushing too far too fast. After more than two decades of war, say officials and Kabul citizens, the society may not be ready to interpret correctly the values or concepts they suddenly see in movies from more carefree and stable societies like India and the West.

"The people of Afghanistan want to be like America or Germany overnight. They don't understand that it takes hundreds of years to become like them," says Asadullah Jahidi, a professor in the sharia law faculty at Kabul University. "To advance along Islamic lines takes time."

This is not the first time that cable content has raised the court's hackles. The bench had already decided early this year that cable networks should be banned, in part, say spokesmen, because no rules or regulations were set up by the Ministry of Information and Culture.

The ministry, however, says the media law of the country governs such issues; the cable networks continued to function.

Waheed Mozhdah, a spokesman for the Supreme Court, says the latest recommendation to ban cable came after it was rumored that a person had broken into an insecure network and broadcast a sex film. But not all ministers agreed with the resulting ban.

"I argued for the cable networks," says Sayed Mohammad Raheen, the minister of information and culture. "I was totally opposed to closing them. Many people thought all the stations were [guilty]. I knew all were not doing this."

Among the most popular and controversial features on cable are films produced by India's prolific movie industry. Bollywood has long been a mainstay here thanks to the similarities between the cultures and the fact that many people in Afghanistan understand Hindi and Urdu. But in recent years, Bollywood has abandoned many old taboos, allowing far more erotic scenes and songs than ever before - though the films rarely push beyond PG-13 Hollywood fare.

Prasant Satapathy, an Indian TV producer working in Kabul, says Bollywood's influence has been a catalyst for change in the Afghan society. Movies such as "Tera Naam" (Your Name), the 2003 Bollywood hit, for example, flopped in India but was a success in Kabul. The movie became so popular here that it inspired everything from hairstyles to fashion trends, sharpening cultural differences among generations.

Beyond fashion, Bollywood films model lifestyles of a more open culture. Most films feature women who have careers and generally enjoy more status in society than Afghan women. Main characters are often well-educated. And the portrayals of Hindus as decent, religious people may help broaden Afghan tolerance of other faiths.

"We can't say all Bollywood is bad," Mr. Jahidi says. "They might have scenes in them that are against our Islamic culture, but there are stories that analyze family problems, social problems. This is good.... The small scenes should be censored."

However, Supreme Court officials say a murder at Kabul University earlier this month is proof that gang violence portrayed in some Bollywood movies has permeated the youth culture here. A third-year medical student fatally stabbed a freshmen allegedly because he was angry that the freshman had grown his hair out like him.

"What happened was imitating Bollywood movies," says Mr. Mozhdah. "The boy said you shouldn't have hair like me. After the incident at the university, we said that what happened was because of the cable. Now we have ... proof of that corruption."

University professors say student gangs are cropping up. And Health officials lay partial blame on Bollywood films for a spike in teen delinquency during the last year, as more young girls are fleeing their families with boyfriends to avoid arranged marriages.

Mawlawi Abdul Qudus, the leader of a Kabul mosque, says that while the number of youths coming to the mosque has stayed the same, he's concerned about how Westerners - and their leisure-time habits - in Kabul have influenced youths. Explicit movies, he thinks, could lead to more illicit relationships.

"In Afghanistan, the rule of government is according to Islam," he says. "These kinds of illegal movies are persuading the youth. This is not good for Islamic society."

Youths in Kabul, however, decry efforts to end one of the few social outlets in the city, as cinemas are full of hashish smokers and thugs harass couples in parks. The cable ban feels like a double standard when shops are full of racy DVDs and satellite stations are packed with blue channels.

"During the night, we had the possibility of watching BBC and CNN. We had the possibility of understanding what's going on around the world," says Ahmadulla Amarkhil, a student at Kabul University. "Islam never prevents us from being cultured or sophisticated. Islam invites people to see this and to learn."

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