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Al Mahaba Radio Speaks to Iraqi Women by Kristal Brent Zook

July 5, 2007

Bushra Jamil, co-founder of Radio Al Mahaba, the first and only independent women’s radio station in the Middle East, has questions.  Lots of them. “Why on earth would America come in and get rid of a brutal dictator and then bring in more dictators and extremists?” she asks, speaking by cell phone from downtown Bagdad.  “Why has the Bush Administration never supported secular Iraqi leaders?  Why are women who are covered from head to toe put in the front, while people like us are totally ignored? Why don’t they get rid of the extremists,” she asks, “whether Sunni or Shiite, and help bring the right people to power to run the country?” To have a platform—six hours a day—in which to raise these questions, Jamil helped to launch Radio Al Mahaba (“Love” in Arabic) on April 1, 2005. A former high school science teacher, Jamil had left Bagdad not long after Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party forced all teachers either to join the party or lose their jobs. Immigrating to Canada, she worked as a program coordinator with a nongovernmental organization serving immigrants.  But when the now-famous images of the dictator’s statue crashing to the ground reverberated on nightly newscasts around the globe, Jamil knew it was time to go home.  Having facilitated educational and multicultural programs that helped to educate women on their rights during her ten years away, she had found her calling. “I wanted to transfer to Iraqi women all the knowledge that I had gained in Canada,” she says. “I wanted to show them that the world outside is very different. And that we can change our lives together.” Partnering with other Iraqi American expatriates who had recently returned home, the co-founders of Al Mahaba decided that the best way to reach women—particularly those in isolated areas—was through politically independent radio programming offered on such subjects as health care and social and family issues.  Al Mahaba offered talk in three languages: Kurdish, Arabic, and English. (Jamil says the station hopes to add Farsi in order to reach Iranian listeners.) The response, she says, has been overwhelming, as women callers throughout the country have flocked to the station to share personal stories about domestic violence, forced marriages, and difficulties in trying to obtain an education. Among the most beautiful moments, says Jamil, is when callers respond to other callers, and in doing so, create an actual “movement.” To keep this burgeoning movement alive, Jamil works a day job in public relations in order to pay the bills and fundraises whenever and however she can.  The ride has not been easy. Six months after the station’s launch, a car bomb intended for the nearby Palestine Hotel with its many American guests, exploded, destroying a transmitter in the process. Last year, Jamil visited the United States on an educational and fundraising tour, where she made stops at NPR and CNN, and spoke passionately about the need for an independent Iraqi women’s station. In a fiery speech on Capitol Hill, she pointed out to congressional leaders that “out of all the millions that went to Iraq to support democracy and freedom, we did not get a penny.” But even Jamil, who was honored last month at the Women’s eNews annual Gala Benefit Dinner, realizes the difficulty in generating sympathy for her cause. “How can I ask Americans to donate money to a place where young people are still being killed everyday?” The instability in the country makes growth impossible. Al Mahaba’s programming, which had worked its way up to 16 hours a day, was recently sliced in half again due to security and curfew restrictions making it difficult for staff to operate.  “We’ve found some young men willing to stay overnight though, and we’re planning to go back to 16 hours soon,” says Jamil. “We don’t let fear get into our hearts.”

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