Women Tune into Progress

A new radio station for women is seen by them as yet another breakthrough in their quest for greater rights.

Women Tune into Progress

A new radio station for women is seen by them as yet another breakthrough in their quest for greater rights.

For the first time in a decade, the sound of women singing was broadcast over the airwaves of Afghanistan this week, the latest sign of strides the fairer sex has made since dark years of the Taleban.

The launch of the new radio station, Voice of Women, follows the setting up of the at least half a dozen women’s publications in the past year in Kabul,

Jalalabad and Mazar-e-Sharif.

A monthly run by the Women’s Voice League - the organisation that launched the radio station - published its first edition on March 5, with news, opinion and problem pages.

And Kabul University’s arts faculty opened its first-ever music classes for women and girls last semester. Only two of the latter signed up, but the university hopes to fill the remaining 13 places by the time the new semester begins on March 22.

One barrier yet to fall is singing on state television and radio. The ongoing power struggle between conservatives and progressives in the transitional authority mean an official ban remains in place. Jamila Mujahid, president of the Women’s Voice League, founded a year ago, said the prohibition does not apply to her station, as it is not owned by the state.

Mujahid is also a newscaster on TV and Radio Afghanistan and the founder and chief editor of Malalai monthly, an independent women’s publication. “We can see lots of improvements for us which we could not have imagined a year ago,” she told IWPR. “I am ecstatic now that we have our own radio.”

The UNESCO-funded station, with a five-person staff, has started by transmitting an hour a day, in the late afternoon, and plans to double its output very soon.

Its programmes - which focus on news, education, social and women’s issues, cooking and of course music - are broadcast in both official languages, Dari and Pashto, and reach listeners 20 km from the centre of Kabul on FM 91.6 MHz.

The station also plans to set up branch stations across Afghanistan to broadcast its programmes on medium wave radio.

Parween, who in 1957 was the first woman to sing on radio in Afghanistan, performed at a concert for 350 people on March 8 to celebrate the first anniversary of the Women’s Voice League and the launch of the new station, which can only broadcast recordings of women singing, not live performances, so far.

Now 75, Parween still sings despite the fact that she has lost all her teeth. She and others at the inauguration of the station said Afghan women needed to speak up for themselves. “[They] should make an effort to improve their social conditions,” Parween said.

But she and other famous female Afghan singers no longer live in the country, having fled during the years of civil war.

Habiba Surabi, minister of women’s affairs, said at the March 8 event, “This radio station should tell women about their rights and that they don’t have to wait any longer to begin working. We’re human beings and can do anything a man does.”

Surabi also demanded that President Karzai lift the official ban on women singers being broadcast on state television and radio.

Another attendee, Abdul Hamid Mubarez, deputy minister of information and culture, also spoke about the need to raise women’s voices in media throughout the country. “This [station] is a good start, and it is a matter of profound pleasure for all Afghans that women, who were deprived of the right to education and employment, have set up a radio,” he said.

Mubarez said the expansion of the station to other provinces is crucial “because there are some women who are still of the view that they are not entitled to an education”.

But progressive voices are still overpowered by those in the government who want to adhere to a strict Islamic interpretation of women’s place in society.

Hadiths, the stories about the prophet Mohammed’s life, which are the second-tier basis of Islamic principles (after the Quran), can be cited both for and against women singing in public.

Women have been allowed to sing the verses of the Quran since the beginnings of Islam. Even during Taleban times, they sang at weddings in segregated sections.

However, the manager of the preaching department of the justice ministry, Mawlawee Miranshah, told IWPR that the Voice of Women station is against the Shariah, or Islamic law.

“We accept the rights which are given to women by the Shariah, not others, because ours is an Islamic country, and the culture and religion of the country should be taken into consideration. We don’t want to do what the Taleban did to women, but we can’t accept this [radio station],” he said.

Parween, like other middle-aged and older women, can recall the days when women moved, spoke and sang freely in a modernising Afghanistan. In the Sixties and Seventies, they gave public concerts and numbered among the staff of the music department at Kabul University.

Parween and another famous singer, Sara Zaland, gave a concert in Kabul in 1966 wearing modern clothes that exposed their arms and legs.

In the Eighties, the music department at Kabul University had a number of female employees, including Tajik teachers who formed a song and dance group. Only one of them, Najiba Semin, continues to work in the field, at the music section of the information and culture ministry.

She was involved in a mixed male and female singing group that began in 1983, but was disbanded in 1992, after the fall of the Najibullah regime.

She hopes to see the rebirth of women’s music, through classes such as those offered at Kabul University.

The two girls who enrolled in the classes at the university last semester are sisters, Raqeeba, 16, and Rahima, 13. Their mother is from Iran and their father is Afghan, and the family came to Afghanistan last fall after living 25 years in exile.

Raqeeba and Rahima sing and study the armonya (a kind of accordion) as part of the certificate courses in music. Raqeeba was too engrossed in her playing to be interviewed, but Rahima took a moment from her concentrated study to say, “Music gives me a feeling of contentment. I’m interesting in learning to play even more.”

Akbar Bayi, director of the music section at the ministry of information and culture, said that the government has encouraged Afghan artists who have left the country to return and help rebuild the country’s musical traditions.

But he acknowledged that male and female musicians alike are still at risk from conservative Afghans.

A few months ago, in a village just north of Kabul, four musicians were beaten when they came to sing at a party. And before that, two were killed for performing at a wedding party in Paghman, just outside Kabul.

Mohammad Azim Hussaizada, a music teacher in the university programme, said classes are to continue despite the opposition to women performing. “During the last years of war, women rights and needs were ignored. We have given place to girls in the music department so they can succeed in the arts,” he said.

Anything that gives Afghan women a greater voice in society, no matter what the form, is welcomed by most of the younger, educated women.

Suraya, a third-year medical student at Kabul University, told IWPR, “After so much destruction and fighting in the country, steps towards democracy are being taken and women’s rights are being protected. This is a matter of great pride. Now we want the government to lift the ban of women’s music on television.”

Haseena Sulaiman and Habib Rahman Ibrahimi are independent journalists in Kabul.

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