Afghanistan’s women-run radio station vows to fight closure by Taliban: ‘Not afraid of jail or death’

‘Right now, I will fight for my radio station’s existence. Even if the Taliban wants to jail or kill me’

Arpan Rai
Wednesday 05 April 2023 15:45 BST
Sadai Banowan’s head Najia Sorosh has decried a conspiracy by the Taliban to shut down the radio station
Sadai Banowan’s head Najia Sorosh has decried a conspiracy by the Taliban to shut down the radio station (Sourced/The Independent)

Afghanistan’s only women-run radio station has vowed to fight back after the Taliban recently ordered it to cease operations.

Sadai Banowan, which means “women’s voice” in the Dari language, was ordered to shut down on 30 March by the hardline Islamist regime, which accused it of playing music during the holy month of Ramadan.

A staff member at Sadai Banowan said the station’s employees will call it a day and “break” all their equipment if the Taliban does not allow its operations to resume.

Speaking to The Independent on a phone call, the staff member, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions, said her crew was tired of seeking the Taliban’s permission to speak about the basic rights of women in Afghanistan.

She said she was ready to “fight” to save the radio station’s existence, even if it meant being punished.

The radio station operator said her team are pinning their last remaining hope on a conversation with the Taliban, expected to be held this week.

“I have now decided to speak with the Taliban’s cultural chief and apologise, if needed. If he does not agree, I will break up the equipment and all my materials and shut down operations for ever,” the staffer said, adding that her hopes for a conversation with the Taliban leader remain bleak.

“But right now, I am not scared, and I will fight for my radio station’s existence. Even if the Taliban wants to jail or kill me in their prison custody.”

The staffer said the Taliban’s move to shut the station without notice was likely due to the women-centric themes of its programmes, which are broadcast locally in the Badakhshan province.

She also rejected the charge that the station had played music during the holy month of Ramadan.

“No, never! We never played any music during Ramadan. The Taliban does not allow for any music to be played, and we did not violate their diktat,” she said firmly.

“All of our activity at the radio station has been about women’s rights and education. We spoke of women’s health, their education, their basic rights and role of women in business.”

“We regularly held programmes discussing problems faced by women,” the employee said.

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The staffer was present when four Taliban representatives visited the radio station’s premises. She said the Taliban’s culture chief was asked by the governor to shut down the broadcasting service.

“Today I am not thinking about myself, but the radio station and the people employed there. The radio station should be reopened for every woman’s voice and right in Afghanistan,” said the staff member.

Sadai Banowan was opened 10 years ago when Afghanistan was run by a Western-backed administration. The better situation at the time allowed the then 18-member team to play music, broadcast jokes, and invite male guests to speak on radio shows.

Even if the money was not good in the initial days, the administration’s encouragement, along with local support, fuelled the team’s wish to work for women’s empowerment.

Under the Taliban rulers, a day feels like a year, the staff member said.

The fear of the radio station’s staff was starkly visible in August 2021 when the Taliban stormed the presidential palace and overthrew Ashraf Ghani’s administration. The employees ran from pillar to post to seek refuge, and the broadcasting office was shut for three months.

“I tried my best to leave. I tried,” the woman recounted.

Even today, the staffer’s options for fleeing Afghanistan are limited. Every day is spent in the fear of getting arrested, she said. “It is a habit that has been nursed day after day.”

When the radio station gradually resumed broadcasting, its founder was handed a detailed list of dos and don’ts.

“The Taliban wanted us to change the name of our radio station, control the material that we spoke about and discussed,” the staffer said. “The themes were mostly forced to be about religion and Islam, as prescribed by the Taliban.”

The Taliban’s interpretation of Sharia law has dominated the domestic religious atmosphere in what has now been more than 18 months of rule by the organisation. “I realise how important my radio station and I are to Afghanistan, because the Taliban is scared and wants to shut it down,” said the staff member.

According to the last few remaining local voices speaking up on women rights, the Taliban targeted Radio Banowan’s broadcasts because “the station was known for its independent and critical reporting”, which was seen as a threat to the Taliban’s control in the region.

The station had also reported on Taliban atrocities, which made it a target for retaliation, said Aisha, an activist for women’s and children’s rights, who wished to be identified by her first name only.

Banowan Radio was popular, dealt with women’s issues, and provided opportunities for women’s voices to be heard, said Aisha, a member of the women-led Purple Saturdays movement, which seeks to empower women and children.

“Historically, the Taliban has been known for their strict interpretation of Islamic law, which includes strict restrictions on women’s rights and freedoms,” Aisha told The Independent.

“They have been known to close down women’s schools, ban women from working outside the home, and restrict women’s access to healthcare.”

It is possible they closed Sadai Banowan as part of their effort to reinforce their strict interpretation of Islamic law and limit women’s voices and visibility in public life, she said.

The Taliban’s director for information and culture in Badakhshan said they will allow the radio station to be active if its staff “accept the policy of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and give a guarantee that it will not repeat such a thing again”.

A number of journalists have been left unemployed since the Taliban returned to power. Their current rule has mirrored the rule of the previous Taliban regime, when most television, radio and newspapers in the country were banned.

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