'Idol' airs Afghans' talents – and social divisions

Female contestant Lima Sahar caused a nationwide debate about women's roles before being voted off last week.

As millions prepare to cast their ballots Friday in this country's version of "American Idol," known here as "Afghan Star," Fatima Hashemi is still lamenting the loss of her favorite contestant.

"I voted for Lima because she is a woman," she says, referring to Lima Sahar, who was eliminated last week but made headlines by lasting longer than any other female contestant in the program's three-year history. "I tried to convince my friends to vote, too."

The wildly popular show has sparked discussions nationwide about gender and ethnic identity, which observers say mirror debates that mark Afghan society in the post-Taliban era.

Although millions tune in every week to watch the many aspiring celebrities perform classic and modern Afghan tunes, Ms. Sahar's unprecedented run garnered most of the attention – and criticism.

The young woman's improbable rise from the deeply conservative Kandahar district to the small screen, where a gauzy, colorful scarf barely hides her hair, has inspired many women here. "To see a woman express herself like this means others can do it, too," Ms. Hashemi says.

Not everyone is thrilled with the show's success. "I condemn this program – Islam does not allow it," says Shamsal Rahman Frotan, associated with the Ulema Council, an influential religious body. "The Koran says that a woman should not even recite prayers with a loud voice."

The conservative backlash surrounding Sahar signals how much the condition of women still needs improvement, experts say. "This is still a male-dominated country," says analyst Sweeta Noori. "They don't want Lima to be a star because they don't want to see women improve."

Even though Sahar could croon away on TV, most women rarely venture outside their homes. Aid agencies recently reported that violence against women almost doubled last year in Kabul, and reports of self-immolation, forced marriages, and rape remain common.

With Sahar gone, attention is now focused on the last two contenders: Mr. Naabzada, a Tajik, and Hameed Sakhizada, a member of the minority Hezara.

"I am proud to be a Tajik, so I support Naabzada," says fan Ahmad Javid. "But I also like how he sings," he adds quickly.

Experts point out that this is another trend illustrated in the program: Ethnic identity largely determines voting patterns. "Afghan society is still very much divided along ethnic lines," says Naseer Malikzai, an independent analyst. Following the fall of the Russian-backed government in the early 1990s, powerful warlords emerged and rallied Afghans around various ethnic banners, a process that continues today.

But for a few like Hashemi, a Tajik, "Afghan Star" symbolizes hope. "Lima's ethnic background doesn't matter to me," she says. "What matters is what she represents. She is an inspiration."

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