Lifting the veil in Afghanistan: Hunt on for a top model

A model strutting the catwalk is hardly revolutionary in most countries, but Afghan television's answer to America's Next Top Model is breaking boundaries and revealing the beauty under the burqa.

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.

"I was really enthusiastic to make this programme because I wanted the girls to present the clothes and themselves," said Sosan Soltani, the 18-year-old director of the programme.

"Afghanistan is free and these girls are the future of this country," she said.

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.

None of this would be at all risque in the West, but in Afghanistan, such attire can spark outrage, especially when broadcast on television.

"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."

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