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From a Taliban stronghold to a ‘Afghan Star'

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MateenK View Drop Down
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    Posted: 20-Mar-2017 at 10:38am

From a Taliban stronghold to the sets of ‘Afghan Star’

From a Taliban stronghold to the sets of ‘Afghan Star’

18-year-old Zulala Hashemi has become the first girl to reach the final of the popular television music talent show

Smokey-eyed Zulala Hashemi, standing tall in four-inch gold heels, wants to sing for women. The 18-year-old has become the first girl to reach the final of popular television music talent show Afghan Star.

Ms. Hashemi, a native of eastern Jalalabad — a stronghold of Taliban and Islamic State insurgents — will face off against the first rapper of the competition in Monday’s final.

Their clash will be one of the most trailblazing in the popular show’s 12-year history.

Quietly rooting for Ms. Hashemi is Aryana Saeed, one of the judges and an indefatigable women’s rights activist. Ms. Saeed, who was born in Kabul but usually lives in London, is likened widely to American reality star Kim Kardashian and is despised by religious conservatives for her figure-hugging clothes.

Support for women

Ms. Hashemi and Ms. Saeed hug in a studio at local television station Tolo, their eyelashes fluttering. “I have never hidden my support as women have little chance in this country,” Ms. Saeed said. “For the first time people have voted for a girl — and one who comes from a very conservative province, a land of Islamic State zealots.”

Afghan Star, Tolo’s adaptation of American Idol, has been a huge hit in conservative Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban regime that banned music and cinema. But since its launch in 2005, it has also seen a backlash from mullahs for the way it features unveiled women singing and dancing.

A woman came in third place in 2008, and since then no female singer has gone beyond the seventh or eighth position, said Omid Nezami, the show’s presenter and a former contestant.

Aside from the backing of the public, Ms. Hashemi can count on support from her mother Merem Hashemi, a smiling woman who designed and hand-stitched all her daughter’s on-stage costumes. “Even if I do not win, I will be a singer,” says Ms. Hashemi in her deep voice, determination in her almond-shaped eyes. “I wear traditional dresses but my songs follow the path of Aryana. I want to convey a message to Afghan women: they must claim their rights and explore their talents,” she added.

Massood Sanjer, the head of Tolo TV, said it was nothing short of revolutionary that a girl from conservative Jalalabad had reached the finals. “This is exactly what this country needs right now,” he enthused, alluding to growing insecurity.

Tolo’s maze of production sets lie behind a thick steel door, manned by armed guards and barricaded against car bombs and gunfire. The TV station has stopped outdoor recordings owing to security concerns.

The Afghan capital is regularly hit with insurgent gun and bomb attacks. Earlier this month, a group of gunmen stormed Afghanistan’s largest military hospital in Kabul, killing more than 100 people, according to multiple surviving staff.

Competing against Ms. Hashemi is Sayed Jamal Mubarez, a barber and a young rapper from northern Mazar-i-Sharif city.

At 23, he is the breadwinner of his family and is keenly eyeing the Afghan Star prize — a motorcycle and a trip to Kazakhstan. “Jamal has been in the lead since the beginning,” said Mr. Nezami, the show’s presenter.

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