In recent years, new forms of online media have given many Afghans in Afghanistan and in the diaspora the chance to participate in national debates and sporting events for the first time. Through their engagement, Afghans are forging the frontline of a ‘new’ Afghanistan. This ‘new’ Afghanistan is one which embraces diversity, creates bonds between Afghanistan's diverse religious and ethnic communities and elevates civil society as the primary force for peace. There may be many challenges to this model, but unity remains the right of ordinary Afghans.
Radio in exile
I founded Afghan Voice Radio, an online radio station which I run from exile in the UK, in 2010 in order to make my own contribution to peace and unity in Afghanistan through providing a global platform for dialogue and debate. It is a voluntary run, not for profit, independent community internet radio station; a safe place for freedom of expression, discussion, news, culture and analysis. As listener Habib Fazli recently commented on our Facebook page, “Afghan Voice unites Afghan youth and promotes Afghan culture. It brings people together.”
I started experimenting with online radio in 2009 with just a notebook and a mixer, teaching myself about community internet radio and media via online tutorials. I soon found out that Afghans across the world were actually listening. The first callers were quite nervous and forgot what they were calling for. When Aman called us to a share a joke he only managed to say: “I had a joke but as soon as I dialed the number I completely forgot it!”
Via Skype, Afghans living abroad started to message me song requests for friends and family they miss back home. Then people asked me if I could broadcast discussions and the first episode of our weekly discussion show, Hujra, was born. Hujra is an Arabic word which means 'guest house'. It is a very common word in Afghanistan, especially among Pashton villagers. It refers to the guest house where villagers welcome guests. The young men and elders also gather there to discuss important issues in the community. It is a public place where everyone is permitted: poor, rich, illiterate and educated alike.
In a recent episode of Hujra, individuals from all generations called in to discuss the topic of arranged marriages, some phoning from Manchester, others from Kabul. It turned out to be one of our most popular programmes yet. People were talking openly and freely across generations and borders in a way that would never happen in most Afghan families.
We have also run programmes on migrants’ journeys to Britain, a topic which receives scant attention in mainstream media. I’ve talked to people along the route, including campaigners in Calais and led a discussion of European asylum policy. Where we can, we’ve tried to link up with other initiatives reaching out to young migrants in the European diaspora, such as hosting a show for Young People Seeking Safety Week.
Because of the time difference around the world our working hours are irregular and long and there’s always something unexpected going on. We start the day at 6 am UK time with news updates and usually end the day with a Hujra show finishing at around 1 am, presented by Ahmad Shah Ahmadi from the UAE. Recordings are usually done in our Brighton studio but we increasingly send reporters out on location.
Afghan Voice Radio studio
Sports have been a staple of our daily radio shows since we started broadcasting, whether coverage of the rising Afghan boxing scene or providing commentary on international cricket. The popularity of these shows reflects the growth and encouragement of sports among Afghan youth and also the fact that there is a growing Afghan civil society at home and abroad willing to come together as a nation around shared sporting events. Whether through the Afghan female football team, Afghanistan’s first premiere league or participation in the recent the Olympic Games, sports are tools that unite Afghans all around the world and give them an opportunity to be proud of their war-torn country. In their important role as role models for the country’s youth, sports personalities help to lay the foundations for a strong civil society of Afghans.
Afghanistan’s performance at this year’s Olympics is a case in point. When young sporting sensation Rohullah Nekpah repeated his efforts at the Beijing games in 2008 by securing Afghanistan’s second Olympic medal with a Bronze in the men’s Taekwondo 58kg, we captured the jubilation at Afghan Voice Radio. As a listener, Shahzad Aryobee, called in to comment, “Rohullah is our country’s real hero... I really like his efforts and his encouragement. We wish him more success in the future … he gives Afghanistan a great name.” Female athlete Tahmina Kohistani may not have come home with a medal for her efforts in the women’s 100 metres back in August, but it is clear from many of our listeners that she remains an inspiration for Afghan girls.
From kids watching in schools in Kabul to refugees from different generations of the Afghan diaspora lining the seats of the Olympic stadium in London, the Olympics really fostered a sense of national pride in Afghans at home and abroad. Nikpai specifically thanked the Afghan refugees who came to cheer him on. They cheered together under one roof regardless of their country of residence or differences in language, ethnicity or political disputes. Our radio was able to help transmit this spirit across the world.
Yet national unity as witnessed during these sporting events is, of course, no simple feat. Thirty years of war in an already conservative society has totally changed the shape of Afghan society and the mind-sets of Afghan people, making people less tolerant and more distrustful of one other and destroying Afghanistan up to a level where it is now one of the most war torn, ravaged and impoverished nations in the world. This is not only because of the Taliban, but also because of the government and the powerful warlords who are not willing to hand over their powers to a civil society or to a united nation.
Around 15 million Afghans are currently unemployed, 20 million live under the poverty line and the average life expectancy is 49 years. Afghans have been fleeing regions and Afghanistan itself for many years and the greeting they receive abroad is often war from a welcome. Pakistan is cancelling all refugee statuses of Afghans by the end of this year and will force Afghans to return to Afghanistan. In some parts of Iran, discrimination against Afghans is reaching unprecedented levels, with Afghan free areas, exclusion, harassment and many cases of execution. The asylum policy of most western countries is to refuse Afghans.
For most Afghans then, the future still looks insecure and there is no doubt that unity and peace building in Afghanistan is a slow process, more heavily influenced by international politics than the growing initiative of Afghan youth. National sporting and civil society initiatives which start from the premise of a united nation have a lot of trouble getting off the ground in this context. To become an Afghan female athlete like Tahimina Kohistani means you have to challenge social taboos like going out of the house to train, focusing on a career, breaking the boundaries which society imposes on women; you draw attention to yourself and your family which can lead to threats or exclusion from family or community groups. In persevering, women like Tahmina contribute to social change and challenge conservative minds; they clear a path for other Afghan women. They are part of the ‘new’ Afghanistan.
There are also huge obstacles to media engagement, both in terms of access and fundamental freedoms. Internet usage is expanding within Afghanistan, yet it is still mainly used by students and journalists and remains out of reach for most Afghans. In December 2011, Afghanistan had 1,256,470 Internet users (4.2% of the population). Moreover, only time will tell how free online media is able to be in Afghanistan. Freedom of expression in Afghanistan currently remains non-existent and can result in early death or prison sentences. There are a few independent monitoring organisations and civil society groups like NAI (bamboo) which defend the rights of journalists and media. They may not bring changes over the night, but they are small steps towards freedom of speech and a better media environment.
To speak of sports and radio chat shows in this context may seem tangential, but I believe that these things are fundamental. They have the power to inspire youth and foster peace. Along with sport, radio provides a way of connecting Afghans from a range of backgrounds both within and outside of Afghanistan. It connects Afghan people across the diaspora and provides a sense of ‘home’.
For now, the reality is that whilst our outreach is global we can only do what we do because we are located in the UK where it is relatively safe to exercise freedom of expression. It may still be some time before we can broadcast from Kabul, perhaps next to the gym where Tahmina can train for the next Olympics unphased by threats from taxi drivers…