3 Feb 2011
Afghan TV show allows women wearing mask to speak on taboo subjects such as domestic violence, rape and child trafficking
CBC News - Canada January 17, 2011
Mask helps abused Afghan women speak on TV
A new television show in Afghanistan is inviting women to speak on taboo subjects such as rape and domestic violence from behind the safety of a mask.
The show Niqab, translated as The Mask, is a project of Sami Mahdi, a 28-year-old Afghan who is part of a wave of producers directing new programming at Afghan women.
"In Afghanistan, it is very difficult for a woman to talk about their problems and what they are suffering in their own home," Mahdi said in an interview Monday with CBC's Q cultural affairs show.
"It is a taboo in Afghanistan for a woman to talk about domestic violence. We made an opportunity for women to come and talk about their problems on our show."
Mahdi said he spent more than a year approaching human rights groups and the women's ministry in Afghanistan, trying to make contact with women who would be willing to come and tell their stories.
The mask, a plastic mask painted white on one side and blue on the other, is important to allow the women to speak freely without fear of reprisals, he said.
"The most difficult part of the show is finding the participants for the show on television because it is dangerous, it is risky for a woman to come and talk about their history," Mahdi said.
There are thousands of painful stories in Afghanistan, including the woman who was sold to man by her father at age 14 and suffered constant beatings.
A woman wears a mask for her interview on Afghan show Niqab or The Mask. (CBC)
Mahdi believes the show can help women by showing them they are supported and is optimistic his program can change attitudes.
"We can educate people. We can teach the man, your behaviour with women in Afghanistan, this is not fair. This is against Islam, this is against the law and this is against our culture and human rights," he said.
Since 2004, when Taliban restrictions on watching television were lifted, more than 20 Afghan TV stations have gone on air.
TV has proved a powerful tool in reaching people who are predominately illiterate, according to Nelofer Pazira, a Canadian filmmaker and journalist who's working on a radio documentary about the role of media in Afghanistan for the CBC.
"I think anything that can let women tell their stories, especially about domestic violence and subjects that have been taboo, cannot help but be positive," she told Q on Monday.
Pazira notes the rise of programs such as Human Family, a chat show hosted by a woman that talks about forced marriages and other issues usually kept within the household.
There is also The Mozdah Show, described as the "Oprah" of Afghanistan, and Secrets of the House, a soap opera that has mothers putting their children to bed early to watch.
"In the last few years there is a war in the media, there is a lot of money made available by foreign agencies, by U.S.A. and others for the kind of programming that would have something to do with women," Pazira said. Some of the programs are in part an opportunity to tap into this stream of money, she said.
Pazira is not as optimistic that exposing domestic violence on television is going to lead to an end to the problem.
"Afghanistan is a tribal, conservative society. Change is not going to happen just with a TV show. There is a lot of negative cynical reaction to these programs," she said.
Pazira said some viewers dismiss these programs as westernization creeping into Afghan society. But, she added, as Afghan media are moving away from reporting just on security issues to tackling wider issues, men are also speaking out on call-in shows.
Mahdi admits he gets very negative telephone calls, including calls from people who admit to be the Taliban. But he said there is a lot of positive response from female viewers.
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Posted by Perry Bulwer at 16:06