KABUL -- An Afghan woman has become the first to win a popular singing competition, with her victory coming as fears grow that women could lose hard-won rights over a possible deal with the Taliban militants.
Zahra Elham, in her 20s and from the Hazara ethnic minority, snatched first place from her male runner-up on Afghan Star -- a local version of American Idol -- in which hundreds of men and women have competed every year since 2005.
"I popped the hearts of men out of their chests today," a happy Elham told the audience during the contest's finale late Thursday (March 21).
"I am so so happy, I cannot even find words to express my feelings... Today, I represent all the girls of Afghanistan. Today not only Zahra Elham but all the girls in Afghanistan have won," she said amid cheers, applause and even tears from the admiring audience.
Known for her high pitch and raspy voice, she had previously said she wanted to break the grasp of male winners on the competition, first launched in 2005 and one of Afghanistan's most popular television shows.
Plaudits from women
"Your win is a slap in the face of jealous Afghan men," Sonita Rasa wrote on Zahra's Facebook page.
"Hope you don't disappear after this big win and hope the situation allows you to continue to get to your dreams," Tanin, another user, wrote.
Young women, keenly aware of how their gender was banished behind doors and beneath burkas under Taliban rule, are among the most vocal in warning they will not compromise their hard-won rights if the insurgents return.
The Taliban have given few details of what they want in Afghanistan, and it is unclear what a post-conflict government would look like -- but under their strict interpretation of Islam, the militants have never been in favour of women, or of shows like Afghan Star.
"Peace is on its way; hope the future peace has the Afghan Star contest in it," Mustafa Azizyar, the show's presenter, said, after presenting the trophy.