The world first saw Zulala Hashemi when Afghan Star’s auditions were held in Kandahar and Nangarhar.
Walking in an all-black chadari, with a tiny smudge of eyeliner, she was able to impress the four judges with her ability to hold a note and even got a standing ovation from three judges. A kiss was blown toward her by superstar Aryana Sayeed.
I was excited as well. Not only because Zulala was a good singer, but also because she is a woman.
As an Afghan woman, who lives far from the motherland, I crave Afghanistan like a baby craves her mother. I want to know what women are like there, what life is like there, how people strive towards progress with courage. I want to be able to see beyond the stereotypes of victimhood that Western media often feeds us. I look online and scroll through social media and Afghan televisions to find inspiring Afghan women. Whether they are pilots, teachers, councillors, the actual television hosts or stay at home mothers, I look to find women who are role models and leaders in a country where a large majority of women face abuse.
When Zulala slowly began to shine throughout the competition and prove herself as talented, disciplined and deserving of votes, there was no doubt she was a role model.
It seemed to me that Zulala, raised by her single mother in the conservative region of Jalalabad, was striving for something bigger than the title of being an Afghan Star. To me, she became a representation of many young Afghan women in the country. She was an example of the thousands of young girls who face a world of discrimination and adversity but continue to push forward and pull Afghanistan with them. Afghan women are rarely represented as they are in national or international media. They are often seen and represented as weak voiceless victims. Zulala didn’t fit this mold. She was more than a victim. She was a voice.
While there was no actual comparison between me and Zulala, her success became my success. Her presence in the show and her courage to be a visible Afghan woman was what I needed. It was what the country needed. I felt inspired and empowered by her voice.
Despite facing criticism and realizing what the consequences might be for her after she leaves the show, her visibility made all of us, Afghan women, feel more visible. She became the first Afghan woman to become a runner up, placing second in the competition that’s dominated by men, as most things are in the country. That was a step towards breaking the glass ceiling.
And for that, for having the courage to be visible and raise her voice, I want to thank Zulala Hashemi. Thank you for being courageous enough to continue competing in the show and representing Afghan women. You have, without a doubt, earned a place in our people’s hearts. From your beautiful dresses, to your voice, to your mannerism, thank you for being bold and not being afraid of being seen and heard. There is no doubt that other women were living vicariously through you.
Marjan Asadullah is pursuing her journalism degree at the University of Toronto. She hopes to continue in the field working as an investigative reporter and hopefully, one day, work in Afghanistan.
Feature image courtesy of Tolo TV.