Mozhdah: The Oprah of Afghanistan

Vancouver-raised Mozhdah is revolutionizing her society one fearless talk show at a time

The Oprah of Afghanistan

For her safety, Mozhdah seldom leaves her house. When she does, she’s mobbed by fans. | Andrea Bruce/Getty Images

On the face of it, the taping of the The Mozhdah Show looks like that of any other U.S. talk show. Green lights dim as the house band—Afghanistan’s only known rock group—starts up. A white spotlight sweeps the audience. Whistles and cheers erupt as the host, Mozhdah Jamalzadah, emerges, hopping gracefully onto the bright-pink set. “Salaam!” says the charismatic, Canadian-raised star, whose nine-month-old TV program has taken Afghanistan by storm. “Salaam!” she says again, smiling, her adoring crowd refusing to return to their seats.

Mozhdah, who like Beyoncé is known by her first name, and is mobbed whenever she leaves her Kabul home, has been labelled the Oprah of Afghanistan. The comparison is of course imperfect. Oprah doesn’t sleep with a gun. She doesn’t ride in bulletproof cars or travel with guards armed with AK-47s. Death threats don’t flood her inbox. Mozhdah, whose first thought on entering a new building is how she might escape, is gutsy in a way Oprah doesn’t need to be. Her black leather leggings, six-inch heels and silver hoop earrings wouldn’t get a second glance in Vancouver, where she’s spent all but five of her 26 years, but this is Afghanistan. Until a few years ago, the bare ankles alone could have earned her a public whipping.

Her clothes aren’t the only thing raising eyebrows in the ultra-conservative country. There is the unapologetically frank content of the show. Should women have to wear the veil? Should the marriage of a 10-year-old girl be allowed? If a woman is willing to set herself alight to escape the violence of a marriage—a common form of suicide in much of Afghanistan—why aren’t we talking about divorce? Conversations like these, she says, are raised in hushed voices in Afghanistan, when at all. She’s taking them to the airwaves, and into the homes of millions of viewers, an astonishing change.

That Afghans are watching TV at all is a meaningful shift. Under the Taliban, watching television and listening to music was a crime; the Talib mouthpiece, Radio Shariat, was the country’s lone radio station. Dancing was punishable by execution. But with the lifting of these restrictions in 2004, some 20 networks have rushed to fill the void. In a country with an illiteracy rate as high as 80 per cent, the tube’s popularity is soaring. Afghan Star, the local take on American Idol, draws as many as a third of the country’s population of 32 million. The impact, especially in cities and on the new generation—the 60 per cent of Afghans under 25—is dramatic.

Women’s lives are being reimagined on television. Bollywood soaps, dubbed into Dari, are giving girls a new version of womanhood, where young women ditch the veil, and can marry for love. Recently, filming began on the country’s first soap, The Secrets of This House. By turning a mirror to Afghan society, the show, directed by female filmmaker Roya Sadaat, is a rare critique of Afghanistan’s failings: its treatment of women, the corruption, drugs. Yet Mozhdah, even in this changing landscape, is a revolutionary force. Simply by interviewing a male psychologist, she lends weight to the idea that women have ideas and intelligence and can speak with men as equals—radical thinking, after years of Taliban rule. Her barely-there head scarves and fashionable belts are being widely mimicked in a country known for its burkas and colourless, shapeless women’s attire. In a culture where even what a woman wears can be a freighted political choice, she’s subtly but surely transforming her world.

Mozhdah spent most of her life in a country where none of this would be out of the ordinary. Born in Kabul, she emigrated to Vancouver in 1990 with her parents, Nasrin and Bashir, and her baby brothers, Safee and Masee, when she was five. A year earlier, as the Soviet occupation was drawing to an end, Bashir, a professor and poet from Herat, a liberal fortress in the country’s western highlands, had learned that president Najibullah’s Communist regime had him in their sights. Having witnessed countless friends and colleagues vanish without a trace, he escaped, in the middle of a class, to a safe house; “stomach cramps,” he explained to his shocked students, who watched him go. Nasrin and the kids fled their Kabul home, leaving everything behind: money, clothes, toys. “In that situation, everything is material,” Nasrin explains. “You grab your children and you get out.”

