Afghan models reveal the beauty under the burqa

MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan (Reuters) - A model strutting the catwalk is hardly revolutionary in most countries, but Afghan television’s answer to “America’s Next Top Model” is breaking boundaries and revealing the beauty under the burqa.

An Afghan contestant gets her make-up done before a fashion competition initiated by Arzu, a private television channel in city of Mazar-I-Shariff north of Kabul. September 25, 2007. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood

Nearly six years after the overthrow of the strict Islamist Taliban government, almost all women in deeply conservative Afghanistan still only appear in public wafting past in the burqa’s pale blue, their dark eyes only occasionally visible behind the bars of its grille.

But in the relatively liberal northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif, a local television station has started to show a different image of Afghan women with an extremely low-budget take on the hit “America’s Next Top Model”, a reality TV show in which judges choose prospective models from a group of contestants over several weeks.

“I was really enthusiastic to make this program because I wanted the girls to present the clothes and themselves,” said Sosan Soltani, the 18-year-old director of the program.

“Afghanistan is free and these girls are the future of this country,” she said.

Four girls in brightly colored traditional costumes with baggy pants and long loose-fitting shawls and headscarves strode down the impromptu catwalk decked out in traditional Afghan rugs. Seemingly less confident than their Western counterparts, they avoided the gaze of the all-male film crew and press.

A quick change later, the same four appeared in camouflage combat trousers, sneakers and embroidered smocks. Then came denim jeans, open-toed sandals and colorful lightweight jackets.

None of this would be at all risque in the West, but in Afghanistan, such attire can spark outrage, especially when broadcast on television.

“According to Sharia law, Islam is absolutely against this,” said Afghan Muslim cleric Abdul Raouf. “Not only is it banned by Islamic Sharia law, but if we apply Sharia law and to take this issue to justice, these girls should be punished.”

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More than 10 other models due to take part in the program failed to turn up after hearing that members of the international press would be present, fearing the wider broadcast of the show could lead to trouble for them, their friends said.

Those who did brave the possible backlash were determined.

“It is a great idea I think for Afghan girls, to encourage them to go a step forward,” said 19-year-old model Katayoun Timour.

“We know that in Afghan society 90 percent of people think it is not good, that it’s absolutely wrong,” she said of the program. “We had objections from people, but I tell them it is not something bad, they should see it in a positive way.”

But on the streets of Mazar-i-Sharif, it was hard to find anyone who objected to the program, especially among the young.

“It is a good program,” said 28-year-old shopkeeper Ahmad Sear. “People watch and like it, especially women are interested in this program -- through this program and the clothes they wear, they might be able to develop their country.”

“Young people are interested in fashion and the program introduces new clothes to them,” said businessman Ahmad Nasir. “It also complies with Afghan culture, so it’s fine.”

But asked if he looked more at the clothes or the girls, he replied with a smile: “The girls of course.” Then added, “the clothes are important though.”

Model Timour said she wanted the outside world to see a different image of Afghan women.

“I have seen outside Afghanistan they have a different kind of idea about women in Afghanistan -- they think they are always wearing the burqa and sitting at home but it is not like that,” she said. “Girls in Afghanistan are beautiful.”