With a scarf loosely covering a fancy television hairstyle, Latifa Azizi raised her arms in victory after surviving another elimination round on the hit talent show Afghan Star.
But the victory pales into insignificance when compared with the larger battle 17-year-old Azizi is fighting – to pursue her dream of becoming a famous singer despite the censure of ultra-conservative Afghan society.
“Whether I win or lose, my family can’t go back home, it’s too dangerous,” Azizi said in the show’s dressing room.
Azizi and her family fled the northern capital of Mazar-e-Sharif for the Afghan capital, Kabul, soon after she appeared on the show in November. Her community was angry with her appearance, saying it was un-Islamic for a woman to sing and appear on television. The family began to receive death threats.
“Latifa will have no life here after what she’s done. We don’t do such things and we don’t accept people who do,” said Sayed Mohammad Kasem, a member of Azizi’s tribe in Mazar-e-Sharif.
The threats began after the airing of her audition for Afghan Star. With an audience of 11 million, the six-year-old show has become an important vehicle for young Afghans aspiring to become famous singers.
“I went to school the day after my audition aired to take my final exams and my classmates started to shout horrible things and pulled at my hair,” Azizi said in a soft low voice.
“I ran away crying,” she said. “Not even my teachers tried to help me.”
Azizi said she was eventually expelled. The school’s headmaster, Mohammad Kalanderi, denied that when contacted by Reuters and said Latifa could come back whenever she wanted.
The backlash Azizi faces is not out of the ordinary for Afghan women who become public figures. Female actors and singers are often harassed, and sometimes beaten and killed.
In a 2009 documentary about Afghan Star, one contestant was forced to leave her hometown of Herat in the country’s west after her head scarf slipped to her shoulders during a performance.
During the 1996-2001 reign of the Taliban, women were banned from school, voting and most work. They were not allowed to leave their homes without a man. Many women’s rights have been painstakingly won back since the Taliban’s overthrow, but there are fears that violence against women is under-reported.
Last year also saw a worrying spike in violence, including several cases of female school students being poisoned. This has led to fears that, when most NATO-led forces withdraw from the country next year, women may once again be subject to Taliban-style repression and violence.
“Every day that passes by, you’re supposed to move forward, but we keep moving backward,” said singer and Afghan Star judge Shahla Zaland, whose mother was also a famous singer in the 1960s.
“The struggles female singers had to overcome 50 or 60 years ago are being faced by these girls today.”
Even in Kabul, Azizi and the only other female contestant receive constant threats.
People follow their cars as they travel to rehearsals to try to discourage them from attending, and issue threats of violence over the phone.
Azizi told Reuters she would not let the threats stop her from appearing on the show. Her father, Sayed Gulham Shah Azizi, agreed.
“Our family is angry but my daughter had a dream,” he said in the family living room. “What else was I to do but encourage her to pursue it?”