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Did you know The Voice is a huge hit -- and controversial -- in Afghanistan?
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Did you know The Voice is a huge hit — and controversial — in Afghanistan?

Believe it or not one of the most popular television shows in Afghanistan is their version of “The Voice.”

The show follows the same format as “The Voice” here in America with four celebrity coaches picking their team of aspiring singers who then battle it out for the coveted trophy.

The winner of Afghanistan’s “The Voice” competition only receives $2,000, which pales in comparison to the U.S. prize, but the show’s first winner has already become a local celebrity.

It’s estimated that 80 percent of the country tunes in to “The Voice,” although the ratings could not be verified (there are no Nielsen boxes in Afghanistan).

Similar to the U.S. version, there is a live studio audience, but it’s segregated by gender.

The fact that the show is extremely popular, and has been renewed for a second season, is actually hard to believe if you consider not too long ago singing had been banned by the Taliban and punishable by stoning.

That being said, the show is not without controversy.
The conservative factions in Afghan society and government strongly disapprove of most of the pop culture imported from the West, and “The Voice” is no exception. Abdul Satar, a Parliamentary official, said the show “brings shame to our community and ruins our Islamic and Afghan dignity and culture.”

Satar has called for a jihad against “The Voice” and similar shows with Western influence.

The person who has been hit with the harshest criticism is the female coach on the show, Aryana Sayeed. Sayeed is a popular singer and TV personality known as the “Adele of Afghanistan,” who is now seen as a symbol of female independence in a strictly conservative Islamic country. Her wardrobe is provocative by Afghan standards, and she has refused to wear a head scarf on television.

“I don’t have a problem with scarves,” Sayeed recently told NBC News. “My mother wears a scarf. But when I’m on this particular show, I don’t feel right to wear a scarf and then sing R&B and pop on the stage.”

Sayeed receives regular death threats and lives in fear of being kidnapped by religious extremists.

Personally, I’m in awe that “The Voice” even exists in Afghanistan, and has become a symbol of many Afghans embracing Western culture. The fact that most of the country is fascinated with the show and that thousands of families make a point to be home to watch it is incredible.

My sense is they don’t have DVRs or TiVo in that part of the world. It appears that the universal language of music, the enthusiasm from the younger generation, and the slick production value of this reality show have brought many people together.

Unfortunately, the fact that Parliamentary officials in Afghanistan are calling for a jihad against “The Voice” and one of the hosts is receiving hate mail and death threats, if not surprising, is tragic.

With the government shutdown and the debt ceiling showdown, it’s easy to get extremely frustrated with our leaders in Washington and with our democratic process.
But, this story reminds me of how grateful I am to live in America where I have the freedom to sit next to my husband in an audience, and not get death threats if I choose not to wear a scarf on my head. A country where women are not considered second class citizens who must be subservient to men.

Those involved in the production of “The Voice of Afghanistan,” say the show’s success represents more than just escapist entertainment. It reflects the new and free Afghanistan.

I certainly hope so. If a music reality show can help bring freedom, independence and women’s rights across the Islamic world then I’m all for it.

Here’s to a second season!