On the Air: Iraqi Women Find a Forum (in Baghdadi dialect)

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Sun Sep 4 17:50:16 UTC 2005

>>From the NYTimes, September 4, 2005

On the Air, on Their Own: Iraqi Women Find a Forum

BAGHDAD, Iraq - The two radio hosts, Majda and Majid, a chattering
woman-and-man team, said the subject for the next hour would be
childbearing and motherhood, from the first flush of pregnancy to the
tribulations of labor. So Majda opened the show with a poem, dedicating it
to the "mother of Baghdad": "You are my darling, you are the flower of my
table, you are my drink." Then the talk turned as heated as an Iraqi

"Most of our operating rooms for giving birth aren't clean," Majid said.
"It's not healthy," Majda said. "There are no standards of cleanliness in
these hospitals." Majid said: "How can we receive the baby, a flower, a
gift, in a dirty place? If the baby is born in an unhealthy place, the
mother also won't be healthy." The rest of the recent talk show, called
"Cup of Tea," went much like that, with the two hosts trading barbed

The station broadcasting it, Radio Al Mahaba, on 96 FM here in central
Iraq, could well be the only one in the Arab world devoted to women's
issues, its founders say. Started with United Nations financing by an
American woman and an Iraqi refugee from western New York, it falls
between National Public Radio and "The Oprah Winfrey Show." The station
broadcasts programs about marriage, divorce, careers, religion, the
constitution, physical abuse and dress codes, all from the perspective of
women. The shows are especially sharp-edged in a country where Shiite
militiamen in the south harass women without head scarves and religious
leaders in Baghdad have pushed for a greater role for Islam - and,
consequently, a potential rollback of women's rights - in the new

"We want to affirm women's rights," said Ruwaida Kamal, 30, a producer at
the station. "We're in a dangerous period. There are many movements, many
groups that aren't taking women's rights seriously. Women are being
marginalized." With its slogan "The Voice of Iraqi Woman," Radio Al Mahaba
is an example of how, amid the cacophony of violence, the American
experiment has prompted some Iraqis to try to build an open, democratic
civil society.  With newspapers, radio networks and satellite television
channels popping up, the media are flourishing in ways they were never
permitted to under Saddam Hussein.

The aim of Radio Al Mahaba is aligned with one of the Bush
administration's main goals in Iraq - to spread secular, American-style
interpretations of equality and justice in the Middle East. Whether the
station will succeed is far from certain, given the rise of fundamentalism
here. But its 33 workers, half of them women, remain optimistic. "This is
unique in the Middle East and all the Arab nations," said the station's
director, Ali Abbas Hamoudi. "Now that we're facing a new government, a
new nation, we're trying to help expose the voice of the Iraqi woman to
the new officials."

Radio Al Mahaba, which means "love" in Arabic, went on the air on April 1
with four hours of programming and now broadcasts from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. It
has a 120-mile reach from central Baghdad, though there is no measure of
how many people listen. Sprinkled among talk shows are blocks of Middle
Eastern and Western music, including the Lebanese singer Fairuz, Mariah
Carey and Kurdish folk singers. The station is in an office building
overlooking Firdos Square, where American marines and Iraqis toppled a
statue of Saddam Hussein on April 9, 2003, signaling the fall of Baghdad.

It has the rough-and-tumble feel of a college radio station, with a small
recording studio, a kitchen alcove and cramped offices. Black-and-white
photographs of famous female Iraqi singers from decades ago hang on the
walls of the main hallway above the faded brown carpeting. The women here
do not wear head scarves, a sight rare enough these days to elicit a gasp
of delight from a visiting female interpreter. On a recent afternoon, a
Kurdish producer spliced together a debate show, "Two Viewpoints, One
Issue," while a Jennifer Lopez song was played on the air.

Across the hall, Ms. Kamal edited an interview for a weekly show called
"Details About Women." "This story is about disabled women," Ms. Kamal
said, sunglasses perched atop her head, earphones around her neck. "This
woman is paralyzed; she can't walk because she was shot in her back. She
was 4 years old when this happened, during the Iraq-Iran war in 1982.
She's in a wheelchair, but she's also a sportswoman, a tennis player."

Radio Al Mahaba was founded by Deborah Bowers, an American from the
Buffalo area, and Kamal Jabar, an Iraqi refugee whom Ms. Bowers met in
upstate New York in 1992. Ms. Bowers became intensely interested in Iraq
after befriending Mr. Jabar, and the two traveled to Iraq after the
American-led invasion. Mr. Jabar proposed the idea of the radio station.
Ms. Bowers applied for a grant from the United Nations Development Fund
for Women and got approval in January 2005 for $500,000. "We saw radio as
an educational tool; there would be programming that would empower women
to be part of the rebuilding of civil society and to encourage women to
think about democracy," Ms. Bowers said in a telephone interview. "A lot
of it is just the freedom to voice opinions or hear other opinions."

Because of relatively low literacy among Iraqi women - about 24 percent in
a 2003 estimate - she saw radio as the best way to spread the feminist
message. Ms. Bowers said her group had received $350,000 of the United
Nations grant. The United States Institute for Peace, a research group
created by Congress, recently agreed to give some financing for more
programs on the Iraqi constitution. Ms. Bowers declined to give the exact
figure because she said highlighting American support could endanger the
station and its employees.

Majda al-Jubouri, 41, who is the host of "Cup of Tea" along with Majid
Hussein, exemplifies the type of progressive woman the station promotes.
Ms. Jubouri grew up on a farm south of Baghdad. Her family belonged to the
Communist Party, she said, and she was imprisoned for five years at age
14. She worked on the farm until after the fall of the old government,
when she moved to Baghdad with her boyfriend, a journalist for a Communist
newspaper. She also began writing for the paper. They married last year.
Then came Radio Al Mahaba. "Because of war since the 1980's, Iraqi people
have been slipping backward, and now it's getting worse," she said. "We
just hope that in the future, society will respect the rights of women,
and women won't be alone in the Iraqi street."

[moderator's note: the article as it appears in the print edition mentions
using the Baghdad dialect.]

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