In late January, millions of Afghans watched Arian’s performance on Afghan Star, a wildly popular singing contest modeled on American Idol. As the lights illuminated the 23-year-old singer, one of only two female contestants, it became apparent this wasn’t an ordinary performance. It was a protest. Cloaked in a blue burqa, pulled back to show her face, Arian had smeared on dramatic makeup to simulate a beating. Thick streaks of bloody red paint ran underneath her nose, staining her lips and chin. Black smudges around her eyes resembled swollen bruises.
As she rose to her feet to encouraging whistles from the audience, Arian discarded her burqa, belting out original, metaphorical lyrics lamenting Afghan women’s lack of value in society. At the end, she fought back tears, as the judges, also visibly moved, rose for a standing ovation.