Afghan women break barriers with all-female TV station

Afghan women break barriers with all-female TV station

Karishma Naaz presents her live music show, Gamak, on Zan TV in Kabul on 28 May 2017.

(Shadi Saif Khan)

Less than two decades ago the private media did not exist in Afghanistan. Today, some 76 private television channels and more than 100 radio stations operate in the country. Amongst them is Zan TV – which translates as ‘Women’s TV’ in the local Dari language – a unique media platform run almost entirely by women, for women.

Stationed behind high-security barriers and walls in the heart of Kabul’s Shahr-e-Nau neighborhood, this digital-satellite channel is one of a kind in a conservative Muslim country that has been reeling from a brutal extremist insurgency for more than a decade.

Wearing traditional dress, the bright, young presenter Karishma Naaz prepares for her popular music show, Gamak. “We have prepared a very special programme for Eid-al-Fitr [the Muslim holy festival that follows Ramadan]. We are going to have live phone calls and we will also invite artists and musicians to be our guests on that day,” she told Equal Times at the end of May.

Karishma’s show is part of the channel’s inclusive strategy to attract an audience from all segments of Afghan society, including the young and old, the male and female. Music remains one of the most popular forms of entertainment in Afghanistan, with numerous young bands and solo artists emerging since the fall of the Taliban regime in the 2001.

Zan TV offers a wide range of programmes during its 18-hour daily telecast ranging from news and current affairs to sports, cooking, religious affairs, talks shows and sports shows – all of which put women centre stage.

Zan TV went on-air on Saturday 3 June 2017 following a three-month trial period, and it has started with pretty modest means including a camera control unit, two studios and a main desk, which provides technical support.

The vision of this enterprise is to bring about a fundamental change to the lives of Afghan women, says Zan TV founder, the young, male entrepreneur Hamid Samar.

“This is a dedicated TV station for women and run by women. Most of the programmes are based on the problems women face in Afghan society,” he says. “We have big hopes for this project because in the last 16 years, the role of women in the media has not been evident. People used women’s names but did nothing. Zan TV will finally provide women with a platform to showcase their abilities,” he explains.

“Women are powerful”

Despite only being in the industry for just few months, Zan TV has already amassed more than 100, 000 Facebook followers. Zan TV also aims to train young female talent on the technical and editorial aspects of television so that one day, all members of Zan TV staff will be female.

Mehria Afzali, a young, promising female journalist, is a key member of the Zan TV team and she is determined to make her mark on the industry. “Some men think women are just for producing babies and taking care of homes, or are just for their sexual needs, but that is not true. Women can be powerful and we can work in the media. We will show them that we are powerful,” she says emphatically.

But after four decades of raging violence, Afghanistan remains one of the most deadly countries in the world – particularly for women. Although the Taliban are no longer in power, their fighters are still active in parts of the country and the severe repression of women is central to their reign of terror. In addition, all over Afghanistan, security concerns, access to health services, education and job opportunities remain scarce for Afghan women.

The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission reported that in the first eight months of 2016, it documented 2,621 cases of domestic violence, although the number is likely much higher due to underreporting. This makes it difficult for young female talent to come out of home and work in the media industry.

Ashiqullah Yaqub , a senior Afghan political analyst, believes that Zan TV has the potential to bring about positive changes to the lives of women in Afghanistan.

“You know, in the past 15 years the international community and aid agencies have poured millions and billions of dollars for the reconstruction and social upliftment of Afghanistan, but corruption also took place in the utilisation and granting of these funds. But a TV channel for and by women is absolutely a unique idea. If performed well, it could reach each and every corner of the country. It can certainly raise awareness about women and their rights,” he says.

Promote: helping 75,000 women and girls

Another flagship female empowerment programme currently being run in Afghanistan is USAID’s Promote which aims to help 75,000 young Afghan women become leaders in their fields over the next five years. This US$216 million project hopes to strengthen Afghanistan’s development by boosting female participation in the economy, helping women gain business and management skills, supporting women’s rights groups and increasing the number of women in decision-making positions within the Afghan government.

“Enormous progress has been made in advancing opportunities for women and girls in Afghanistan over the past 11 years,” said Rajiv Shah, a former USAID administrator in a press release on Promote. “While there are challenges ahead, Promote underscores our commitment to ensuring that women and girls play a major role in determining Afghanistan’s political and economic future.”

Zan TV also hopes to attract the donor community. “We are very much focused on providing technical and editorial training to women and girls in a bid to ensure our ultimate goal of having 100 per cent female staff,” says Zan TV founder Samar. He admits that the station relies heavily on aid grants at the moment, but this is also the case for the overwhelming majority of radio and television channels in Afghanistan as the local economy is not yet robust enough to sustain the media industry on advertising revenue alone.

But the overwhelmingly positive response from women and girls eager to work with the station combined with positive feedback from both the donor community and viewers is encouraging Zan TV staff to look forward with optimism.

“I know we have started [this TV station] in a very tough situation,” says Samar. “We also know it is difficult to run, but we are hopeful that this will be one of the leading television channels in the country in the next two years or so. Zan TV has this vision and mission, and each and every individual working here has set goals to move ahead with this in mind,” he says.

However, the challenges remain great. Days before the official launch of Zan TV in Kabul, a deadly truck bombing in the capital claimed up to 150 lives, while leaving more than 400 people wounded. It was the deadliest blast in the history of Kabul and it hit the diplomatic enclave less than a kilometre away from the Zan TV offices, highlighting the grim danger under which women and girls have to operate as they strive for positive change.