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Afghanistan: Debate Over Broadcasts Of Female Singers Highlights Divisions In Society

A dispute over whether female Afghan singers should be shown on Kabul TV has focused attention on divisions between conservative Islamists and moderates in the Afghan government.

Prague, 28 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Cultural and religious divisions in Afghanistan have been thrust into the international spotlight by debate over whether state-run Kabul TV should broadcast images of female Afghan singers.

The dispute is testing the foundation of Afghanistan's new constitution. On one side, conservative Islamists on Afghanistan's Supreme Court recently ruled that such broadcasts violate a clause in the constitution that says laws must adhere to the provisions of Islam.

But moderate reformists in the Transitional Authority are ignoring the Supreme Court ruling. They say there is nothing in the Koran that forbids women from singing in public. And as the debate goes on, Kabul TV is continuing the musical broadcasts, which consist of decades-old film clips.

"We see clearly, with God's grace and the Afghan's highest endeavors, that women's rights have been reaffirmed and that women did express their bravery at [the Constitutional] Loya Jirga."
In the past week, RFE/RL's Afghan Service has become a forum for the public debate. Listeners have had a chance to express their views, as well as to question different Afghan officials about where they stand.

Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai says such radio programs show there is strong public support for his government's decision to lift a 12-year-old broadcast ban on female singers. But Karzai says the debate also shows that the issue remains culturally sensitive in post-Taliban Afghanistan: "Afghanistan has had women singing in the Afghan radio and television for [some] 50 to 60 years. This is a policy that the Ministry of Information and Culture decides, and I have [heard] interviews on the radios in the past few days. People have welcomed it. But still we have to work in the context of today's cultural and social environment and do whatever is suited for that."

Ironically, it was not the conservative Taliban regime that imposed the ban on female singers. Rather, the ban was first issued in 1992 by the Islamic fundamentalist mujahedin militia who fought for a decade against Soviet forces in Afghanistan. When the Taliban captured Kabul from those same mujahedin commanders in 1996, they banned all television broadcasts -- as well as private performances of music -- as part of an even stricter interpretation of Shari'a law.

Afghan Women's Affairs Minister Habiba Sarabi was on RFE/RL's Afghan broadcasts last week as a member of a guest panel. She told listeners that attempts by the Supreme Court to keep female singers off the air will not lead the country back to the kind of restrictions against women that were typical of the Taliban era: "The government policy is quite clear and does not wish to regress to the dark ages of the Taliban era. And thus, there is no apprehension on our side and in our governing policy."

Broadcasts of female singers have been routinely shown on local television in Kandahar and Mazar-e Sharif since the collapse of the Taliban regime.

Sarabi said she does not expect the Supreme Court's ruling on the Kabul broadcasts to discourage international financial aid to Afghanistan: "There were a few rumors here and there that if the rights of women were not observed in the draft constitution, that the international community would cease their [financial] assistance. But we see clearly, with God's grace and the Afghan's highest endeavors, that women's rights have been reaffirmed and that women did express their bravery at [the Constitutional] Loya Jirga."

Mohammad Sadiq Patman, a member of Afghanistan's Constitutional Drafting Committee, said as a guest on the RFE/RL panel that he sees nothing in the Koran which forbids women from singing in public, even when "namahram" -- or men eligible for marriage -- are among the listeners: "I analyzed that from the religious point of view. It is OK for a woman's voice to be heard by a namahram. I am not an expert, but what I have told you is what I understand of religion, women's rights, and the provisions [in the Koran] on a woman's voice. [The Koran says] that when a woman goes to the courts to testify as a witness, a judge has to see her face and hear her voice. So a woman's voice is heard by a namahram. Hence, it is not forbidden."

Patman said the dispute really centers on different interpretations of the Koran's symbolic language: "Political matters have not been mentioned in detail in the Koran. The resolution of political disputes depends entirely on how a nation determines those issues. If you study Islam from its inception, these issues have not been addressed. Just as now, different clerics have different perceptions and issue different religious decrees. Political matters vary in different [historical] eras."

But the fervor of Afghans who support the Supreme Court ruling could be heard from listeners such as Abdul Rahman Ahmadi, who called the moderators of the RFE/RL broadcast to criticize Patman's remarks: "The Koran has forbidden women from singing and dancing. For a woman to testify in court, this is a different issue. Singing for women is forbidden in Islam. But being a witness is another matter. You, [Mr. Patman], are not well-versed. You have not read the Koran and have no knowledge of it."

It does appear that many residents of the Afghan capital welcome the broadcasts of female singers as a sign that life is returning to what was considered normal before the Soviet invasion. But the view is different among rank-and-file soldiers from Islamist factions of the former Northern Alliance that have controlled large parts of the capital since they helped U.S. forces oust the Taliban in late 2001. Several of those fighters have told RFE/RL they think the Kabul TV broadcasts are un-Islamic and that the ban on female singers should be reimposed.

Meanwhile, members of Afghanistan's Constitutional Loya Jirga today accused Karzai of signing into law a constitution that has been altered from the draft they approved on 4 January.

Abdul Hafiz Mansur, an outspoken critic of Karzai, says four articles have been changed in a way that strengthens Karzai's powers and weakens the powers of a proposed National Assembly. Karzai's spokesman, Jawed Ludin, has said that Karzai signed the version of the document that was given to him by the government commission that drafted the constitution.

(Azam Gorgin and RFE/RL's Afghan Service contributed to this report.)