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Monday, July 27, 2009

Afghan Idol

By: Deborah Weiss | Friday, July 24, 2009

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.

Deborah Weiss, Esq. lobbies for and is a regular contributor to


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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

No Fredrick's of Mecca

No Frederick's of Mecca
By: Deborah Weiss | Friday, July 03, 2009

In June 2009, a group of 26 women completed a course in how to fit, stock, and sell lingerie. It was the first course of its kind ever offered in the Saudi Kingdom. Trained by an Australian woman using colorful bras donated by Victoria Secret, the women engaged in a ten day course culminating in a small graduation ceremony at a college in Jeddah on June 23, 2009. However, the graduates might have celebrated pre-maturely, as they are forbidden to put their new skills into practice.

Saudi Arabia is an Islamic theocracy, governed by Wahabbi ideology which is implemented through strict Sharia (Koranic) law. The society operates under rules of gender apartheid by segregating men and women who are not close relatives or married to each other. The two sexes are not permitted to stand in the same fast food lines together, be in a room alone together, travel in the same car, or meet at Starbucks for a cup of coffee. Violations of these rules are punishable by law.

Additionally, women’s rights are drastically lagging behind those of men. Women are forbidden to vote or drive. They cannot go to college or have surgery without permission from a male relative. And in courtroom trials, the testimony of a woman counts one half that of a man’s. In accordance with their country’s religion, women must be covered in black abbayas from head to toe whenever they are in public.

It seems ironic that in this environment women would be forced to discuss the details of their intimate apparel purchases with male strangers. Yet, this is the case.

Traditionally, women in Saudi Arabia were not permitted to own businesses of any kind, including lingerie shops. Until recently, all the lingerie shops were staffed 100% by men. In keeping with the notion that accurate depictions of women should not be publicly displayed, the lingerie shops showcased headless mannequins dressed in pajamas. Inside the stores were racks of racy lingerie, sexy bras, lacy teddies and thongs. But there was nowhere to try on lingerie before buying it, as the religious police banned dressing rooms in women’s apparel stores. They consider it is morally wrong for a woman to undress in a public place…..even when nobody can see her.

To make matters worse, because unmarried men and women are forbidden by law to touch each other, male staffers cannot measure women for their proper bra size. Women are left in a position where they must guess what size they wear. Sometimes they are subjected to the scrutiny of male staffers who size them up, looking them up and down, perhaps in disagreement with their request. “No, I think you need a smaller cup size” or “You should get a larger cup size” are common comments made by the salesmen.

Although refunds are readily available if women go home and discover their undergarments are the wrong size, the hassle and the embarrassment often result in women keeping what they purchased. Many own a collection of mis-sized bras and underwear. And, although women are permitted to shop for their clothes alone, many of them insist that their husbands accompany them to ensure that the salesmen keep in-line and act respectfully. Otherwise, when salesmen act inappropriately, women cannot speak up for fear that they will be punished, often by their own families.

In 2006 a law was enacted stating that only females can be employed at women’s lingerie shops. However, the law was never implemented. Approximately a year ago, a few all-female lingerie shops opened. They are primarily stand-alone boutiques or stores placed in the women’s-only section of shopping centers. Unlike the male-run shops, these stores allow buyers to try on garments prior to making a purchase. In order to ensure that men cannot see inside, the stores have no windows.

Many women are tired of the ordeal posed by purchasing intimate apparel from men. Heba al-Akki, a business woman, stated that she buys items quickly and runs out of the store as fast as possible, as though she were making an illegal purchase. Others have sworn off lingerie shopping in Saudi Arabia altogether, and instead shop for their undergarments in Dubai.

In March 2009, fifty women gathered together and decided to boycott all lingerie stores staffed by men. They urged other women to limit their lingerie shopping to stores that employ females. Boycott organizers decided that rather than working through the government, they would put pressure where it counts - - by hitting retailers in the pocketbook. The boycott was launched at a women’s center near the Red Sea Port of Jeddah. Additionally, almost 1700 people have signed a Facebook petition protesting the all-male staffing practices. Some Saudi newspapers have written about the boycott, but it is picking up steam predominantly through word-of-mouth.

Hoping to expedite the hiring of women, Suhair al-Qurashi, head of the private Dar al-Hekma College, got the idea to hold the training course teaching women to fit and sell lingerie, and deal with customer complaints. That way, if the opportunity for female employment in lingerie shops arose, there would be qualified saleswomen to accept the positions.

Some salesmen hint that they too support female employment in lingerie shops, explaining that the current situation is often embarrassing to salesmen as well. Nevertheless, there are large segments of Saudi society that still resist the idea. Traditional and religious women are somewhat suspicious of female-run stores…..even if they are merely selling lingerie. And, both men and women are concerned that employing women in lingerie shops will take away jobs from men in a country that already suffers a 10 to13 percent unemployment rate of the male population.

To date, though the graduates have completed 40 hours of intense instruction over a ten day period, they are unable to implement their knowledge, as stores still aren’t hiring women.

The boycott continues.

Deborah Weiss is an attorney and regular contributor to REST OF

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