Afghan singer’s new refrain is a call for freedom
Kabul — Lema Sahar never ventured out in public without an all-enveloping burqa — not until she jumped on stage and sang her heart out in the Afghan version of "American Idol".
In a series of performances beamed across the country, the girl from Kandahar showed her face to the world — although her hair was covered by an Islamic veil — as she crooned anguished Afghan love songs.
She charmed her way into the third spot of the 2008 version of the wildly popular "Afghan Star" competition, beating more than 2,000 rivals in votes sent by mobile telephone text message.
It was the best a woman had ever done in the competition, launched in 2005.
Sealing her success, the 20-year-old singer won an "award of courage," 4,000 dollars in cash and a recording contract from private television station Tolo, which hosts the programme.
She had become a star.
But not in her hometown of Kandahar, a southern stronghold of the Taliban where women are seldom seen in public and never without a burqa which includes a small grille to cover the eyes.
In Kandahar Lema was considered a disgrace and she soon began receiving death threats, even from her own male relatives.
She had no choice but to flee for her life.
Speaking from the Pakistani city of Peshawar, where she has been in hiding since fleeing Afghanistan two months ago, she told AFP: "My life is under threat, everybody is threatening to kill me. It’s all because I participated in the ‘Afghan Star’."
In a telephone call arranged by a close relative in Afghanistan, she said: "My own relatives, some of my cousins, our neighbours, were also threatening to kill me."
Other threats were anonymous, sometimes in letters dropped at the family home.
"They were saying that they will kill me because I brought shame to them. I was moving from one place to another when I was in Kandahar. I was scared," Lema said, speaking in her native Pashtu.
It was from Kandahar that Taliban Islamist zealots first picked up arms to sweep into government by 1996, imposing a harsh version of Sharia law that saw women whipped in the streets if they did not cover up from head to toe.
The 2001 US-led invasion removed them from government more than seven years ago but their strict moral code is still adhered to by many in Afghanistan, especially ethnic Pashtuns.
The tribe of millions extends across the border into Pakistan where Taliban radicalism has surged in recent years.
In the Swat valley, once a popular ski resort, Taliban fighters fought a deadly insurgency for nearly two years to enforce sharia law and destroyed more than 120 schools for girls for allegedly deviating from the principles of Islam.
"Even here I don’t fee safe," Lema said from the home of a relative who lives in Peshawar.
She has requested asylum in Europe or the United States through the UN refugee agency. "The United Nations is my last hope," she said.
Many young Afghans try to escape their precarious and conservative homeland, dreaming of a freer life in the West.
Some pay people smugglers, others are suspected of exaggerating risks in a bid to secure asylum. There are common stories about young Afghans who have flouted study visas or broken out of official visits.
Even the long-time presenter of "Afghan Star," Daud Sidiqi, snuck into Canada in January. He had been in the United States for the Sundance Film Festival where a documentary about the show won an award.
An aide to Afghan President Hamid Karzai took a similar route while travelling with his head of state to the UN General Assembly last year.
For many Afghan women — journalists, lawmakers, officials — the threats at home are all too real.
Last September, unknown attackers killed Afghanistan’s most prominent policewoman, Malalai Kakar, outside her home in Kandahar. The Taliban claimed responsibility for her murder.
A few months later, men sprayed acid into the faces of Kandahar schoolgirls.
"Afghan Star" contender Farida Tarana, who came eighth in 2007, took refuge in Iran for a few months last year, telling AFP at the time that a music video in which she appeared without a headscarf led to death threats.
In 2007, two Afghan women journalists were shot dead in murder cases that have not been solved. One was allegedly an "honour killing" by a relative.
Lema and her family say her concern is genuine.
"We can no longer protect her against the threats," said a brother, Ashraf. "Her participation in ‘Afghan Star’ made our lives so hard. There was always someone threatening us because of that."
Another relative confirmed he helped the young singer into Pakistan for her own safety.
Lema meanwhile regrets reaching for stardom.
"I didn’t know all this would happen to me," she said. "I can’t go back home. I can’t live my whole life hiding," she said.
"Somebody has to get me out of here."-ns