Simon Cowell recently announced that he is planning to launch an Afghan local version of Britain’s Got Talent. But religious hardliners have declared a jihad against television talent shows that have taken Afghanistan by storm, condemning the way they feature unveiled women singing and dancing.
SMH The programs – modelled on Western favourites such as The Voice and X Factor – are hugely popular in a country with a young population and where television ownership has risen sharply since the Taliban were ousted from Kabul in 2001. At the same time there is a growing backlash against what many see as foreign values.
However, the talent shows have also stoked controversy. During the first season of Afghan Star – a local copy of Pop Idol – one woman was forced into hiding when her headscarf slipped as she danced. This year Voice of Afghanistan has been singled out for particular criticism. It follows the established format of The Voice, with blind auditions and battle rounds.
It features Aryana Sayeed, who was born in Kabul but now lives in London, as one of three singing coaches. The singer has faced a barrage of criticism on social media sites for not wearing a headscarf and wearing figure-hugging clothes. Messages posted on the show’s Facebook page claim she might be better off working as an escort and complain that Afghan women are shown dancing.
A lively media scene is, however, a reminder that things have changed since the five-year reign of the Taliban, when television, films and videos were banned. Broadcasting has boomed in recent years. Some 75 television stations and 175 radio stations are on air, numbers cited as evidence of Afghanistan’s growing democracy and freedom.
With that has come an almost insatiable demand for talent and reality shows. Among them are a programme to find the next football star and last year, for Ramadan, Tolo TV developed a Koran Idol-style contest to appease more traditional tastes. Islamic scholars judged contestants on their ability to recite Islamic verses.
Abdul Sattar Khawasi, a parliamentarian, is leading the campaign and has secured a promise from the Afghan minister of information to review the programs. “I have already made it clear in the lower house that I am going to start a jihad against these kind of shows and programmes on our television channels,” he said.
Mr Khawasi added: “Look at its name, The Voice of Afghanistan, how sweet the name is and how great it looks, but unfortunately look at the contents of the show – it does not represent the culture and customs of our country.”
Swathes of Afghanistan remain beholden to conservative clerics. Women are rarely seen outside the home and only then hidden beneath a burka.
Aminullah Qaderi 24, a student at Kabul University, said Afghan producers must show Afghan culture and Afghan initiatives. “I have watched The Voice of Afghanistan a little bit, I did not like it, because the way the judges are dressed and especially that female one. It is totally a Western thing,” he said. “I would not like any of my family members to follow this show.”