Afghanistan's next top model

Young women are taking off the burqa and strutting the catwalk for local TV.

Published October 1, 2007 5:32PM (EDT)

Hold onto your jaw so it doesn't hit the floor: In the liberal(-ish) city of Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, a local TV station is broadcasting a show styled after "America's Next Top Model." Yes, the models are women. No, they are not sporting burqas on the runway.

The show is a runaway hit with extremist Muslim clerics!

Well, all but that last part is true. Predictably, Afghan Muslim cleric Abdul Raouf told Reuters: "According to Sharia law, Islam is absolutely against this. Not only is it banned by Islamic Sharia law, but if we apply Sharia law and take this issue to justice, these girls should be punished." How exactly, he doesn't say -- but the threat of punishment was real enough that more than 10 models bowed out of the competition when they heard it would be getting international press coverage, "fearing the wider broadcast of the show could lead to trouble for them," reports Reuters.

On a much more encouraging note, the show seems to have been sparked by a progressive, up-and-coming generation of young Afghan women. The models are all too aware of the potential for controversy, given that the vast majority of Afghan women still wear the burqa in public -- but they're participating regardless. Katayoun Timour, 19, said, "It is a great idea I think for Afghan girls, to encourage them to go a step forward. We know that in Afghan society 90 percent of people think it is not good, that it's absolutely wrong ... but I tell them it is not something bad, they should see it in a positive way." The program's 18-year-old director, Sosan Soltani, added: "Afghanistan is free and these girls are the future of this country."

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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