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Few Afghans applaud contestant's scanty outfit

Bombay starlets pout in shop-window posters, and shapely sequined gowns dangle in wedding boutique displays. But even in this fast-modernizing capital of 3-million, most women cover themselves with a billowing burqa when they step into the street, and the most risque fashion statement is a flash of netted ankle beneath a long, swishing black skirt.

Nearly two years after the defeat of the ruling Islamic Taliban militia, Afghanistan is still one of the most conservative Muslim societies in the world. Women have returned to work and girls are back in school, but feminist ideas remain highly suspect, and purdah _ the concept of keeping women shrouded from unrelated men _ remains the cultural and religious norm.

So when Vida Samadzai, 25, a leggy Afghan-born brunette who attends the University of California, suddenly appeared on international newscasts last Friday as a contestant in a Manila beauty pageant, striding confidently onstage in a fiery red bikini with a Miss Afghanistan banner draped across her chest, Afghan officialdom was aghast. The last time an Afghan woman competed in any international beauty contest was 1972.

In short order, the minister of women's affairs _ a woman _ denounced Samadzai's actions as "lascivious" and "not representing Afghan women." The Afghan Embassy in Washington issued a statement saying her participation had not been authorized by the Kabul government. And a senior official of the Supreme Court and the Kabul religious scholars' committee condemned her swimsuit appearance as "completely unacceptable and unlawful in Islam."

It was not only knee-jerk prudery that caused such an appalled response, but something more complex. The Afghan government, backed by the Bush administration and the United Nations, has been picking its way though a religious and cultural minefield as it seeks to promote women's rights and other modern, international values without alienating devout Muslims or provoking influential fundamentalist groups.

Several officials here said this week they feared that Samadzai's behavior, though perfectly acceptable in much of the world, could damage the cause of women's emancipation in Afghanistan _ and even the image of democracy itself, a Western notion that some Afghans identify with moral corruption and excessive freedoms.

Perhaps not surprisingly, a number of Afghan women's advocates expressed similar concerns, saying they feared such an incident could provide ammunition for Islamic conservatives who adamantly oppose women's rights and warn that foreign aid and cultural influence will undermine men's control of the Afghan family.

"I think it was a mistake," said Jamila Mujahid, an editor of a progressive women's magazine and a newscaster on state TV. "We want freedom for Afghan women, but not freedom of this nature," she added. "When we give speeches, we tell women to defend their rights while wearing hijab (head scarves), or else it will give something to those who are against us, and they are very powerful."

Samadzai, who was traveling in the Philippines could not be reached for comment, told the BBC and news agencies in Manila several days ago that she wanted to challenge the international image of Afghan women as hidden and submissive. She said she would like to show that "we are talented, intelligent and beautiful. We are one of the people who can make a difference in this world."

But even if she is motivated by high ideals and has the technical right to "represent" Afghanistan, numerous women interviewed this week in Kabul said they disapproved of her appearance.

"If she had been more covered, we would have been proud of her participation in an international contest," said Hamdana, 26, a student of Islamic law at Kabul University, who was wearing a fashionable black ensemble of loose ankle-length skirt, long-sleeved jacket and head scarf. "In our culture, a girl's clothing must be modest."

Modest or not, urban Afghan women today are anything but plain. For weddings, the dominant form of social event, they spend hours in beauty parlors being coiffed and made up and manicured. Often a shapeless form trundling down the street under a burqa will become, once safely indoors, a glamorous woman with heavy mascara and eyeliner, slinky beaded outfit and lots of gold jewelry.

A few mavericks among Kabul's English-speaking elite confess to a certain admiration for Samadzai. They suggest that the huffing about her "un-Islamic" action is extremely hypocritical, given the cruelty and violence that have dominated life here for the past 25 years.

"This lady is trying to bring the image of Afghan women to international standards, and in a way she is struggling for their rights," said Sayeed Daud, the director of a U.S.-funded media center whose newspaper, Erada, published a partial photograph of Samadzai in her swimsuit. "If they say that's not in our culture, what about all the killing that has gone on here for years? That's not in our culture either."