Afghanistan's Indian soaps
provoke culture debate
KABUL (AFP) — "I'm not the father," Mehir Verani exclaims,
accusing his virtuous wife Tulsi of having their son with another man.
Shocked, the beautiful woman throws her husband a tearful glance.
The music peaks ... and an episode of the most popular soap opera in Afghanistan
ends, millions of viewers left hanging on for the next instalment in a tale
many have followed since it first aired four years ago.
"I think this is another conspiracy against Tulsi,"
50-year-old car-part salesman Noor Agha says of the Indian drama dubbed into
Farsi. "I'm desperate to see how she will cope with it this time."
But just as Tulsi's honour was thrown into doubt, albeit only briefly,
so has been the fate of the serial of the same name.
Islamic mullahs, backed by elements in the government, want it and
They say the serials and the hot topics they deal with -- such as
Tulsi's alleged infidelity -- are corrupting Afghans as they emerge from the
strict conservatism of the Taliban regime which banned television and movies.
Afghan culture has slunk towards a wannabe democracy comprising free
media, pop music and fashion, they claim.
The information and culture ministry has ordered at least five Indian
serials off the air. Most stations have complied but Tolo television has firmly
refused to drop Tulsi which has been a ratings winner.
A showdown looms with the ministry referring the matter to the attorney
general while the Mohseni family that runs the station says the ban is illegal
and they will be prepared to go to court.
The influential clerics are unhappy in particular with women in the
show: heavily made-up, they never cover their hair as all Afghan women do and
wear Indian saris that expose arms and waists, pixellated out for Afghanistan.
The clerics also complain about depictions of Hindu idols and worship.
"In one scene a person bows to an idol. Don't you think this would
have a negative impact on a child?" asks Egypt-educated cleric Hayaz Niazi
from his Kabul
The serials also "step on" the custom of wearing a veil and
show too much violence, he says, calling for television and media "based
on our own culture and beliefs."
In a land scarred by decades of conflict, Tulsi offers Afghans an escape
from their own hard lives with an insurgency raging and unemployment at 40
The Indian soaps portray romance and dating -- a taboo in Afghanistan
where almost all marriages are arranged -- as well as heroism and the triumph
of good over evil.
But some ordinary Afghans share the mullahs' concerns.
"When my kids see a kid worshipping a Hindu idol, demanding
something from it and getting it right away, my kids will believe that can
happen," says educated Kabul
resident Bahram Sarway.
"I don't want them to forget the real God and go after stone-made
gods," he says.
Tolo director Zaid Mohseni, who set up the station with US funding on
his return from Australia
after the 2001 ouster of the Taliban, scoffs at such arguments.
"To suggest that somehow people will suddenly stop being Muslims
because of the airing of foreign content is not only short-sighted, but it is
actually offensive to Muslims as it suggests that their faith is so
fickle," he says.
He believes the ban -- which is being pushed by Information and Culture
Minister Abdul Karim Khoram although others in his ministry distance themselves
from it -- is partly politically motivated.
Pulling Tulsi from the schedules would mean a huge loss in advertising
revenue which is financing other programmes, Mohseni says.
This includes hard-hitting and satirical news shows that are the only
ones in the country prepared to criticise officials, including Khoram whom Tolo
has repeatedly shown saying media freedom is "meaningless" and a
The government should be concentrating on more weighty matters, Mohseni
"We wish that issues such as corruption, poppy eradication, rule of
law, how to attract investment and other important matters could be pursued
with the same vigour by the government as this matter was," he says.
Media rights activists suggest President Hamid Karzai, who has expressed
support for the ban, is trying to put pressure on media to please conservative
elements ahead of an election next year.
"His popularity has suffered huge damage due to his failures in
recent years, exposed by the free media," says Fahim Dashti, editor of the
prominent Kabul Weekly and a spokesman for Afghanistan's National Journalists
"I think he wants to stop media telling the people about his
failures during the sensitive election campaign," he says.
"It also seems the president uses this to reflect himself as a good
Muslim in an attempt to attract support from conservative circles and
communities ahead of the elections."