BROOKE GLADSTONE: This week, as lawmakers here inveighed against the small screen exposure of a woman's breast, Afghani politicians contended with the TV exposure of female faces -- singing. For the first time since 1992, and with the encouragement of President Hamid Karzai, Kabul television last month began to air taped performances of women singers, and it has re-ignited the smoldering conflict between civil rights activists and Islamic fundamentalists. Washington Post reporter Pamela Constable has been following the story from Kabul, and she says the singing women are a potent symbol of where Afghanistan is going and how hard it is to get there.
PAMELA CONSTABLE: After the Taliban government fell, there was an initial controversy over whether women could come back at all to television, and that was a battle that was fought and then basically a compromise was reached. Now there are indeed women on television. There are women newscasters. They do cover their heads, and they do cover their arms, but they don't wear veils over their faces, so it's a kind of cultural compromise of sorts.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what is the essence of this argument? Is this about women on TV or women singing on TV?
PAMELA CONSTABLE:The issue of women singing, for various reasons, seems to be much more volatile and controversial. I think it's because female singers here are evocative of a more romantic, perhaps sexually-charged kind of culture that is really not kind of safe to express these days even two years after the Taliban have gone. This is a country in which things so subtle that we would miss them, such as how far down the wrist a sleeve is worn and how far down the forehead a veil reaches, makes the difference between what some people consider to be un-Islamic and acceptably Islamic.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:So where do the major players in this debate actually stand? Is it the Islamic fundamentalists hate it and the women's rights activists love it, or are there a range of positions in between?
PAMELA CONSTABLE: Well there are. You know, one of the interesting things is that several months ago there was a controversy about a young Afghan-American woman who appeared in a beauty contest, and somewhat to my surprise, women's activist and women's rights groups here in Afghanistan were upset about this, because they feared it would set their own cause back. They are working to re-establish women's rights to work, to attend educational institutions, to express themselves. They feared that having an Afghan-American woman in a beauty contest in a bathing suit would set off such a counter-reaction that it would set back their own cause. Similarly, with the issue of women singers on television, I think a lot of people here in Afghanistan who are more progressive and reform-minded, including women's groups are trying to keep their eye on the ball and not get distracted by this sort of side issue of whether women can perform as entertainers in the media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Now the Karzai government is on record as supporting women's rights, and, and also their presence on television. So where does the issue of singing women stand now?
PAMELA CONSTABLE: Well, so far in spite of the threatening warnings issued by the Supreme Court saying that all such broadcasts should be stopped, they have in fact continued, and every night after the evening news, we see here in Kabul a number of tapes of singers, and usually one or two are of women singing. But it's important to point out that these are not live broadcasts. They're not contemporary. These are very old tapes of rather conservative, dignified women wearing very protective clothing, singing quite traditional songs. But even so, it, it seems to arouse the wrath of the real fundamentalists here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:This has become a flashpoint for all of the arguments that are brewing over human rights and civil rights and religious purity in Afghanistan. Where do you see this going?
PAMELA CONSTABLE: As long as we're in a campaign electoral season, these issues will continue to be flashpoints, but I think -- if I had to guess -- I would say that generally speaking the Afghan public approves of these kinds of entertainment, and over the long run will become used to it again and enjoy it again and, it will become part of society.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:You talk about an election season in Afghanistan. Of course we have one here, and we also have an argument over broadcast standards that won't seem to go away. From where you stand, how does Janet Jackson's little problem seem to you?
PAMELA CONSTABLE: You know, I'm sorry, Brooke, but I have no idea what you're talking about.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It's been dominating the headlines here. During the halftime show at the Super Bowl, Justin Timberlake reached over and--
PAMELA CONSTABLE: Who is Justin Timberlake? I am in the mountains of Central Asia. Who is Justin? Who are these people? [LAUGHTER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I really envy you. Pam, it's great talking to you.
PAMELA CONSTABLE: Well, it's been my pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Pamela Constable joined us from Kabul. Her story, Afghan Harmony Hard to Find, appeared in Monday's Washington Post. [THEME MUSIC]
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was directed by Katya Rogers and produced by Janeen Price, Megan Ryan and Tony Field, engineered by Dylan Keefe and Rob Christiansen, and edited by Brooke. We had help from Sharon Ball and Derek John. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Arun Rath is our senior producer and Dean Cappello our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and get free transcripts and MP3 downloads at onthemedia.org, and email us at email@example.com. This is On the Media, from NPR. I'm Brooke Gladstone.