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Afghanistan: Kabul TV Lifts Ban On Women Singers

Kabul TV has shown the image of a woman singing a romantic ballad for the first time in more than 10 years. RFE/RL reports on the reactions.

Prague, 13 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- State-owned Kabul TV surprised its prime-time viewers last night by showing a decades-old film clip of "Salma," an Afghan woman who was a popular singer during the 1970s and early 1980s, performing a romantic ballad.

The broadcast marks the first time in more than 10 years that a woman has been seen singing on local television in the Afghan capital.

Western observers describe the broadcast as a small victory for moderates like Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai. Since the collapse of the Taliban regime more than two years ago, moderates have been struggling against conservatives who oppose -- on religious grounds -- things such as broadcasting images of women singing.

Last night's broadcast featured a five-minute film clip from the early 1980s that shows Salma singing a Pashtu-language ballad called "Pa Lawaro Ghruno," or "On The Highest Mountains." She was shown in a red-and-white blouse with a simple veil over her hair as she sang: "On the highest mountains, a storm is coming. Don't go. Stay the night. It is raining."

Later in the evening, Kabul TV also broadcast a decades-old film clip of another famous Afghan woman singer named Parasto, as she performed a song without a headscarf.

In a brief interview with Reuters today, Afghan Information and Culture Minister Sayyed Makhdum Rahin said Kabul TV is beginning to rebroadcast Afghan artistic works regardless of the performer's gender. His remarks indicate that authorities have essentially lifted a ban on broadcasts of women singing.

That ban was imposed in 1992 by Islamic fundamentalist mujahedin leaders, who fought for a decade against Soviet forces in Afghanistan.

Female singers like Bakht Zamina and Khan Qarabaghai were killed in Kabul, while others, like Salma and Parasto, became exiles in the United States and Western Europe.

When the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996, they banned all television broadcasts -- as well as radio broadcasts and private performances of music -- as part of their strict interpretation of Sharia law.

There are strong indications that the issue of broadcasting female singers is still a sensitive one in Kabul -- particularly among members of the fundamentalist Jamiat-e Islami faction that formed the backbone of the former Northern Alliance, which helped the U.S. military topple the Taliban in late 2001.

When asked by RFE/RL to discuss the lifting of the ban today, Minister Rahin said he was declining all interviews on the subject for now with Afghan media. Our correspondent in Kabul reports that the Information and Culture Ministry is studying public reaction to the broadcasts as similar programs are aired in the coming days.

So far, there has been no official criticism from the most prominent religious conservatives in the Afghan Transitional Administration.

But rank-and-file soldiers in the Jamiat-e Islami faction told RFE/RL today they think the broadcasts are un-Islamic and that the ban should be reimposed. Many other ordinary Afghans have welcomed last night's broadcast as a sign that conditions in Kabul are continuing to return to what had been considered normal in the country before 1992.

Last night's broadcast may also reflect a power struggle for the airwaves in Kabul. Shortly before the start of last month's Constitutional Loya Jirga, a religious conservative named Mohammad Isahaq was replaced as head of Kabul Radio and TV.

Isahaq, a high-ranking member of the Jamiat-e Islami faction, had been criticized by moderates in the Afghan government because of his refusal to heed the standards and norms for broadcasting determined by the minister of culture.

Isahaq's replacement, Ghulam Hassan Hazrati, has close ties with Information and Culture Minister Rahin. Both have supported the argument that Afghan men and women should not be banned from exercising their cultural traditions and customs.