Friday, December 3, 2010

Afghan Star and Glocalization

One of this week’s presentations was on the localization of formatting of various TV shows. Part of this presentation discussed reality TV, with Idol as an example. The popularity of Idol was explained in terms of the appeal of music and that “everybody likes singing.” The Afghan version of this TV show, “Afghan Star” poses an interesting case study in the localization of global TV.

The show is actually not officially affiliated with Idol, but uses the same concept, in which singers compete for the title “Afghan Star” – the nation’s favorite singer. What’s particularly interesting in this case is that music was considered sacrilegious by the Mujahedeen, and then forbidden by the Taliban (1996-2001).

By the finale, 11 million (a third of the country) were watching and voting by mobile phone, which some say is the first experience with democracy for many Afghans. According to the Afghan Star documentary, “This is a highly radical idea in a country still essentially based on a male-dominated tribal elder system. For the first time young people, ethnic minorities and women have an arena in which to shine. And at last, the people are allowed to vote for who they want.”

The documentary – the UK’s official Foreign Language submission to the 2010 Academy Awards and winner of two Sundance awards (World Cinema Audience Award: Documentary and World Cinema Directing Award: Documentary) – showcases four contestants as they make their way through the competition. Here is a link to the trailer:

One of these contestants, a 21-year old woman named Setara, became particularly controversial when she removed her headscarf and danced during a performance. She went into hiding after receiving numerous death threats, also received by the show’s producers. In addition, Afghan clerics demanded the show be taken off the air for being un-Islamic.

More recent information on the TV show is difficult to find (at least in English), and the website,, appears to no longer exist. But apparently Season 5, a Superstar edition, was the most recent season to air, during the summer of 2010.

The case of “Afghan Star” illustrates that even the core concept of a show, such as music and singing, may be received differently by different cultures.


  1. I think it's a really interesting concept that this was one of the first times most people were allowed to participate in a democracy type institution. I think it's a great example of how communication and cultural products can challenge governments and instill change, even tho this later got taken off the air. I'm really glad you mentioned the part about Setara because I was wondering if there were any obvious cases of the contestants having problems for being on the show. You would think that not that many people would try out with the knowledge that there would probably be problems for them with this association to the tv show.

  2. I'm actually not sure if it was cancelled, so it's hard to tell how much power the threats had.

    However, the show's host, Dauod Sediqi, applied for and was granted asylum in the U.S. after he came to present the premier of the Afghan Star documentary at Sundance. He felt that the death threats became more severe with the release of the film. Sediqi has said "American soldiers fight with guns. I did the same with music.",,20306568,00.html

    Sediqi hosted for 4 seasons, then the show continued on for a 5th season without him.

    I wonder if it's the show that changed the culture, or if it was simply an expression of changes already taking place. Also, I wonder how widely the show was watched. About a third of the country watched the finale, but were the majority in cities? What were the age, income, and geographical distributions in viewership?

  3. Renee-this is a really interesting post and I want to see the documentary now.

    It does remind me of a sort of similar phenomenon's that happened in the ballet world during the Cold War. Often, stars of the Moscow or Bolshoi Ballet would go on international tours to the West and defect. Mikhail Baryshnikov's defection to Canada is the most famous example. It was always a huge scandal.

    I wonder if the arts--traditional or popular-- are the first signs of a changing culture in Afghanistan as they were during the years of the U.S.S.R?

  4. As others have said, this is a very interesting blog post. It is difficult to imagine that something as simple as an American Idol spin-off can cause so much controversy in another country. I think it really comes down to fear -fear that something as simple as voting for a favorite singer will empower the people to take that power to the political realm.

  5. We actually discussed Daoud & Afghan Star in another class, because of the power of media moguls (I think he was producer, and owned some other stuff?) to interpret and influence trends in culture.

    Media might act as a agenda-setter sometimes, but in a case like this the show would have flopped if it weren't for some people in society (maybe the wealthy with TVs in the cities, who knows) who were ready to help make change in society and go back to a more progressive time.

    As Renee mentioned, he was granted asylum in the US...but he also now hosts a show on Voice of America! Maybe between him and that new police drama USAID funded (that we talked about in class), public diplomacy towards Afghans will finally work out a little better.

  6. The other interesting part of this post is the use of mobile phone voting. The recent launch of mwomen at the State Department in October featured the founder of Roshan- Afghan's leading teleoom and electricity provider. He listed some interesting ways that his company has marketed mobiles to have more women ownership of mobiles in Afghanistan. The rate of growth of mobile phone use is astounding, where only 30,000 people had phones before 2001, and now there are 38 million cell phone owners. The use of voting on the program is one way to motivate people to then use the mobiles for other services such as mobile banking and health information.