The family, once reunited, crossed Afghanistan’s eastern border into Pakistan, and spent a year in Islamabad’s teeming refugee slums before making it to Canada, and a new beginning. Nasrin, who’d grown up among the elite in Kabul’s old city, became a hairdresser. Bashir found work at a career college in suburban Richmond. Eventually, they bought a bungalow in working-class south Vancouver, where the boys’ hockey trophies vie for attention with the ornate Persian rugs.

Mozhdah grew up with one eye firmly on the country’s worsening situation. “What women were facing,” she says on the phone from Kabul, “haunted me.” Music became an outlet in her teen years—the first stirrings of a life in the spotlight. She took vocal lessons with Dari singer Wahid Omid, and started getting gigs in Vancouver. After graduating from John Oliver Secondary, she enrolled in the British Columbia Institute of Training’s broadcasting program, and studied opera at the British Columbia Conservatory of Music: the perfect training, as it turned out, for what lay ahead. Often she sang in Dari, rebuilding a language she’d lost growing up with The Baby-Sitters Club. Mozhdah’s biggest fans were her mother’s clients from the salon. They made it to all her shows, though none was even Afghan.

Initially Mozhdah avoided politics in her music. But two years ago, a group of Kandahar schoolgirls was attacked with acid. Bashir, then working as an interpreter with the Canadian Forces, was devastated by the ugly assault, for which the Taliban claimed responsibility. On the return plane to Vancouver, he wrote a poem recalling the country’s female heroes, poets, politicians and warriors. Mozhdah, who remembers the emotion etched in his face when he handed her the poem, cloistered herself for days, putting those words to music.

The result, Afghan Girl, was a sensation, first among the sprawling diaspora community. A Vegas producer, another Afghan refugee, signed her. The music video they filmed for the song in Nevada’s Red Rock Canyon then broke into Afghanistan, where Afghan Girl won a series of awards, including 2009’s song of the year. With the nod, Mozhdah joined a rarefied club. The first female pop star to emerge in Afghanistan in decades, in March she performed for Barack and Michelle Obama at the White House, a far cry from her days at Vancouver’s Hellenic club.

It was one thing for Mozhdah’s music to be in Afghanistan, quite another for her to go there herself. But last year, when 1TV, a start-up network launched by Fahim Hashimy, a young, Kabul-raised millionaire, contacted her about hosting a show called Afghan Talent, the local iteration of America’s got Talent, she leapt at the opportunity. Her parents were wholeheartedly opposed. “They thought I was going through a phase—that I was mad about something,” she explains. They sat Mozhdah down on a brown leather couch in the family den. The country was not stable, they pointed out; the Taliban was flourishing; warlords were everywhere. But their eldest, whom her mother describes as fearless and often difficult, was adamant. “At that point,” says Nasrin, “we had no choice but to support her.” But she admits, through clenched fists, that some nights she lies awake, still gripped with fear.

Her parents weren’t alone; everyone thought she was crazy, from her friends in Vancouver to her new co-workers in Kabul. “Everyone’s trying to get out of here,” her cameramen told her, incredulous. “You’re running against traffic.” Professionally, the move paid off in spades. Just weeks after Mozhdah arrived in Afghanistan in December 2009—remarkably, her first time back—1TV offered her a show of her own (Afghan Talent is still in development). Still, sometimes Mozhdah thinks she’s crazy, too. She aches for Vancouver, for “civilization,” as she puts it, and for Mittens, her cat.

The inspiration for the show is Oprah. Mozhdah’s been watching the queen of daytime religiously since she was 15, and bought Oprah’s six-disc, 20th anniversary DVD collection as a study guide. Like Oprah, Mozhdah focuses on families. “So many of Afghanistan’s problems start in the home,” she says—“poverty, a lack of education, child abuse, domestic abuse.” Sometimes she has a musical guest. Sometimes she herself is the musical guest. She can’t bring families up on stage—“People would never put themselves at risk like that”—so, instead, she stages skits. A regular cast acts as a stand-in family, aping discord for the cameras. “I have really good news,” a mother said to her daughter in one sketch, voice brimming with excitement. “What is it?” the little girl responded. “We’re getting you married,” said her mom. “But mom! I want to go to school. Why are you doing this to me?” That day, Mozhdah recalls, a woman stood up in the audience. She’d been married as a small child, she said. She’d had 10 children, and was forced to grow up before she was ready. She was 50, says Mozhdah, but could have passed for 80. Girls, she declared on the show, deserve a choice.

