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Afghanistan, Burkas, and the Cathode Tube

One balmy summer afternoon in 2005, a trio of girls wearing burkas floated across the lobby of the Marriott hotel in Islamabad, Pakistan and shyly asked to interview me for their talk show on the only all-woman radio station in Kabul, Afghanistan.

I readily agreed and there, seated on red velvet sofas and enjoying that uniquely south Asian ritual of afternoon tea, we spoke about the role that the media play in the political engagement of women throughout the developing world. The interview took place in English, in which these young women were quite adept (take that, BBC or NPR, who I doubt has more than one person on staff who could interview anyone in Pashto).

The occasion was the 4th annual Women & Politics in Asia Forum, a gathering of more than 400 women politicians, journalists, professors, and senior level experts in sustainable development. I was invited to speak on a forum relating to the role of media in sustainable development. It was an esteemed panel including Pakistan television personality Javed Jabbar, Gilda Glasinovich of the United Nations Economic and Social Council in New York, Pakistan personality Moneeza Hashmi, who is the general manager of a television network HUM-TV and the daughter of the late poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, several others, and me.

My part in the proceedings was a thought-piece related to my research while a graduate student at The University of South Carolina: “Media, Politics, Power, and the Role of Women in the Political Process.” Everyone came at the topic from their own angle, of course, but mine was that the best journalists never make it to the industry, just as the best political scions never have the chance to govern.

This truth is made all the more infuriating when you consider that women get little more than a handful of positions of power and, when they do, such positions are often ‘in name only’ as figureheads for powerful families. The woman is the ‘front man’ for a patriarchy. And really, where’s the fun in that? More succinctly, where’s the power in that?

The Afghan radio girls were full of hope. We spoke about training for journalists (after all, how can women move into a more prominent role in the political process when they are stifled by stories no more relevant than their favorite baking recipe) and thus, the what seemed like the limitless horizon for women who have the desire and the acumen to sit in the seats of power of international media and politics. It was a long conversation where I did my best to drive home my own talking points — -that language is power, that the way we think of ourselves professionally is, in many ways, our destiny, that if we want to develop more equitable societies we need to start with more equitable language and more equitable storytelling.

Our tea grew cold, hugs were exchanged, and we headed off to the next session.

Earlier this month, the Taliban has shut down their radio station for playing music.

According to The Guardian, Sadai Banowan, which means women’s voice in Dari, is Afghanistan’s only female-run station and started 10 years ago. It has eight staff, six of them female.

Moezuddin Ahmadi, the director for information and culture in Badakhshan province, said the station had violated the “laws and regulations of the Islamic emirate” several times by broadcasting songs and music during Ramadan and was shuttered because of the breach.

“If this radio station accepts the policy of the Islamic emirate of Afghanistan and gives a guarantee that it will not repeat such a thing again, we will allow it to operate again,” said Ahmadi.

Station head Najia Sorosh denied there was any violation, saying there was no need for the closure and called it a conspiracy. The Taliban “told us that you have broadcast music. We have not broadcast any kind of music,” she said.

And if you think it can’t happen here, you’re wrong.

Its been nearly 20 years since we gathered in Islamabad. It was a startlingly accomplished group of women, all of whom continue to do their best to shore up the role of women in politics, in industry, everywhere.

After a few false starts, the Forum fell apart. The women scattered, so to speak, back to their own lines, their own interests, their own professional strategies. They had babies. They got divorces. They rode in trains throughout the world. They did all the things that all of us do when we get busy with life. After all, the purpose is to live your own life. Sometimes ideology seems to make little difference.

I’m sad that I didn’t keep up with the women of Sadai Banowan. It’s been a busy quarter century for me, too.

A few years after the interview, I was at a dinner at the Ritz Carlton Dubai in the company of an Australian television personality, a sheikh, and a few others. The conversation quickly turned to George HW Bush and the war in Iraq. “If your country is going to ruin the whole world,” the Australian said, angry, “then I think we should get to vote.”

That seems ridiculous, of course, but I couldn’t really argue with it, either. After all, it’s a small world. An inclusive one. I can’t help but think that the women from the all-girl Afghan radio station have run at life with more gusto than I have, they’ve tackled the problems, they stood up and spoke truth to power.

The US might be no country for old men, but it’s also no country for young women, especially when the old men make the rules, feel entitled to grab us by the pussy, dare us to do anything different.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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