In a first for post-Taliban Afghanistan, a woman from the conservative Pashtun belt is one of the top three contenders in the country's version of "American Idol."
Conservative detractors decry the fact an Afghan woman has found success singing on television, while others — younger Afghans — say the show is helping women progress. Under the Taliban regime that was overthrown in 2001, women were not even allowed out of their homes unaccompanied, while music and television were banned.
With her hair tucked under a wispy blue headscarf, Lima Sahar brushes off her critics, saying there can be no progress for women without upsetting the status quo.
"No pain, no gain," she told reporters Wednesday in Kabul.
Sahar beat out 2,000 other hopefuls who auditioned for the third season of "Afghan Star." On Friday, the six-month-long TV show will name the final two contestants, based on votes sent in from viewers via text message. The format is the same as "American Idol," although the shows are not connected.
Afghanistan's conservative cleric's council has protested to President Hamid Karzai over "Afghan Star" and Indian dramas shown on Tolo TV, the country's most popular station.
"In the situation that we have in Afghanistan right now, we don't need a woman singer. We don't need ‘Afghan Star.' We are in need of a good economy, good education," said Ali Ahmad Jebra-ali, a member of the council. "If Lima Sahar wins 'Afghan Star,' how can she help the poor? This is not the way to help the Afghan people."
Haji Baran Khan, a farmer from Kandahar — the Taliban's spiritual birthplace and the city Sahar now calls home — said a Pashtun girl singing on TV goes against the country's culture.
"She is also affecting the minds of other good girls. She should stop singing," said Khan, whose three sons and two daughters told him about Sahar's success.
Sahar says she's just the latest in a long tradition of Afghan artists — albeit in a more modern form.
"Artists are historical and cultural in our country. Artists have been around a long time," Sahar told a news conference this week. "I came by the vote of the people of Afghanistan."
Several hundred supporters lined up to get the three finalists' autographs at an event this week in Kabul. One of the fans, Shohabidin Mohammad, called "Afghan Star" part of a democratic revival for Afghanistan.
"Women's and men's rights are equal. There are no problems," said Mohammad, dressed in a bright colored shirt, brown hipster hat and a gold necklace that dangles a tiny Koran.
The three finalists represent each of Afghanistan's three main ethnic groups: Pashtuns, Hazaras and Tajiks. Mohammad, who is ethnic Hazara, said he doesn't believe ethnicity should play a role in the vote. But, he acknowledged somewhat sheepishly, he will vote for the Hazara finalist.
Standing beside Mohammad was Abass Nariwal, a fan of Sahar's. Both are ethnic Pashtuns. Another of her fans, Nematullah Khan, is a 25-year-old student at Kandahar University.
"She took a bold step. She has a lot of courage," Khan said. "Whether she wins or not, she's a good example for our youth."
"Afghan Star" has become one of Afghanistan's most popular TV shows, gathering large crowds around TVs in restaurants and homes.
The singers perform in front of a studio audience and three judges, and past winners have been given recording deals. A woman finished fifth in the show's first season, but no female has risen as high as Sahar. The other two finalists are men.
The winner this year will take home around $5,000 — a king's ransom in Afghanistan.
Daud Sadiqi, the show's host, said "Afghan Star" has been a runaway hit that shows the world the "peaceful face of Afghanistan."
Another finalist, Hameed Sakhizada, a 21-year-old Hazara with a mop of black hair, said that before the show he was "an ordinary person going to work."
"But now I feel like I'm the representative of a nation," Sakhizada said.
The other finalist — and perhaps the odds-on favorite judging by the number of fans seeking his autograph this week — is Rafi Naabzada, a 19-year-old ethnic Tajik wearing a white leather jacket, who calls the show "a symbol of unity."
"'Afghan Star' belongs to all Afghans," he said. "My idea is not to get votes from just my tribe. I think that attitude is now finished — he's a Tajik or he's a Pashtun," Naabzada said. "Of course we still have special support from those ethnic groups."
That is what bothers Mohammad Qasim Akhger, an independent political analyst. He says the most talented singers aren't necessarily the ones who get voted through. He singled out Sahar as having little talent.
"Now there is one Pashtun, one Hazara and one Tajik, so now what will happen is that nobody will care about their talents, they will just vote for their tribe," he said. "If Lima Sahar is not talented enough, it doesn't matter for them (Pashtuns). They are just voting because she is Pashtun."
Even gender loyalties don't seem to be a factor. When the crush of autograph seekers surrounded the singers this week, all the women made a beeline for Naabzada. One fan, Shabana, who goes by one name, was dressed in a pink shawl and bright pink lipstick. She said she was supporting Naabzada over Sahar because he was the better singer.
Would she support a woman? "Yes," Shabana said. "But on condition that she has talent."