Sometimes I’m amazed by how many different reactions a relatively straightforward story can bring up.
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.
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.
For more images, check out the slide show.
First, of course, it’s fabulous that these young women have the opportunity to do this. The director of the program is 18 years old, and she sounds utterly delighted by what she’s managed to pull off, against very significant odds.
Second, and equally of course, it’s horrific that they should be endangered by choosing to show themselves in a variety of outfits:
“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.”
So what else?
There’s the power of American TV and commercial American values: what does America’s Top Model have to do with the lives of Afghan women, and why are they building their rebellion around it? Why would the artificiality of the fashion show have any life outside of its own culture? And yet that leads to the point that, for all its flaws, American TV does give people something outside of their own culture to think about, and build their own ideas around.
There’s the clear implication that women in burqas are somehow not beautiful, or else that we can’t tell whether or not they’re beautiful. I think every Western woman has had (at least) moments in which the thought of not being judged by her beauty or lack thereof was awfully tempting. If we can’t tell whether or not a woman in modest dress is beautiful, maybe we have to find out something else about her? Or maybe she just gets relegated to generic “woman” and there is nothing special about her at all? When is “being beautiful” a desirable thing, and when is it objectifying?
In that context, I have to ask how much this show is about “the male gaze.” Who are they “being beautiful” for? Is it the same people who might punish them for violating Sharia? And is the male gaze what draws them to the fashion show concept in the first place?
It comes down to thinking about the four girls who participated in this show, and the ten who didn’t. I can’t really imagine their lives, their choices, their risks, their joys, or even the contexts in which these things take place. So all of my questions melt away into a bigger question.
And (to my surprise as I write this), I wind up back where I started. The director is 18 years old. She’s doing something for herself and girls like her. It feels (probably, mostly) good and right to her. And that I can simply celebrate.
Thanks to Racialicious for the link.