There exist a few countries across the world where the voices of women are oppressed on several occasions. Leaving home without being covered from head to toe is not a common phenomenon and nor is women working outside their homes. However, there are some out there who muster up the courage and fight against all odds, breaking barriers and stereotypes in a primarily male-dominated world. Kunduz is one such example of a place run on the grounds of patriarchy on almost all fronts. Hence, it comes as a surprise that the Afghan city plays host to a radio station run by a women, whose purpose is to promote their rights and the call for change. Radio Roshani has been running for quite some time despite several fundamentalists’ attempts to demolish it completely. While its founder Sediqa Sherzai has been targeted several times and is accustomed to death threats but she continues to pursue her passion.
In 2008, Sherzai set up Radio Roshani to stand up for herself and those like her. However, she found herself in misfortune soon enough when the Taliban started to hunt her down. At first it warned Sherzai to stop broadcasting and then rockets were fired at the station. So, she stopped working for a while. Sherzai approached the Afghan government for protection but her efforts were in vain and no one came to her help. She resumed working after a few days and took it upon herself to continue chasing her dreams whilst not allowing herself to give in to the threats.
Sherzai has been told by many that she is leading local women astray and promoting conflict between husbands and their wives behind closed doors. "These actions are so bad that you deserve to be killed – even more than an American does," she was once told. Talking about the time her phone rang and it was the Taliban on the line, Sherzai stated, “Someone speaking in the Pashtu language asked me where I was, wanting me to give my exact location. I wasn't sure who this person was and was suspicious. After that I turned off my phone and did my best to get away."
After finding the radio station's staff had eloped, the opposing party destroyed the station's archives, stole its equipment and planted mines in the building. Even though they were eventually driven out of the city, Radio Roshani remained closed for two months while explosives experts defused the mines and staff replaced the missing equipment. But death threats have continued ever since. "A lot of men, as soon as they have some money, go for a second or third wife, and so on," Sherzai said. According to Islamic convention, this is acceptable in cases where the first wife cannot bear children but in practice it's mainly done "for sex life purposes".
The husband is supposed to promote peace amongst his wives but Sherzai revealed that is never the case. Instead, he is often seen favouring one spouse over the other. "When the second wife brings more children, she's being treated better than the first. And if the first or second wife are illiterate and the man then gets an educated wife, again she is treated more favourably because she is more educated," she noted. Often the wives who have the hardest time are those who did not consent to the marriage, having either been sold to the man by their parents or given to him in lieu of a relative's debt. She disclosed that it's very rare for the women to support one another and to apply collective pressure on the husband to behave well. "There is little understanding or sympathy between them, because of the tensions in the marriage. Some are jealous of other wives because they are closer to the husband, while they [themselves] are more distant. So there is often hardly any co-operation between them."
While Radio Roshani is now the only radio station in Kunduz run by a woman, there are three others that were launched by women, and which still broadcast some programmes for women even though they are now mainly run by men. Zohal Noori, who works both for Radio Roshani and one of the other stations, says that some men tune in to women's programmes and that this is helping to change attitudes. So, they do see a light at the end of the tunnel. More are now willing to allow their wives to go to work and become active in the local economy. A growing number are also permitting their wives and daughters to be examined in hospitals, Zohal said, thanks largely to an influx of women doctors. There are still men, though, who regard this as unacceptable. "They take [their wives and daughters] to clerics, who just tell them to read specified parts of the Koran. These women have no option but to just put up with the situation. Some get very depressed and some have even taken their own lives," Zohal shared.
But if in general the situation for women in Kunduz has been improving, there have also been setbacks, partly because of a shaky security situation in the country. "There are lots of assassinations, kidnappings and crime," Zohal said. "Kidnappings are very common at night and things are just getting worse and worse." As a result, some families that had begun to allow girls to go to school with their brothers are now changing their minds. It's also feared that talks now being held between US and Taliban representatives could end up disentangling the progress made on women's rights that Radio Roshani and the other women broadcasters have fought for so long. "We're hoping that the peace negotiations will become a real peace," she concluded. "And not at the cost of women sitting back at home all day, and that all our achievements are not reversed."