KUNDUZ, AFGHANISTAN — As the Taliban fighters approached, the employees of Radio Roshani fled. They locked the station door behind them, the pre-recorded programs still on the air, seemingly in defiance. On the afternoon playlist was a feature to encourage Afghan women to take part in politics.
But it was never broadcast.
“The radio was silenced at 2 p.m.,” said station director Sediqa Sherzai, who was listening to the programming shortly after fleeing the compound in Kunduz.
By then, Taliban militants had seized the station.
When the Taliban briefly ruled this northeastern city last month, it didn’t just target government officials and buildings. It also sought to reverse the hard-fought gains by Afghan women since its austere Islamist regime was ousted 14 years ago, after the 9/11 attacks. In doing so, the Taliban was trying to undermine the wider American and Western effort to foster gender equality in Afghanistan.
Backed by U.S. and Western funding, Radio Roshani produced programs on building peace and understanding the law and aired discussions on religious issues and cultural taboos. But it was the station’s focus on women’s rights that for years drew the ire of the Taliban. When its fighters entered this city Sept. 28, Radio Roshani and other independent radio stations were on their hit list.
What unfolded in Kunduz, the first city seized by the Taliban since 2001, highlights a growing concern among humanitarian workers and civil society activists: With the U.S.-led coalition scaling down its military and aid presence, and the Afghan government and security forces struggling to fill the vacuum, billions of Western dollars spent since 2001 to transform Afghanistan into a modern state could come to naught, the gains reversed by a re-energized Taliban.
“The Taliban attacks directly affect the female journalists. But on a broader scale, it affects all women,” said Lida Yosufzai, an anchor at Radio Kayhan, which was also overrun by the militants. “We had literacy programs and other shows to help women. Now, everything has stopped.”
A week after the Taliban pulled out of Kunduz last month, Radio Roshani had no transmitter, no mixer and no computers. Even the microphones had been taken. The station looked as if a tornado had swept through. On the floor were reams of paper, headphones, CDs and a shattered television.
“All our money was invested into this station,” lamented Obaidullah Qazizadha, the co-owner and Sherzai’s husband, as he looked at the destruction.“We were proud to play a role in empowering women.”
Radio Roshani had risen from humble beginnings.
Inspired by an uncle who worked for the state television network under communist rule in the 1980s, Sherzai had grown up dreaming of becoming a journalist. But in the mid-1990s, three months after she graduated from Kunduz University, the Taliban seized the province.
As in other parts of the country, women were forbidden to attend school or hold a job. They were required to wear head-to-toe burqas and could venture outside their homes only if accompanied by a male relative. So Sherzai launched an underground school for girls.
After the collapse of the Taliban in 2001, she continued to teach until a friend recruited her in 2004 to work at a radio station, re-igniting her journalistic aspirations. Four years later, she decided to strike out on her own because she had “ideas about programs for women.”
She put together $6,000 and launched Radio Roshani with seven other journalists, all women. The money paid for a transmitter, a mixer and a desktop computer. An antenna was mounted on a large crane outside and the station began broadcasting. Six months later, Radio Roshani received a grant from a German provincial reconstruction team to buy more equipment, and funding for programs came from the U.S. government.
The station hired committed young female journalists. Among them is Zuhal Nouri, 20, who honed her skills at several Western-funded media training workshops. She’s also a law student focusing on women’s rights issues. She views journalism, she said, as “a duty to reflect the realities of society.”
The station’s programs and Western-sponsored advertisements encouraged women to join the police force or take part in elections. In live discussions, human rights activists and local officials debated problems within the government and municipalities.
In one popular program, a cleric gave advice to women confronting obstacles in Afghanistan’s conservative tribal society. Listeners called in, Sherzai said, sharing their predicaments: One family was forcing a woman to marry someone she didn’t love; another was trying to sell their daughter to an older man.
“He told them, ‘Based on Islam, no one is allowed to force a girl to marry someone,’ ” Sherzai recalled. “He was liberal and open-minded.”
The broadcasting of such attitudes triggered numerous Taliban threats. Nouri and others were cursed during live programs.
A few months ago, someone attached a bomb to the cleric’s car. He was killed instantly.
Hours after the Taliban seized control of Radio Roshani, Sherzai’s cellphone rang.
By then, she had reached her house. A harsh-sounding male voice on the other end asked where she was in the city, she recalled. When she asked who it was, he told her he was from the insurgency. She hung up. The phone rang again. She shut it off.
Sherzai believes the Taliban fighters had found her phone number, listed in numerous documents on her desk, inside the station.
Two days later, Sherzai donned a burqa and grabbed her infant daughter, Hejrat. They left Kunduz in a taxi, traveling on back roads to avoid Taliban fighters. A few hours later they arrived in Kabul, joining hundreds of government officials, activists and journalists who had fled Kunduz.
Sherzai is determined to resurrect Radio Roshani. She has borrowed a mixer and a transmitter from female journalist friends in other provinces. The station has started to rebroadcast previously taped programs.
Sherzai is making the rounds of Western embassies and nongovernmental organizations, seeking funds to rebuild. Without foreign assistance, she said, “it’s impossible for us to restart our usual operations.”
“We don’t want the voices of women to be shut down,” she said. “We were encouraging other women to leave their houses, to work in public, to integrate into society. If we stop broadcasting, what kind of a message does this send to other women?”
Of the other female journalists who worked at the station, only Nouri and two others have returned to Kunduz, Sherzai said. Two remain in Kabul, and two others have sought refuge elsewhere in the country. One has decided to flee to Europe.