Anita Khalwat wears heavy makeup, fake eyelashes, and a green spangly head scarf, loose dress, and pants fit for an Afghan wedding. But she’s no bride. She’s a warrior in heels and metallic nail polish, preparing to appear on Afghan Model, a new TV show that aims to find the top fashion star in a war-torn nation where neither of the two main languages has a word for “model,” and where threats by the TV-hating, women-loathing Taliban have turned an appearance before the cameras on a rickety, rainbow-lit white stage into a political statement.
“Hide your hair today,” one judge, Hozair Amiri, tells Khalwat before a recent taping. “Please.”
Khalwat, her green head scarf showing off a good part of her highlighted brown hair, looks at Amiri almost fiercely. With less than perfectly white teeth, a generous nose, an average body, and a hip thrust more fitting for a hockey rink than for a runway, the 23-year-old Khalwat would never make the tryouts for America’s Next Top Model, the Tyra Banks vehicle that Afghan Model tries to emulate.
But she has a certain something—namely, two X chromosomes. She’s an Afghan woman willing to appear on a model show, a rarity here.
“I was 8 years old when I started following models,” Khalwat tells Amiri. “It’s my style to show my hair like this.”
One of the few bright spots on the bleak and beige Afghan horizon is the burgeoning media, especially the reality-TV shows that ape their cousins in the West—an explosion that has changed local culture. In the past eight years, at least 17 private TV stations have filled the post-Taliban vacuum in Kabul—and new ones pop up all the time.
Afghan Model is on the upstart Emrooz TV, a station launched almost two years ago by Najibullah Kabuli, a liberal member of parliament who made his fortune in cars and real estate and who passionately hates the Iranian government. In a country still testing how freedom of speech mixes with Islam, Emrooz TV—emrooz means “today” in Dari, one of the two major languages in Afghanistan—has broadcast that the elderly top Shiite cleric in the country was once married to a young teenage girl. In a November 2009 talk-show discussion between Kabuli and the former presidential candidate and anti-corruption crusader Ramazan Bashardost, Bashardost said that Hamid Karzai’s two new vice presidents should be handcuffed and hauled to prison—a statement that many other stations would have self-censored.
Always pushing, Kabuli started advertising for Afghan Model early last year. “We asked for whoever wants to show their clothes, their height, their bodies, their faces, they can come and try out,” Kabuli tells me. About 3,000 young people showed up for auditions. Of those, only 10 were women. Eighty contestants were picked—including all 10 women.
But all did not go smoothly. The number of women dropped to seven, after the families of three women forced them to step down. One of the 15 semifinalists, a man named Munir, was shot dead one night as he drove through an intersection. No one has been arrested, and his picture still sits in the middle of the roundabout where he was killed.
On the early November day I visit the set, the five finalists, including two women, are vying to be judged the best imaginary groom or bride in front of a podium covered in tinsel and topped with one doll dressed in a tuxedo and another in a white gown. A handpicked audience of 20 people, mostly men, lines a black-curtained wall and claps politely. At times, the scene feels more like a funeral than a wedding.
The music starts, played on a synthesizer by an Afghan whose repertoire seems to consist of polka-meets-“Chopsticks.” One by one, the models walk onstage. Each contestant has a story. One man, an ethnic Pashtun like most of the Taliban, sports a Salvador Dalí mustache, the long curls of a Talib, and the wedding outfit of his native Kandahar—a Taliban stronghold. Offstage, he tells me that he hopes the Taliban will be okay with TV if they return to power.