Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Clerics Campaign Against TV Soaps

Mullahs grumble about “un-Afghan” foreign TV series, while the rest of the population is glued to the screen.
By IWPR Afghanistan
One of the most unpopular policies of the Taleban regime when it controlled Afghanistan was its almost total ban on anything fun. No music at weddings, no photos, no kite flying, not even chess.

These restrictive rules ended when the Taleban were driven out of Kabul by the United States-led Coalition in late 2001. But many clerics have been scandalised by what they regard as the excessively liberal environment that followed.

Now the Ulema, or council of religious scholars, has decided that foreign television serials are causing the people of Afghanistan to turn from the path of righteousness, and has urged the government to stop them being broadcast.

But taking away programmes that are a huge source of entertainment for many Afghans could be a very unpopular move.

Foreign soap operas have all but monopolised the airwaves, filling screens all over the country from six in the evening to after eleven for most of the week.

Indian serials predominate. One of the most widely viewed is “Mother-in-Law Was Once Also a Bride”, and it all but paralyses Kabul when it comes on Tolo TV at 8.30 pm. Other hits include “Kum Kum”, “The Story of Each House” and “Examination of Life,” each with its own cast of characters who have become part of Afghanistan’s popular culture.

Western serials are also creeping in. “Lost” has made its Afghan debut, although bare arms and legs are blocked out of the screen with pixellated panels. Since the serial takes place on a tropical beach, it requires a lot of pixels.

The cult series “24” is also being shown, although what the local population makes of action hero Jack Bauer and his adventures in the world of counter-terrorism is anybody’s guess.

Some serials are dubbed into Dari, others into Pashto. They appear on almost every station, and are the cause of numerous arguments in large families with diverse viewing preferences but only one television.

One young husband confessed that he and his new wife have only one bone of contention - he wants to watch the news at night, while she insists on the soaps.

“We’ll have to get another television,” he sighed.

The serials are also causing quite significant economic damage to poorer families. Since even the capital does not have a stable electricity supply, most households have to rely on generators, which run on expensive fuel.

“I spend my whole salary watching dramas,” said Fazal Rabi, a 43-year-old father from western Kabul. “We have no government electricity at all in Dewanbegi, where I live, and my kids force me to buy petrol every night so they can watch the serials. I spend 100 afghani [two US dollars] a day, and my [monthly] salary is only 3,200 afghani [64 dollars]. But my children and I are all very fond of the dramas.”

Ahmad Gul is in the same boat. In his Kabul neighbourhood, Chelsetun, the power comes on every other night. He has no money to run a generator, so he takes out his car battery on the off nights and watches the soaps on a black-and-white television.

"What will we do if these dramas are banned?” he complained. “There is no other form of amusement for us. We will think that Taleban has come back.”

The mullahs object that the serials are anti-Islamic, corrupt local values and lead people astray.

“Such films with semi-naked women… are against Afghan society, our customs, and our religion,” said Judge Sulaiman Hamid, deputy minister for the Hajj and religious affairs. “The Ulema has seen evidence that the [political] opposition has brought in these films in order to get people to rise up against the government.”

According to Sulaiman, serials are exclusively an urban phenomenon and the 85 per cent of the population that live in rural areas are dead against them, he said.

But even a cursory opinion poll in Helmand, a conservative province where the Taleban control great swathes of territory, revealed that his assessment is a off the mark. Audiences for TV serials seem constrained only by whether they have access to a signal and the power to run their TVs.

“I would say that at least 95 per cent of the people who have access to a signal watch these serials,” said one young journalist in the provincial capital Lashkar Gah. “Certainly they do in my house.”

Other viewers told similar stories.

Sulaiman insists the programmes are morally corrupting.

“These Indian serials contain subjects that are dangerous for Afghan society,” he said. “One woman in a drama gave birth to a baby outside marriage. Nothing happened to her, and the child was recognised as a proper member of the family.”

In Afghanistan, a woman can be imprisoned or even put to death for unlawful sexual conduct, which includes any kind of extra-marital relations.

The government is now coming under pressure to ban the foreign TV shows, and Judge Sulaiman predicts it will take action.

“We have asked the government to ban the broadcast of these aberrant serials, with naked and semi-naked women and music which is against our culture,” he said. “The president has not raised objections to the Ulema, and the Minister of Information and Culture has also agreed. I am sure that the government will sense its responsibilities and will take legal action.”

Najibullah Manalai, an advisor to the information and culture ministry, told IWPR that ministry officials have already discussed the matter with the directors of broadcast media, and added that over the past two months there have been modifications to television programmes.

“The Ulema’s request is not binding,” he said. “The Ulema is a consultative body, and cannot oblige the government to do something. However, its suggestion is actually right.”

Manalai insisted the culture ministry was not censoring television.

“We do not ban television programmes. There is no coercion involved,” he said. “We are in constant negotiations with the media. Recently there have been some changes - the pictures of nude women that used to be shown are no longer aired, and some scenes are omitted.”

But Maulana Abdullah, a legal advisor to Tolo TV, one of the most popular channels, said that no one from the ministry had discussed this issue with the station.

He was also adamant that Tolo would not bow to any such pressure.

“Our programmes are in full accordance with the media law of Afghanistan, and we will never accept any illegal pressure,” he said. “Tolo TV has not broadcast any scenes that are in contradiction to Islam. We take care that our programmes are in accordance with the law and with accepted journalistic standards.”

He concluded, “Tolo TV will never censor anything that is not against the law.”

Abdul Qadeer Mirzai, head of the news department at Ariana Television, said his station made every effort to keep its programming in line with local standards, and also to listen to reasonable concerns.

"We will not stop showing these dramas on our television station. But we are very careful in our selection.,” said Mirzai.

“We respect the decision of the Ulema, and we respect the law. If the Ulema want us to edit a scene containing nudity, then we will do it. But I do not think that showing Buddhists or other things that are not part of our culture will affect Afghans negatively. Our people have been watching Indian films at the cinema and on television for a long time.”

Wahidullah Amani is IWPR’s lead trainer and reporter in Kabul. Jean MacKenzie is IWPR Programme Director in Afghanistan. Aziz Ahmad Tassal contributed to this report from Helmand province.

More IWPR's Global Voices