'Honor Killing' Reflects Dark Side of Women's Struggles in Afghanistan

She was a pretty, sophisticated young TV star with the controversial, wildly popular channel broadcast in war-torn Afghanistan. Then her killing sent shockwaves through the media and across the world.

Shaima Rezayee, 24, an MTV-style veejay for Afghanistan's popular independent Tolo TV channel, was slain in her home by a bullet at close range.

For a time, her two brothers were held in custody for what was being called an honor killing. They have since been released. Despite several attempts to reach the Afghanistan Interior Ministry for an update on the case, it remains unclear if an investigation is ongoing.

Rezayee had been the center of controversy in conservative circles in Afghanistan since she tossed aside her burqa and wore Western-style clothing on air, with a headscarf and a swath of her shiny, carefully styled black hair. She was fired as host of "Hop" on Tolo TV in March. The reasons given have ranged from tardiness to complaints from the public over her appearance and demeanor.

Conservative Islamists complained that "Hop" was corrupting Afghan youth. Moreover, Rezayee, who had worried about death threats publicly in a radio show just two months before her death, was criticized because of her controversial behavior, which included her burqa-less attire as well as her on-air banter with her male co-host.

Stories also circulated of the young TV star guzzling alcohol in Kabul restaurants where only foreigners are allowed to drink. And several conflicting stories of boyfriends and affairs were repeated, embellished or simply made up. Rumors swirled after her dismissal from Tolo that she was murdered by her family, killed by hard-liners or kidnapped.

The Paris-based group, Reporters Without Borders, said Rezayee was "the first journalist to be killed in Afghanistan since the end of the war in 2001." Fans packed online chat rooms with dirges on the state of Afghan women's rights even as casual conversations with several Kabul residents revealed a disturbing insight into the Afghan state of mind.

Nearly four years after the fall of the Taliban, the implication of much of the chatter was clear. For all her real or perceived moral misdemeanors, for "dishonoring" her family's reputation, Rezayee got what she deserved.

But while her killing succeeded in making national and international headlines, for Rezayee's colleagues at Tolo TV, it was yet another sign of the increasingly dangerous business they're involved in and the difficult task they face of presenting their Western-style programs equipped with modern female hosts to a sometimes hostile, violent public.

Tension in Studio

Days after Rezayee's killing, the tension was palpable at the Tolo TV offices in Kabul's upscale Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood. Past the concrete roadblocks that compel vehicles to slow down and zigzag toward building entrances, security guards swarmed the premises, checking bags, prohibiting visitors' electronic devices inside the compound and ensuring that cell phones were switched off.

In his cluttered office dominated by six TV screens tuned into a variety of Afghan and Arabic channels, Saad Mohseni, co-founder and director of Afghanistan's must-see TV station, was nonchalant about the threats the station faces.

"When you get into TV in Afghanistan, you don't expect a bed of roses. We get threats daily," he said. "It may seem a lot more tense outside, but life goes on as normal here."

Indeed, the Tolo TV studios provided a glimpse of the promise the new, reconstructed Afghanistan might hold.

Inside, bright young things in trendy Western clothes bustled around the floors, editing shots and scripts, supervising camera teams and monitoring the nation's news. A visitor could easily forget that outside the building, there is rampant unemployment, and men and women are forbidden to mix on the street.

Following Rezayee's murder, her wildly popular former "Hop" co-host, Shakeb Issar, sought refuge in the studios.

Lanky, laidback and cool in a bright red T-shirt, with his light, brown hair softly framing his chiseled face, the celebrity "refugee" ambled into the newsroom where he was warmly greeted by his colleagues arriving at the office. But the minute Afghanistan's hottest young veejay caught sight of an international journalist on the scene, he abruptly fled.

By all accounts, the 22-year-old entertainer, a member of the long-oppressed Hazara ethnic group from central Afghanistan, had every reason to be wary. Ever since "Hop" stormed the Afghan airwaves with its mix of Indian, Iranian, Turkish and Western music clips, Shakeb has been repeatedly threatened and attacked in and around Kabul.

In the past few months, he was assaulted and even seriously injured by knife-wielding assailants and drive-by attackers. In one disturbing incident, even Afghan policemen assaulted and verbally harassed him.

After more than a month in hiding, Issar is currently in Sweden for the next few months, said Mohseni in an e-mail to ABCNEWS.com. The Tolo TV director, however, refused to comment on whether Issar had sought asylum in Sweden, but he did say Issar "may be back soon."

Trouble From the Start

Ever since its launch last fall, Tolo TV has been a lightning rod for critics -- including the Ulema Council, Afghanistan's powerful body of Islamic clerics -- and conservative Afghans with varying degrees of political clout.

Founded by three Afghan-Australian brothers who returned home after the 2001 fall of the Taliban, Tolo is considered must-see TV. Available in Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat, Tolo is by far the most popular channel in these Afghan cities, commanding approximately 81 percent of the market, according to the station's director, Mohseni.

With its lively mix of entertainment, reality TV and hard-hitting news programs, its slick production values and its casual editorial style -- a far cry from the stiff presentation style of the state-owned Radio Television Afghanistan -- Tolo shows are considered by many Afghans to be too edgy.

In addition to the culture clash, Tolo has also drawn the ire of warlords and a motley mix of Afghans with varying levels of political and criminal clout for some of its hard-hitting news features on a variety of social issues such as Afghanistan's widespread pedophilia and land-grabbing incidents by local strongmen.

"Tolo TV faces more problems than other Afghan TV stations because they are introducing different styles and ways of programming too suddenly and not step by step," said Rahimullah Samander, director of Afghan Independent Journalists Association and Committee to Protect Afghan Journalists.

But Aunohita Mojumdar, a media analyst at Internews, says the wrath Tolo incurs needs to be viewed in the context of Afghanistan's recent history. "In a country where all images were banned until the collapse of the Taliban, any TV station in existence would have drawn fire," she explained in an e-mail to ABCNEWS.com.