To most Afghans, the face of Farida Tarana, 27, evokes her tumultuous 2006 ascent to the No. 8 position on the widely watched local version of American Idol. She was the first female competitor from the conservative western province of Herat, and while she charmed audiences nationwide with her joyful renditions of classic Afghan songs, she was persecuted by conservatives for daring to break cultural taboos against women singing in public. These days, however, her face, emblazoned on election posters and billboards across Kabul, symbolizes the shattering of new barriers: popularly elected women in politics. Last week it was announced that Tarana had been elected to the 29-seat Kabul Provincial Council (akin to a U.S. state legislature), winning with the second highest number of votes 8,404 out of a field of 524 candidates. "When I competed for Afghan Star, I wanted to prove that a woman from Herat could sing," says Tarana, adjusting her trademark stylish rectangular glasses. "Now that I have been elected to the provincial council, I will prove to people that a lady who can sing can be in politics as well."
When Afghans went to the polls on Aug. 20, it was with the hope that real democracy could deliver a more responsible, more accountable and functional government. On most counts, they were disappointed. Six weeks on, the results are mired in widespread allegations of fraud mostly favoring the incumbent, President Hamid Karzai. On Monday, electoral authorities began a sample audit of suspect ballots in order to ascertain the extent of fraud and whether or not Karzai in fact earned the 50% plus one vote to forestall a runoff. The crisis of legitimacy has been a boon for Taliban propaganda, and the U.S. Administration is debating the value of sending more troops to a country whose government is fraught with corruption and fraud.
Yet despite the darkening state of affairs, a few bright sparks remain. Local elections for Afghanistan's 34 provincial councils, which have been all but overshadowed by the presidential race, have produced results that prove that Afghans not only wholeheartedly support the idea of democracy, but also that they are far more liberal and progressive than the rest of the world might suspect. Tarana, dressed in slim black trousers under a tight black coat accented with a flashy silver headscarf, compares herself with her bearded, conservative predecessors on the council. "Afghans are not like what you hear from other countries, that they are religious and strict," she says. "You can see that by voting for me, they are open-minded and want change. I am a singer, but they supported me anyway."
As with the presidential race, the provincial council elections have also been tainted by allegations of fraud. Still, Tarana is one of scores of young Afghans who are entering politics for the first time. Their energy, enthusiasm and youthful idealism, if channeled correctly, may yet be the impetus for the substantial changes Afghanistan will have to go through before it can develop into a stable democracy that operates under the rule of law. "In provinces throughout Afghanistan, hundreds of youths nominated themselves for provincial councils," says Sanjar Sohail, editor of the newspaper Eight in the Morning. "What does this mean? That the generation that grew up with war, that has seen the blood, the rockets, the shooting and the crime, they know that the situation in Afghanistan won't ever change unless they come to politics. They see their involvement as a responsibility. And that makes me hopeful for our future."
Still, it's a slim hope. Provincial councils have little real power in Afghanistan, as they serve more as advisory boards than legislative or budgeting organs. Tarana admits that she will be able to achieve little lasting change on the Kabul council but points out that by simply serving in the public realm, she will be making a difference. "I first started thinking about politics when I was having so many problems on Afghan Star. No one in government supported me, and those in power condemned me. Now I can be supportive of youth who are willing to rise up and do something positive." And, she says boldly, a provincial council seat is a stepping-stone to parliament. Even the position of President isn't out of the question. "Everyone needs a goal," she says. "If you don't try, you won't achieve. So why not go for it?"
With reporting by Shah Barakzai / Kabul