Mar 26, 2009

Ideological space

The predicament in which Lema Sahar finds herself is instructive of the fact that human rights, in the true sense of the term, include the freedom to express creative and cultural ideals — a fundamental part of being human.The young singer from Kandahar shot to stardom last year after reaching third place on the popular television show Afghan Star, a version of American Idol. She beat over 2,000 rivals, and Tolo, the television channel that hosts Afghan Star, gave her an award of courage which included prize money and a recording contract. Now, Lema Sahar finds herself in need of every bit of courage that she can muster. Forced to flee Afghanistan, she has been in hiding in Peshawar for the past two months.For in her hometown of Kandahar, from where the Taliban first launched their repressive movement, she is considered an outcast for not only having participated in the show but having done so without the face-covering burka prescribed by the zealots. It matters little that during her performance she was attired modestly by any reasonable Islamic standards. Nevertheless, she was issued death threats by anonymous elements as well as by neighbours and family members. Now, Lema Sahar regrets having ever tried to fulfill her creative potential.Creativity, talent and the ability to dream are characteristics that separate humanity from the animal kingdom. What is perceived by the singer’s persecutors as ‘baring’ is actually just a function of her being a person: her need to explore her potential and reach for higher goals. By participating in the show, she made use of her right to the freedom of expression. Her subsequent experience underscores the fact that the narrow version of ‘propriety’ prescribed by extremist elements envisages human beings as little more than talking animals. Lema Sahar’s experience serves as a grim warning to Pakistan, too, where in some areas CD shops and girls’ schools are being bombed on a virtually daily basis.At the heart of the battle is ideological space. Once liberal and tolerant elements concede this space, as has been the case of Swat, it cannot be easily reclaimed.

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