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Afghan Women Find Their Voice

Najiba Khalil (left) and Noshaba Ashna, co-hosts of Afghan Service call-in show for women, Najiba Noshaba
Najiba Khalil (left) and Noshaba Ashna, co-hosts of Afghan Service call-in show for women, Najiba Noshaba

Before becoming VOA Director, I served as Director of Communications and Public Diplomacy at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and got to know -- and respect – the Afghan people. But some things about the country were unsettling for an American--particularly the role of Afghan women--or perhaps I should say the lack of a role for Afghan women, in the country’s public life. That background helps explain why I am so eager to draw your attention to a radio program the Afghan Service introduced last year: Najiba Noshaba.

It’s a weekly women’s call-in show named for its co-hosts, Najiba Khalil and Noshaba Ashna, which airs every Tuesday at 8 PM Kabul time.
Launched in September 2014, the show had a highly ambitious goal: to get Afghan women to participate in on-air discussions and debates about important issues.

Co-hosts Najiba and Noshaba had no illusions about what they were up against. In spite of the great advances made by Afghan women over the past 14 years, few of them take part in public discussions, which they consider the domain of men. As long-time VOA broadcasters, Najiba and Noshaba had experienced this first-hand. Each had hosted dozens of call-in shows related to women’s issues that drew few, if any, women callers.

To encourage women to call their show, Najiba and Noshaba chose topics of concern to women – such as violence against women, women’s rights – and openly discouraged male callers by frequently mentioning the show’s motto: “No men allowed.”

But the opening weeks of the show were bumpy. While dozens of outspoken men called into each show, not a single female did. The show was beginning to look like a flop.

Instead of giving up, Najiba and Noshaba decided to tweak the show. Rather than discussing macro issues such as women’s rights, they focused on issues that women struggle with in their daily lives: health care, literacy, economic opportunity. They dedicated one show to pre-natal care, the lack of which is a leading cause of maternal mortality in Afghanistan. Another show focused on the value of literacy.

And the calls from women started coming in. By the third month, Najiba and Noshaba had solved their women problem and had even fielded more than a dozen calls per show from once-improbable places: Uruzgan, Khost, Helmand – the Taliban heartland.

The biggest test of the show's success came in February when Najiba Noshaba focused on "men's attitudes towards women." The topic would definitely have met with radio silence from women last year, but now it made for a lively discussion.

And for the first time the show suspended its "no men allowed" rule and invited men to join the conversation. Needless to say, more than a few did. But they were outnumbered by the women.