"Afghan Star" show glimmers with hope in gender struggle

Arms folded tightly across her glitzy outfit and false eyelashes batting anxiously before the cameras, Lima Sahar clearly has more than the cash prize of 4,000 US dollars on her mind as she prepares to sing for millions of viewers across Afghanistan. ( dpa )

"If I blacken my eyes with eyeliner it will kill you, especially if I wear these bangles from Kandahar," the 18-year-old trills to a Central Asian synthesizer rhythm amid cheers and catcalls from the audience of 300 mainly Afghan men packed into the "Markopolo Wedding Hall" in eastern Kabul.

In this deeply conservative Islamic country, where many women may not walk unveiled in public and female beauticians receive death threats, the ethnic Pashtun schoolgirl is taking a considerable risk as she competes in Afghan Star, a national talent show modelled on the US hit American Idol.

Elsewhere in Afghanistan, NATO troops are battling insurgents of the former Taliban regime, which only eight years earlier enforced a ban on all music and publicly executed women for "immoral behaviour" at the capital's stadium just down the road.

Today, Sahar's example of emancipation is still alien or unacceptable for much of the population, especially in the strictly traditional Pashtun areas around her native city of Kandahar.

Here, women are generally kept at home or required to wear a burka when outside.

"I have tarnished my life by participating but I don't worry about my safety. If I did, then I would never make it as a star," she says after qualifying to face two Tajik and Hazara youths in the semi- final the following week.

While Sahar insists she has not been threatened in connection with the show, her mother says ominously that her daughter has been "sacrificed."

Without explaining, the performer reveals that after the show ends she plans to move her family up to Kabul.

It could be both because of her participation as a woman and her involvement in what hardline Islamists condemn as a corrupting influence derived from Western culture.

In early January, the Kabul-based national council of mullahs, or clerics, sent a written statement to President Hamid Karzai, demanding a clamp-down on "immoral and un-Islamic" programmes on Afghan television and singling out the talent show.

"Afghan Star encourages immorality among the people and is against sharia (law)," the statement read.

"It will be very difficult for Lima to go back to Kandahar after this," predicts a member of the audience, 24-year-old Lima Ahmad, who as well as sharing the same first name, also hails from the southern city.

"I'm not famous, I work in a (Western) NGO in Kabul, but not even I can go back there any more, let alone her, now that everybody has seen her on TV," she tells a reporter.

Women have taken part in the show before, but none were Pashtun and none made it nearly as far as Sahar.

Meanwhile, despite her timid disposition she is growing into the part, according to those who followed her fortunes in recent weeks.

"When she first appeared, she looked like she had come from the village, now she gets more glamorous each week," said Patti McLaughlin, a US legal consultant working in Kabul who attended the recent recording of the show's third from last round.

"Come on, let's show the world that Afghanistan can have its own idol too," shouts host Daoud Sediqi, rousing the audience into a storm of applause and whooping as the remaining four contestants from an initial pool of 2,000 do their stuff.

Fooling around on stage in the US version is evidently considered undignified in Afghanistan, and they are almost wooden as they trot out a succession of whimsical love songs.

As usual, viewers across the country eliminate one through text message voting.

Out goes Khalid Khilwat from the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif, a slick young man with thick-framed 1960s-style glasses, gelled hair, spiky sideburns and a mini goatee beard. Sahar is through again.

But although she made it this far and might edge out Hazara singer Hamid Sakhi Zada, few expect her to win against the boyish favourite Rafi Nabzada.

Whether her gender is working against her or he's just better is hard to say, but Sahar remains defiant.

"I've come a long way and I will win," she tells the audience. "I am proud I have made it to the final contestants. Long live Afghanistan," she adds before armed police escort her through the clamouring crowd to a waiting car.

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