Thursday, January 17, 2013

Guest Post: Providing a Voice to Afghan Women

On a quiet Friday morning, as I exited the gates of the Afghan Special Operations Compound on the outskirts of Kabul, my interpreter and I set out to pick up Pashtana, the first woman DJ I hired to work at my radio station. As the three of us returned to the checkpoint, we were stopped at gunpoint. Through the yelling and gesturing, my interpreter relayed to me that the guards assumed she was a prostitute. Was it even possible that this was the guards’ only logical conclusion for her presence at their base? Sadly, it was.

After over a decade of American involvement in Afghanistan, the all too familiar plight of the Afghan woman has become an unfortunate symbol of sluggish progress made in the country. Although there are some successful efforts to advance the status of women in Afghanistan, the push toward equality cannot be too strong and the results cannot come soon enough. In the war-torn society with deep-rooted gender roles, empowering Afghan women to seize a leading role in educating their society could prove to be successful in the fight against inequality.

Photo by Tech. Sgt. Gloria Wilson

Two years ago I deployed to Afghanistan as an advisor to the Afghan Special Operation Command. I was charged with training the Afghan Commandos in operations to inform the civilian population and counter enemy propaganda, helping build trust between the civilian population and the government. In distant, hard-to-reach villages, where illiteracy is rampant, Commandos use radio stations to disseminate their message to a wider audience.

Our largest radio station, in Kabul, employed Afghan DJ's who devoted much of the programming to interviews pertaining to military operations, presenting a dominantly male perspective. It soon became clear that we were ignoring half the population. The strategy of employing women on the front lines to reach out to other women has grown in popularity over the years in Afghanistan, where men and women often live segregated lives. Thus, I sought out local Afghan women who were interested in devoting their time and, consequently, risking their lives to reach a female audience over the radio.

Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Marcus Quarterman

Through radio broadcasts, Pashtana became our link to Afghan women and, in turn, the station became Pashtana’s means for advancing the discussion of gender equality. Each week she would record commentary and interviews on location, for instance, at a women’s health clinic or a girls’ school. Then after each feature aired on Friday, she opened the phone lines to discuss topics of interest with the audience. With each broadcast we received hundreds of calls from both men and women willing to openly discuss these culturally sensitive topics. And over time, the success of her weekly shows demonstrated just how significant such communication can be in terms of enhancing the exchange of ideas and increasing our understanding of public sentiment.

I remember standing at the gate to the Afghan military compound on Pashtana’s first day. I noted how stoically she sat, unfazed by the accusations and AK-47s. We were eventually granted access and the next day I sat quietly in the Afghan Special Operations Commander’s office. He expressed his apologies to Pashtana and articulated her essential role at the radio station; and I couldn’t have been more proud as she graciously accepted, determined to assume that responsibility.

Dan McConnell is a former US Army Officer and current MPP candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School. You can reach him for questions or comments at

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