Afghan TV Stations Defy Ban On Soap Operas

"KumKum," a popular Indian television serial, was taken off the air in Afghanistan after protests from Islamic conservatives. They said such programs promoted un-Islamic views and prevented children from concentrating on homework. Ariana TV

Every evening, Roya Amin sits down with her husband and 2-year-old daughter in front of the television. When their favorite Indian soap opera starts, they sigh in relief.

The Afghan government is trying to ban the wildly popular television dramas for being un-Islamic and interfering with children's studies. It's a sign of the growing tensions between religious conservatives and liberals in Afghanistan's post-Taliban era.

Many Afghans are deeply conservative but they are also drawn to the Indian television dramas, a salve that helps them forget decades of war and the ongoing violence and woes in their country. Amin, 23, said she is addicted to three different soaps.

"People in other countries have other means of enjoyment and having fun, but we have nothing," she said.

The Ministry of Information and Culture ordered four TV stations to take five Indian soaps off the air by April 14. Only Noorin TV suspended its soap - "Waiting" - so the ministry issued a second deadline that ended Tuesday.

Ariana TV caved after the second letter, ending broadcasts of "Kum Kum," a drama about the tangled love life of a widow who is wooed by her childhood sweetheart but ends up taking her dead husband's brother as her second husband.

The ministry is now threatening legal action against the other networks, who accuse the democratic government of trying to re-Talibanize Afghanistan.

"We think broadcasting Indian serials is in accordance with the law, so we will continue to broadcast them," said Saad Mohseni, the owner of Tolo TV. "Millions of people watch these shows every night."

The Indian series have become prime-time favorites as private TV stations have flourished in the six years after the fall of the hardline Taliban regime, which had banned TV altogether.

But religious conservatives often bristle over the content, complaining about female news announcers and music videos with women singers.

Last month, Tolo TV came under fire for airing a dance number featuring men and women together on an Afghan film awards program.

The Information and Culture Ministry condemned the scene, saying "dancing by men and women together was completely against the culture of the Afghan, Muslim society."

At the same time, the ministry and other conservatives in the government came down on the soaps - citing a ruling from the Council of Clerics, known as the Ulema.

"The Ulema Council has emphasized that it is against Afghan culture and it's un-Islamic," said Ali Ahmad Fakor, deputy director of the commission for media law violations, which took part in a meeting with the clerics and the ministry about the Indian soaps.

Fakor said Afghans could be corrupted by scenes showing Indians worshipping Hindu idols and plots involving women who divorce and remarry - a practice deemed unacceptable in Afghanistan.

Fakor said the commission has received hundreds of phone calls from parents complaining that their children are wasting their time on TV during prime-time hours - the only time when most Kabul residents have electricity.

"All the people are busy watching serials, which prevent children from studying and doing their homework," Fakor said.

"We are against Talibanization, but as an Islamic country, it is our obligation to prevent such programs that keep our children from their studies," he said.

Asked Monday about the Indian series, President Hamid Karzai gave a muddled response: "We believe in freedom of speech ... but like many other countries, we want our TV programs to be inside the framework of our culture and to be acceptable" to the Afghan people.

Afghanistan should produce its own soap operas, he said.

There are a few Afghan soap operas, including one on Tolo TV, which has similar plot lines - about family problems, love and messy marriage arrangements - as the Indian soaps. But the impoverished, war-battered nation is a long way off from matching the Indian dramas.

The TV soaps were debated in Afghanistan's parliament on Tuesday. Separately, Information Ministry spokesman Hameed Nasery warned that networks that resisted its orders would be taken to court.

But on Tuesday evening, Tolo TV aired its two soaps that the government had ordered banned.

Tolo has suffered the brunt of government criticism when it comes to programming and has taken care to blur scenes with Hindu idols and even the uncovered necks and shoulders of Indian actresses.

Mohseni said Afghans have been avid viewers of Indian entertainment for decades. A handful of people complaining is not a good gauge of the public mood, he said, complaining that the government is no longer in step with public sentiment.

"We are seeing the re-Talibanization of Afghanistan... We can feel it, we can smell it, we can taste it. The mood in the government is changing," Mohseni said. "Today the very people that Afghans became disillusioned with in the '90s are back in power."
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