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'The Voice' in Afghanistan: Once more a hit, but not without controversy

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KABUL, Afghanistan – It would be hard to imagine turning on the television here 12 years ago, before the American invasion, and seeing young Afghan women performing pop music routines. Singing, after all, was banned by the Taliban and punishable by stoning.

Yet today, an unlikely hit has emerged in this war-weary country: a version of the American reality program "The Voice." The show follows the same format of celebrity judges selecting and coaching teams of amateur singers, who are then pitted against one another. The winning formula may be a Western import, but everything else – from the songs to the performers – are pure Afghan.

Unlike the provocatively dressed hosts of Western reality series, the "The Voice of Afghanistan" features a conservatively dressed female host, bearing a head scarf. The studio audience – as wildly enthusiastic as its American counterpart – claps and cheers for contestants, but is segregated by gender.

The program was launched last May on Tolo, the first independent TV station in Afghanistan. It was an immediate hit. The combined force of the universal language of music, the talented young singers and the slick production values had Afghans from all parts of the country – hungry for new forms of entertainment – hooked on following the highs and lows of this country's possible future stars.

For those involved in the production of "The Voice," the show's success represents more than just escapist entertainment. It reflects the new and free Afghanistan, they say.

Aryana Sayeed, left, listens as a contestant sings. As a symbol of female independence in a strictly conservative Islamic country, Sayeed receives regular death threats and lives in fear of being kidnapped by religious extremists. Massoud Hossaini / AFP - Getty Images, file

"They are singing for us, they are singing for their country, their feelings and their thoughts," said Qais Alamder, a young production assistant who works for Tolo. "That's why people are watching!"

Indeed, the enthusiasm is returned in the viewership. Tolo said 80 percent of the country tunes in to "The Voice," although the ratings could not be verified (there are no Nielsen boxes in Afghanistan). A local bank employee, Fariba Sherzada, said that her entire family makes a point to sit down and watch each week's episode. "We make sure we don't go out or do any entertaining when the show is on, so that we don't miss any of it!" she said.

That sense of excitement, as might be expected here, is not shared by everyone. The conservative factions in society and government strongly disapprove of most of the pop culture imported from the West, and "The Voice" is no exception. Abdul Satar, a Parliamentary official, said the show "brings shame to our community and ruins our Islamic and Afghan dignity and culture." Satar has called for a jihad against "The Voice" and similar shows with Western influence.

"If we do not stop these kinds of programs, within the next 10 years the next generation will no longer observe the Islamic religion," he said.

Of particular concern is one of the judges on the show, Aryana Sayeed, a popular singer and TV personality known as the "Adele of Afghanistan." Sayeed's wardrobe, provocative by local standards, along with her refusal to wear a head scarf on television has led to hate mail and death threats.

"She is not respecting Afghan culture and religion," said Sheba Sherzhad, a student. "But that is her choice."

Mustafa Sawari, a doctor, added that if Sayeed "observed our customs, we would have more respect for her and her talent."

But Sayeed told NBC News that she will dress more conservatively when out on the streets of Kabul.

"I don't have a problem with scarves," she said. "My mother wears a scarf. But when I'm on this particular show, I don't feel right to wear a scarf and then sing R&B and pop on the stage."

The finale of "The Voice" aired last week, with the winner, a young man named Jawed Yosufi, taking home a cash prize of $2,000 -- pale by the standards of American reality and game show payouts. But Yosufi is already a celebrity here, with the road ahead of him likely to lead to a successful singing career. The controversies surrounding the show have not deterred the producers, and Tolo has green-lighted another season.

For now at least, "The Voice of Afghanistan" will not be silenced.

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