One young woman is sporting jeans, a long-sleeved woolen jacket, and running shoes. Another is clad in a colorful Afghan national costume -- a loose-fitting outfit with wide trousers and a long scarf. Both amble gracefully down a carpeted catwalk before a panel of prickly judges.
Welcome to "Afghan Model," a televised show that is part beauty pageant, part fashion show. It is broadcast in 10 central provinces on the private television station Emrooz (Today), and sponsored by private companies and businessmen.
"We want our Afghan youth to get familiar with traditions and events that exist in the rest of the world," says Emrooz program director Fahim Kohdamani. "We also want to help promote and preserve Afghan national costumes that have been part of our culture for centuries if even some are now being forgotten. At the same time, we want to introduce new, modern designs. Most of all, we want to give an opportunity to young Afghans to be seen as good-looking and decent people in the world."
After Afghan Model’s first round last month, 80 contestants advanced to the next stage set for Norouz, the Afghan New Year, on March 22.
The show will conclude in the summer with finalists competing for two top prizes, including trips to Asian and European countries.
An Act Of Courage
When Emrooz first announced its plans for the program, the station hoped to attract a couple hundred contestants. Instead, more than 2,000 aspiring models between the ages of 18 and 32, many of them men, rushed to sign up.
Some of the young women come from Afghanistan’s volatile and deeply conservative southern provinces, including Kandahar. In such areas, merely going to school wearing only a headscarf -- rather than a body-length burqa -- takes enormous courage.
Even in comparatively modern Kabul, her hometown, it wasn’t easy to persuade relatives that "there is nothing wrong with being a model," says Wazhma, an 18-year-old student.
"Some people among my relatives and others are bothered by this," Wazhma says. "They don’t want an Afghan girl to participate in such events. But it is a completely new initiative in Afghanistan, so my parents allowed me to take part in it."
A fellow contestant, Hamed, says he wants to use the show as an opportunity to launch his career as a professional model.
"After the Taliban were deposed in Kabul, we got a satellite dish," Hamed, a 19-year-old college graduate, says. "I frequently watch fashion programs on TV and always wonder why there are not any Afghan models in international shows. Now I have a chance to become one myself."
All kinds of music and entertainment were banned under the Taliban, who used to publicly hang television sets confiscated from people’s homes.
"Afghan Model" isn’t anything like regular fashion shows. No professional fashion designer is involved, nor is there a particular design or concept behind the show. Contestants wear whatever they think looks good, whether the style is Western or Afghan.
And the judges are as inexperienced as the models. They select winners on the basis of their looks and physique as well as their outfits.
Emrooz executives hope "Afghan Model" will boost their channel's popularity, although many Afghans have harshly criticized the program as an immoral competition that corrupts young people.
Aspiring model Hamed says most Afghans still do not accept the idea of young men and women showing off their bodies and clothes.
"It involves a lot of hassles as many people are close-minded. And because it’s the very first such show, it has naturally provoked a lot of reactions," Hamed says.
But Hamed is not worried about what people think. He is just enjoys being a model -- and even getting recognized in the streets of Kabul.
From there to a Milan catwalk is a giant leap, but that’s his dream.