Afghanistan's spiritual guardians have discovered a dangerous new peril: Indian soap operas.
The Islamic Council of Scholars won the backing this week of a powerful government minister in its campaign to get dozens of wildly popular Bombay dramas off Afghanistan's television screens.
The Minister of Information and Culture has written to television executives to threaten prosecution if they show footage that offends morality. He is particularly concerned about Indian soaps.
His announcement came after dozens of clerics met President Karzai a week ago to demand a ban on shows that they claim are spreading immorality and un-Islamic culture . The dramas have won thousands of devotees in Afghanistan who enjoy the
escapist world of the fictional Bombay rich. Anywhere else, the family dramas with wooden acting and creaking sets would be thought tame. They have, however, offended the country's new moral enforcers, who fear that the soaps will fuel a craze of
“stone worship”, or veneration of Hindu idols.
The enforcers are also urging the Government to take action to get a young generation of rappers and pop stars off air. The old men accuse the musicians of polluting the nation's moral standards and they have chastised Afghans who watch
television when they could go to the mosque.
Saad Mohseni, the director of Tolo TV, said: We have so many problems in this country - kidnapping, terrorism, inflation - so why is the Government making a big deal about something which is pleasing to the eyes and ears of most Afghans?
Afghanistan's lower house of Parliament has passed a resolution seeking to bar television programs from showing dancing and other practices deemed un-Islamic.
The decision came just days after the private Tolo TV channel aired a dance number featuring men and women together on an Afghan film awards program.
The Information and Culture Ministry condemned the scene, saying dancing by men and women together was completely against the culture of the Afghan, Muslim society.
The parliamentary resolution, drafted by a commission for cultural and religious affairs, said dancers should not be shown on television, and un-Islamic scenes should be cut from Indian TV series broadcast in Afghanistan, said Din Mohammad Azimi,
a lawmaker and member of the commission.
The resolution, which is not now legally binding and cannot be enforced, will go before the upper house of Parliament for consideration, Azimi said. It would also have to be approved by the president before becoming law.
Tolo TV's owner Saad Mohseni said the dancing on the awards show Friday was very tame by any standard and the women were dressed modestly.
An Afghan legislative committee has drafted a bill seeking to introduce Taliban-style Islamic morality codes.
The draft, a copy of which was obtained by AFP, needs approval by both chambers of the Islamist-dominated parliament and President Hamid Karzai signature to become a law.
Women and girls are obliged to not wear make-up, wear suitable dresses and observe hijab (veil) while at work or classrooms, said one article of the draft.
It also aims to ban women dancers performing during concerts and other public events as well as on television. The mass media including television and cable networks must avoid broadcasting programmes against Islamic morals, it said
without giving details.
Men and young boys must avoid wearing bracelets, necklaces, "feminist dresses," and hair-bands, the draft reads.
The proposals also demand an end to dog and bird-fighting, pigeon-flying, billiards and video games, all past times favoured by many Afghans.
It demands separate halls for men and women during wedding parties.
Update: Shameful President
22nd April 2008
Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai defended a decision by his government to ban Indian soap operas, saying they violated his nation's moral standards and culture.
The culture ministry has given several privately run television stations until today to stop showing certain popular serials based on tales of love, disputes and the daily lives of Indian Hindu families.
At least one has already been taken off air after the ban, which authorities say was prompted by a call from religious scholars who labelled the shows “un-Islamic”.
Asked about the move, Karzai told a media briefing his government was committed to media freedom ...BUT... like the rest of the countries in the world, we want our television broadcasting to be in line with our culture, based on our
society moral standards,
The young Afghan woman in a headscarf spends all day staring at other women's bodies and Hindu idols on her computer screen, then covering them up.
It's Laila Rastagar's job to turn Indian and Korean soap operas into family viewing in this conservative Muslim country. Dual flat-screen monitors illuminate the 22-year-old's face in the dark cubicle as she draws a blurry square with her mouse
to obscure a collarbone, then a kneecap, then a Buddha statue.
She's one of a crew of such editors employed by Tolo TV, Afghanistan's most popular station, to censor shows in an attempt to balance its programming at the intersection of radical Islam, traditional values and the West.
A new private Kabul television station, Emrooz, has made a name for itself by airing entertainment and music programs mainly focused on youth.
But the upstart broadcaster's quest for ratings has earned the wrath of authorities, with prosecutors accusing it of undermining Afghan society's traditional Islamic values and influential detractors threatening to revoke its broadcast license.
Critics are upset at the station for broadcasting scenes and clips of immodestly dressed women, notably Tajik and Indian singers and dancers.
Emrooz staff were questioned by Kabul prosecutors this week.
Fahim Kohdamani, a program editor at Emrooz, tells RFE/RL that station managers were repeatedly summoned by the Information and Culture Ministry before their case was referred to the Office of the Prosecutor-General.
Emrooz is the only Afghan television that does not censor music clips, Kohdamani says: We air video clips by Tajik, Iranian, Afghan, Indian, and even sometimes Arab and European music clips that show female and male performers signing
and dancing. The Ministry of Culture has always had this problem with us.
Emrooz producers insist they have violated no laws but are being forced to choose between overly aggressive self-censorship and even more rigid censorship by government agencies.
Despite Emrooz's pending legal wrangle, and the threat of a lost television license for the station and lost freedom for some individuals within the company, Emrooz appears defiant.
The station is launching a national search for male and female models. The show will be broadcast monthly, with more than 2,000 contestants competing for two top prizes over four months. It will be Afghanistan's first publicly declared fashion
program -- and it has already incurred threats.
But Emrooz executives, defiant in the face of such threats, say they will continue to break down taboos -- even if they must pay a price for doing so.
The manager of an Afghan television network who refused to censor images of women dancing in short skirts and plunging necklines has been arrested.
The government has previously censured television stations and taken others to court, but the arrest of Emrose TV's Fahim Khodamani was the first for airing overly salacious content, the Afghan deputy attorney general said Tuesday.
Since the Taliban fell in 2001, television stations have flourished, pitting the issue of freedom of the press against conservative norms in a country where most women wear clothes that cover everything but their face and neck.
Aggressive Afghan government attempts to censor TV programs could be part of a strategy to temper conflict with the Taliban. Or it could be an attempt to siphon support from Afghans drawn to the Taliban's conservative style of Islam.
Many Afghan TV stations cut or blur scenes with women showing more than their face or neck, taking a conservative stance to avoid violating a vague government law that prohibits media content that is not within the framework of Islam.
Khodamani was arrested for refusing repeated requests to pixelate or otherwise obscure images of women dancing in short skirts or outfits with low necklines, said Deputy Attorney General Fazel Ahmad Faqiyar. The videos are relatively tame by
The arrest comes days after Afghanistan's top Muslim clerics called on the government to block stations from airing prohibited and hypocritical anti-Islam programs and immoral scenes and movies.