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Last Updated: Tuesday, 2 August 2005, 14:16 GMT 15:16 UK
Afghan TV broaches marriage taboos
By Jill McGivering
BBC News, Kabul

Corridors team (l-r): Hussein Nakezad (producer), Freshta Khooshy; Humayoon Daneshyar and Massoud Sanjer
Corridors presenter, Humayoon Daneshyar (c), hopes for social change
Television viewers in Afghanistan were mesmerised recently by a hard-hitting edition of a TV programme, Corridors, on the privately-run Tolo TV station.

A young woman featured on the programme spoke out forcefully, accusing her parents of having tried to get her engaged to a man without her consent.

In defiance, she had run away to Kabul and married another man, for love.

"It's my right under Sharia law and the constitution," she said on camera, "to break off my engagement and marry someone else. I have the right to make my own choice. Why should I be pressurised?"

Angry members of her family also appeared on the programme, rejecting her argument. The man her parents had chosen to be her husband also spoke out, equally angry.

"Everyone has sisters and mothers," he said, "and as a result of all these women's rights, a man might go to work during the day and come home to find his wife has run off with someone else or someone's taken her."

Fazl Hadi Shinwari
Some of Tolo TV's programmes violate Islamic principles - we've condemned that
Fazl Hadi Shinwari
Head of Supreme Court

Legal matter

In Afghanistan, a woman who breaks off a genuine engagement can be punished with a prison sentence.

Now the courts will have to decide if this particular young woman got engaged willingly or not.

But the mere fact that these people spoke about such a sensitive issue on a prime time current affairs programme was news in itself.

Those who support women's rights see it as a positive example, saying it could influence others to resist forced marriages.

Shamsola Mazai of Afghanistan's Human Rights Commission says that they have seen a sudden increase in women seeking help, partly because of television coverage like this.

"The public is getting information about their rights from the media, the human rights commission, the ministry of women and other sources," he told me.

"When they hear about the rights of women, it helps them know their rights and come forward to demand them."

Clash of values

The presenter of the TV programme, Corridors, Humayoon Daneshyar, wants his programme to foster change. From now on, he told me, any families trying to push their daughters into forced marriages know that their daughters might speak out on television too and shame them.

"It's like climbing a staircase," he said, "and we've taken the first step. Afghanistan is a developing society and because of the war, we still have people with very old fashioned attitudes towards women."

Women exercising in a gym in Herat, Western Afghanistan
For some women, life is changing since the fall of the Taleban
But the prospect of change is already causing concern. Fazl Hadi Shinwari is Afghanistan's Chief Justice, head of the Supreme Court and a top Islamic scholar.

He wants Tolo TV banned, objecting in particular to women appearing unveiled and Asian music videos showing women dancing in outfits he considers immodest.

"Some of Tolo TV's programmes violate Islamic principles," he said. "We've condemned that and asked the authorities to stop them. Western women walk about half-naked. But in Islam we say women should be covered, apart from the face."

In a small Kabul beauty parlour set back from a busy main road, we found women of all ages chatting as they had their hair or make-up done.

Everyone there had seen or heard the Corridors programme on forced marriage - and heartily approved.

"This is an independent TV channel," said the salon manager, hairdryer in hand, "and will bring positive change. A lot of other young women will be inspired to talk about their problems, not hide them."

"At the moment lots of young girls forced into marriage commit suicide. If they're able to talk openly on TV, it might reduce the problem."

The courts are yet to pass judgement on the particular case featured in the programme.

But there's no doubt that the mere fact her family dispute has been aired so publicly has already made a previously taboo topic the talk of Afghanistan.

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