The video was old and the song well-known, but the sight of an Afghan woman — clad in a shiny red dress and simple headscarf — singing on Afghan television sparked a wave of excitement and a backlash of conservatism.
The four-minute track by pop idol Salma was broadcast Monday, the first time Afghan state television has aired a female singer in over a decade.
Only Kabulis wealthy enough to own a TV and lucky enough to have electricity at the crucial moment could see the broadcast, but it provoked the first cultural struggle since a new constitution declared Afghanistan an Islamic republic nine days ago.
Parwais Nasari, a 25-year-old cooking potato waffles at a Kabul market stall, said he was sipping green tea after dinner with his family when Salma appeared, singing a Pashto-language ode to the beauty of the Afghan mountains.
“We sprang up, gathered around the screen and turned up the volume,” he said. “We were very happy. I hadn’t seen anything like it since communist days.”
But one of Afghanistan’s deputy supreme court justices was not amused.
“This mistake should not be repeated,” Fazel Ahmed Manawi told The Associated Press. “In the constitution there is an article that says things that go against Islam are not allowed.”
Female singers, some in short skirts, were a common sight on Afghan television in the 1980s, the decade of Soviet occupation.
Moscow’s withdrawal in 1989 and the triumph of Islamic fighters three years later put an end to that. And the Taliban who captured Kabul in 1996 went further, banning television and all non-religious music.
Now, two years after the Taliban were swept from power by U.S. military might for sheltering Osama bin Laden, music again blares from Kabul’s buses, taxis and stores.
Bootleg compact discs of Salma and other favorites such as Farhad Darya — another singer based in Germany — are available for a dollar at booths across the capital.
Indian movies, heavily romantic and dotted with songs by unveiled young women, are a must-see on state TV for many urban families. But the sight of an Afghan woman was still a shock.
Conservatives fight the trend
Conservatives have not let the changes pass without a fight.
Until recently the national broadcaster was controlled by the Northern Alliance, the faction that defied U.S. orders by marching into Kabul after the Taliban fled.
Conservative-minded television station managers sparred repeatedly with the more liberal Information and Culture Ministry until a new state TV director was installed last month.
Abdul Rahman Panjshiri, the TV station’s foreign relations director, said the channel — the only one available without cable or satellite in Kabul — wanted to show more female singers.
“It’s normal — man without woman is incomplete. How could we keep them off television?” he said. “We’ll have to see how people respond, but hopefully it will become regular.”
But that could also depend on a brewing struggle between the government and the Supreme Court.
Manawi said the court has sent a letter of protest to the information and culture minister, invoking the country’s new charter.
But the minister, Makhdom Raheen, said he hadn’t received it, and the judges had no right to intervene.
“These things are up to the minister to decide,” he said.
Religious conservatives at the grand council that ended Jan. 4 granted President Hamid Karzai the strong presidential system he sought. But the accord includes a stipulation that no law can go against the “provisions” of Islam — wording Western rights groups say could provide a way for the supreme court to impose a hard-line interpretation of the law.
Nasari, the stall owner, said the judges should stay out of the music debate. But other Afghans oppose female singers.
One Kabul woman said she hadn’t seen the disputed video because of a power outage, but thought it was wrong. “My husband is very religious,” she added by way of explanation, refusing to give her name.
A group of Northern Alliance commanders covered a whole spectrum of opinion: one saw no problem with women singing on TV; another said women should only appear veiled; a third insisted Afghanistan needs strict Islamic law.
“If you’re talking about a Western society, it’s fine. But we spent 20 years fighting a holy war for Islam,” said the third commander, who also refused to give his name. “God and the Prophet said women should not sing.”