Mozhdah didn’t jump straight into hot topics like forced marriage of children. She eased in, so viewers wouldn’t “freak out.” She started with child labour, then turned the light to child abuse, both widely tolerated in Afghanistan; slowly, she broached topics like domestic violence, equality and, most recently, divorce. “No, no, no, this is a taboo subject,” people told her, trying to ward her off the topic. An uncle, made aware of her plans, phoned to intervene. “Uncle, this is why I came here,” she argued. “I’m not promoting divorce. But these girls are killing themselves. We have to let families know there is another option.”

Her appeal, needless to say, is far from universal. Conservative clerics and government officials take issue with her liberal views and “un-Islamic” dress. The ministry of culture once stopped one of her shows from airing because she chose not to wear a head scarf. Before editing was even done, word of the transgression had leaked, and the show was yanked. V-neck dresses, she’s learned, will bring the same result. She makes the necessary compromises, working just enough nods to Islam into the program.

Every woman in Afghan media makes some accommodations. Sima, a wildly popular radio host, fearful of becoming a target, never reveals her last name or allows herself to be photographed. “Wherever I go,” her male co-host, Massoud Sanjer, recently told the New Yorker, “people say, is she beautiful? What’s she like?” Everyone knows what can happen when you don’t stay vigilant. Mozhdah’s friend, Setara Hussainzada, a singer and finalist on Afghan Star, was forced into hiding after her head scarf fell to her shoulders during a televised performance. After repeated threats on her life, she fled to Britain.

In some cases, the consequences for women in media have been much more dire. In June 2007, Zakia Zaki, 35, who ran the U.S.-funded station Peace Radio in Parwan province, was gunned down as she slept in bed with her eight-month-old son; hers was the second slaying of a female Afghan journalist in a five-day period. In 2005, Shaima Rezayee was shot in the head in her Kabul home. The jeans-favouring, 24-year-old veejay on the hit music and chat show Hop boldly laughed and teased her two male co-hosts and aired videos of Western, Indian, Turkish, Iranian and Afghan music. Afghan youth were immediately transfixed. Clerics were incensed. In mosques and town hall meetings, religious leaders viciously attacked Rezayee’s choices. Male relatives who had felt she had impugned the family honour are the main suspects in her murder.

Certainly, there has been progress. Afghanistan’s 2004 constitution guarantees women their rights, and the government has passed a law criminalizing violence against women. Women have fought their way into peace talks, parliament, media, the country’s police force, even the Olympic team. But the constitution also says no law may go against the principles of sharia, the laws of Islam. For now the courts follow the Hanafi school, the most tolerant interpretation of sharia. But a political change could bring major clawbacks. Reports that President Hamid Karzai has begun talks with members of the Quetta Shura, the Taliban leadership—viewed in the West as a pragmatic and positive move—terrifies Afghan women, Mozhdah included. The Taliban, in negotiations, are expected to push for a version of the state in line with their views. Equality for women would not be part of the plan.

Mozhdah rarely leaves her Kabul home. When she does, she’s hounded by fans snapping cellphone photos or wanting autographs. Her Canadian roots, she figures, offer some protection. “People think: ‘It’s not her fault—she grew up outside.’ ” There’s another mitigating factor, Nasrin says, clearly uncomfortable. In Afghanistan, she explains, actresses and female singers are seen to be on the hunt for male attention and affection. But Mozhdah’s well-documented work with Afghan orphanages and passion for social change may, in the eyes of some Afghans, make her motivations seem virtuous, pure. Still, there is opposition, even within her family. On Nasrin’s last visit, Mozhdah’s uncle insisted his niece, who is single, be married. Nasrin fought back. “Mozhdah knows how to look after herself,” she told him. “She was brought up just like a man.” “No!” he shouted. “Over here, it doesn’t work that way.”

“I’m a target,” Mozhdah admits. “I’ve been warned. “I live in fear from morning until night. I can’t trust any guards; I can’t trust people around me, even co-workers. People will sell you off—they’ll sell your whereabouts. I could give up and run back to Vancouver,” she adds. “But I’m not going to do that.”

Mozhdah recalls a woman visiting the studio after a two-part series on domestic violence had aired. Mozhdah recalls being “very harsh” in presenting the episode: “A real man,” she’d said on-air, “wouldn’t hit his wife.” Throughout the show, the woman recounted, her husband stared intently at the TV. Since seeing the series, he hadn’t hit her. She wanted to thank Mozhdah, not just on her behalf, she said, but for women all over Afghanistan.

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